San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

INCOPESCA Struggles to Revive Itself Amid List of Complaints

Fourth in a five-part series on the challenges facing Costa Rica’s fisheries.


Don’t bother looking for it. You won’t find it.

A small sign with blue block letters is the only hint you’ll see here: It hangs on the door of an otherwise nondescript, ramshackle building in the southwest corner of San José. It reads, simply, INCOPESCA.

The black iron gate opens by permission only (electric lock) to a humble secretary’s desk that sits at the entranceway.

A few offices lie beyond, loose piles of paper, a vintage typewriter, buzzing fluorescent lights and the occasional official scrambling by while talking on a cell phone.

This is just one small part of the infrastructure, long ailing, that has managed Costa Rica’s fisheries and aquaculture projects by a shoestring for decades.

The National Fisheries In stitute, known by its initials INCOPESCA, manages everything pertaining to the country’s fisheries, from the licensing of fishermen and their craft, to subsidies, research, aquaculture programs and the commercialization of fish products.

A mere 123 employees administer fisheries on both the Atlantic (212 kilometer) and Pacific (1,016 km) coastlines and develop laws and fishing regulations for a whopping 640,000 square km ocean territory, more than 10 times the country’s land mass and by far the most extensive in Central America.

According to INCOPESCA’s executive director Carlos Villalobos, the institute was in shambles when he took office in November of last year.

“It was a crisis situation. There were no plans, few policies, no clear objectives or guidelines, and a weak administration that was falling apart,”Villalobos said.

It was a system, he said, that had slowly disintegrated over time, and with it, so too had Costa Rica’s fisheries.

List of Grievances

Over the years, environmental groups, media, even the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) have assembled a laundry list of complaints aimed at INCOPESCA.

They rattle them off as if reciting a passage of the Bible from memory. Rampant illegal fishing. Inadequate enforcement. Shark-finning. Subsidies that encourage overfishing. Endangered sea turtle deaths as by-catch in the shrimp fishery.

The list goes on and on.

The reason?

They’ve been asking the same questions for years, explains Randall Arauz, the outspoken director of the Marine Turtle Restoration Program (PRETOMA), one of the country’s best-known, and most active, environmental groups.

Most egregious of all, said the spunky Arauz, is the issue of shark-finning. The law mandates sharks be landed, fins attached, at public docks, with INCOPESCA officials present.

That’s not happening, he says. The government claims it doesn’t have the public facilities to provide for the small shark boats that arrive along the country’s coastline, so docking at private facilities (without public access) is allowed, despite the repeated rulings by Sala IV to the contrary (Sept. 1, 2006).

Arauz fears fins could be slipping into the country by the untold thousands, but because the docks are private, no one knows.

Then, there’s the issue of shrimp boats fishing illegally. Boats are frequently caught fishing without the mandated Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs), which help reduce by-catch of endangered sea turtles.

Arauz prints a document in his dark, ramshackle office, on a quiet road across from the cemetery in the northern suburb of Tibás.

He tears it off the printer and marches back into the room.

It is a list of 17 shrimp boats found fishing illegally since 2004. Not one of them, he says, pointing at it, has been prosecuted for their crimes.

Why not?

Two Problems

For María Virginia Cajiao, legal advisor for another well-known environmental group, Marviva, based in the western San José suburb of Rohrmoser, the answers lie buried in the law books.

In the group’s air-conditioned office, complete with a gold-trim sign on the entranceway and two layers of security, Cajiao reads the law out loud, republished by Marviva for private distribution in a glossycovered handbook.

The issues, she said, come back to the Law of Fisheries and Aquaculture, passed by a vote of the Legislative Assembly in 2004. The much-heralded law dictates the operations of INCOPESCA, outlines the legal fishing methods, and sets restrictions on season lengths and gear.

All of it is good, and necessary, she said, except for one problem: It doesn’t grant INCOPESCA police authority, i.e. the ability to enforce its own laws, nor does it explain how it’s own officials should comply with them.

And, as Antonio Porras, technical director of INCOPESCA points out, it also leaves out another crucial point: “Where will the funding come from?”

Cajiao, of Marviva, also worries about the makeup of INCOPESCA’s board of directors, a group of nine, of which the majority have closer ties to fishermen than environmentalists, she said.

“So you ask, how many fishermen have been fined for illegal activity? It’s a rhetorical question. None, of course,” she added. “You can’t be the judge and the judged.”

Last month, Cijiao, on behalf of Marviva, met with representatives from the National Coast Guard, the Chief Prosecutor’s Office and INCOPESCA to put together a plan to ensure that offenses stop slipping through the cracks (TT, July 27).

The idea, she said, is to educate officials, reform the law and make law enforcement a reality, and punishable by jail time, not just fines, or loss of license, as had been the case before the Fisheries Law was passed.

It all starts, and ends, with INCOPESCA.

“We are at their mercy,” she said.

New Fishing Law

INCOPESCA president Villalobos, who sports a crop of white hair and a hefty résumé that includes 36 years as a marine biology professor at the University of Costa Rica (UCR), said he’s wasting no time “cleaning up the mess.”

“We immediately started a process of educating and raising awareness among our employees and officials. They were anemic, barely even complying with the minimum of what was asked of them,” he said.

He formed a commission that will put together a “package of reforms,” which he says will bring closure to the lingering loose ends that have crippled the institution and made enforcement weak, or nonexistent, since passage of the Fisheries Law in 2004.

“There are articles in that law that, in our opinion, simply don’t work. They do nothing to ensure the sustainable use of our resources,” he said. “Worst of all, they tell us to do something, but don’t tell us how. That must change.”

He believes these changes will bring a quick end to the rampant illegal fishing along the country’s coastline.

He also disagrees that the board makeup is a problem, saying that five members are from the government, including some biologists, and four are fishermen’s representatives.

“These are people who have much experience in fishing,” he said.

With regard to the lingering doubts of environmentalists, such as Arauz and Cajiao, Villalobos said he’s convinced the reforms will work, and he holds no grudges.

“In the past, we’ve pushed these people away from us, forcing them to file lawsuits to get us to listen. Now, we will work together, and this time, as fellow scientists and friends, not enemies,” he said.

His room in San José has no windows, just a couple fish posters on the wall, a desk and two leather couches.

He shakes his head as he talks, then says he’d rather be in Puntarenas.

“My office there looks out over the Gulf of Nicoya,” he said. “That is what we need, to refocus, to leave our desks, to get in the field and monitor, to research, to educate.”

Shark-Finning: A Never-Ending Saga

When it comes to sharks in Costa Rica, fishermen must abide by two simple rules: All sharks must be landed at a public dock or private docks with public installations, and they must arrive with all fins “naturally attached” to their bodies.

It seems straightforward, but after four rulings from the Government Attorney’s Office and a decision by the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV), it appears the government is still unable, or unwilling, to comply with the 2004 National Fishing Law, according to Randall Arauz, of the Marine Turtle Restoration Program (PRETOMA).

Arauz and others have long complained that lax government enforcement, particularly on the part of the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (INCOPESCA), has allowed aleteo, or shark-finning, to continue largely unabated in Costa Rica (TT, Sept. 1, 2006).

The practice, in which valuable fins are sliced off sharks at sea and their bodies tossed back into the ocean, wasted, has led to an abrupt decline in shark populations worldwide, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

“The law is very clear,” Arauz said. “They simply don’t want to comply.”

The fins, used in soups, sell in Asian markets for more than $75 a kilogram, or more, while the meat often sells for less than $1 a kilogram.

According to Antonio Porras, technical director of INCOPESCA, the concept is simple, but the reality is different.

He says the institute simply doesn’t have the funds to abide by the letter of the law.

“We currently have no public docks capable of accepting shark-fishing boats, nor do we have the funding to build one,” he said.

Despite that fact, Porras said shark landings have reduced each year since 2005, when INCOPESCA began inspections at private docks, because shark fishermen now prefer to land in neighboring countries, where laws aren’t so stringent.

With regards to the finning, INCOPESCA executive director Carlos Villalobos said the 2004 law does little to protect sharks, and in fact, may make matters worse than before the law was passed.

Villalobos said it comes down to limited storage space at sea.

“If you have a limited space in your hold, and you catch a marlin, which can lay flat, or a shark, which must be come back airplane-style, with fins attached, which would you keep, and which would you throw back dead?” he asked.

The solution is somewhere in between, said Villalobos, who believes sharks should be  allowed to arrive with fins tied to the bodies, but not necessarily attached, which makes them awkward and inefficient to store in the boats.

But Arauz, of PRETOMA, isn’t biting. He says most of it boils down to excuses.

“The law is the law. INCOPESCA just keeps looking for justification to not abide by the law,” Arauz said.

National Mariculture Plan in the Works

Carlos Villalobos has a plan so bold, so ambitious, that many doubt he can make it happen.

But listen to Villalobos, executive director of the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (INCOPESCA), talk about it, his voice raising to a fever pitch and the words flowing from his mouth as if he’d discovered the cure for cancer, and you just might believe him.

“We’d be the first country in Latin America to do it. It would be part of the greatest social and economic recovery of our time,” he said, slapping the table with an open fist.

In an exclusive interview with The Tico Times, he revealed his plan, the result of months of work and a drastic change of direction for an institute he said was “falling apart,” just one year ago.

He calls it the National Mariculture Plan, and while funding and specific details for the ambitious $5 million-7 million plan are pending, Villalobos is convinced the future of Costa Rica’s fisheries, and fishermen, hinges on it.

The concept is simple: First, he intends to offer struggling fishermen and their families productive alternatives to fishing that will keep them employed, yet give the resource a much-needed break, the 50% reduction in pressure biologists have asked for (TT, Sept. 21).

“But I can’t just walk down to the docks at Puntarenas and start telling people who can and who can’t fish. I’ll wind up on the bottom of the gulf with a chain wrapped around my ankle,” he said. “We must guarantee them work elsewhere.”

He calls for a carefully planned, multimillion-dollar development of sustainable oyster and snapper (pargo) farms along both coasts that would allow the country to service demand for seafood without harvesting wild fish from its shorelines.

At the same time, he would invest in already existing aquaculture labs and bring them up to modern standards, allowing the country to produce up to 5 million baby snapper a year, and at least as many shrimp, to be used to “re-seed” the Gulf of Nicoya and other ailing regions on both coasts.

This way, he said, fishermen would be employed in the new farms, the gulf would be restocked and given time to recuperate.

He is almost out of breath as he finishes explaining his plan. It’s a new vision, one that keeps with the country’s green image and the growing demand for sustainable fish products around the world.

“This will be the most serious undertaking in the history of INCOPESCA,” he said.

“If you have enough to fish for, either in farms or in the gulf, you can’t cry that you need gas,” he said. “This will become money that we can then re-invest. How can you say no to a plan like this?”

Villalobos said he’s already run the plan by Production Minister Marco Vargas and the prospects look good.

When asked why this promise might not languish in oblivion, like the 30-year overdue highway from San José to the Pacific coast port of Caldera, or countless others made by government agencies, Villalobos grinned.

“We must do this. And the fishermen will work with us. When you’ve got water up to your neck, that’s when people will sit down to talk.”


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