San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Getting a Fishing License: Nine Days in the Labyrinth

After 57 phone calls, a visit to a bank and a tackle shop, consultation with two lawyers and a stop at the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (INCOPESCA) in San José, I am now the proud holder of a fishing license.

Nine days ago, my quest began with a simple question and good intentions.

“Where can I buy a fishing license and obtain a copy of the latest regulations?” I’d asked Antonio Porras, technical director and second in command of INCOPESCA, the government agency responsible for managing the country’s commercial and recreational fisheries.

It seemed the perfect and obvious second fishing column: explain the ground rules to visitors and residents alike, and make it easy for anyone to get started.

Get it done quick, and then get on with the fishing.

After 20 minutes on the phone with Porras, I was left with a vague idea of the process and a phone number.

“Call Odalier Quirós in the Quepos office. He can explain,” he said.

Why Quepos, when I was in San José, three hours northeast, I didn’t know. But I called anyway.

After four fruitless attempts (out to lunch, out doing inspections, on another line, etc.), I finally spoke with Quirós.

He explained he wasn’t authorized to speak with me about fishing licenses. He would have to check with his supervisor. Not authorized to talk about fishing licenses? Was it some kind of government secret?

I pleaded with him, but he wouldn’t budge.

Ten minutes later, though, the phone rang and I had my answer.

Yes, Quirós said, I needed a fishing license.

As a foreigner, it would cost me $24 for inland (continental) fishing, $24 for saltwater (marina) fishing, or $45 for both, for a one-year license. I would need a form of identification, two passport pictures and the cash.

But what about the regulations? As in, if I catch a trophy snook from shore, can I mount it on my wall? What about a few fresh dorado fillets for the dinner plate?

Quirós explained that the year’s regulations had “yet to be approved” (please note: it is now October). In the meantime, his office – he didn’t know about the others – was enforcing a “no-take” policy for recreational fishing.

To be sure, I consulted with two lawyers.

First, I spoke with Vicky Cajiao, the chief legal adviser for local environmental group Marviva, which recently volunteered to help INCOPESCA decipher its own fishing laws.

The root of the problem lies with the 2005 Fishing and Aquaculture Law, explained Cajiao, who knows the text of the law inside out.

Recreational fishing seems to be an afterthought in the law (for those interested, see Chapter 7, Articles 68-76), though it does specifically state that the institute must “establish the parameters, the seasons, the zones and the minimum size and bag limits.”

Though it’s been two years since the law was passed, Cajiao said, INCOPESCA has yet to draft national fishing regulations.

In short, there are no laws.

INCOPESCA’s own legal adviser, Guillermo Ramírez, readily admitted that it was the institute’s obligation to set these regulations, but to date, it hadn’t.

While interesting (and worrisome), this did nothing to answer my questions: Where can I fish? How many fish can I keep? Are there closed seasons?

Ramírez then confirmed what Quirós had told me earlier: until the government gets its act together and passes regulations (two years and counting), it is technically illegal to keep a fish caught in marine waters.

I asked him why, then, I had seen so many people killing fish along the beaches. As it turns out, there are four different kinds of noncommercial fishing in the country, two that require fishermen to release their catch (“tourist” and “recreational”) and two that allow them to keep fish (“domestic consumption” and “subsistence”).

How did I know, he asked, that the people I’d seen didn’t fall into the consumption categories? For that matter, which category did I fall into?

“Are you confused yet? So are we,” he admitted.

But back to my original quest: buying a license and obtaining a copy of the regulations, remember?

On day eight, I was finally given the name and extension number of the woman in charge of licensing at the INCOPESCA office in San José, Flori Solano.

Dozens of attempted calls revealed that the office’s phone line was busy all that day, so I had to wait until day nine to secure an appointment for a visit.

On day nine, I showed up at the INCOPESCA office, with proof of a $45 deposit in a bank account at Banco Nacional, a passport-size photo, copies of my passport and, of course, my sense of humor.

Twenty minutes later I walked out, the proud new owner of a glue-stick-handcrafted fishing license.

Like any good fisherman yearning to show off his latest catch, I stopped in at Keko’s Tackle Shop in downtown San José.

A half-dozen old-timers were gathered around the cluttered shop beneath a ceiling decorated with hanging fishing lures when I entered, victorious.

They all stopped and gathered around, shocked, when I told them the news. Not one, it turned out, had ever seen a fishing license before.

Get Your Own License

If you want to obtain your own fishing license, you’re in luck. We’ve done the legwork for you. We recommend talking directly with the captain, marina or lodge you’ll be visiting in Costa Rica – most can help facilitate the process. Barring that, or if you’ll be fishing on your own, follow these three easy steps:

1. Find the INCOPESCA office nearest you. Hours are 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Here’s a list of field offices authorized to sell fishing licenses:


La Cruz, 779-9427

Playas del Coco, 670-0376

Nicoya, 686-7808

Central Pacific

Quepos, 777-0503

Puntarenas, 661-4191


Limón, 798-1633

Southern Pacific

Golfito, 775-0319

San José

Main office, 248-1196

2. Deposit the license fee in Banco Nacional account #100-02-003-6000-53-0, dollars only. Fees are as follows: $24 for inland (continental) fishing, $24 for ocean (marina) fishing, or $45 for both. Residents and Costa Ricans pay less; call INCOPESCA at one of the above numbers for current fees.

3. Call in advance, then visit an INCOPESCA office with a copy of your passport or cédula, a passportsize photograph and proof of your deposit.


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