San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Patrol Lapse Leaves Isla del Coco Vulnerable

In the fight to protect the biologically rich waters surrounding Costa Rica’s own Treasure Island, Isla del Coco, July was a lost cause.

Located some 365 miles off the Pacific coast, Isla del Coco and its surrounding waters comprise arguably the country’s premier national park, one that recently was a candidate for the New 7 Wonders of the World.

However, conservationist claims that the government is not doing enough to protect the park were underscored last month.

According to several reports, at least 10 commercial fishing boats – taking advantage of a nearly month-long lapse in patrols – descended on the park in July in plain view of not only the park guard stations on the island’s shores, but also tourists who had made the three-day trip to scuba dive in the renowned waters.

“Thousands of sharks, dolphins, marlin and tuna were fished during that month,” said Jorge Jiménez, regional director of MarViva, an environmental group that spends $800,000 a year trying to fight illegal fishing at Isla del Coco.

MarViva had docked its patrol boat for repairs in early July, and Costa Rica’s government was supposed to pick up the slack.

But when the park’s sole operating boat suffered a serious electrical failure shortly after MarViva went ashore, Isla del Coco’s teeming marine wildlife was left unprotected.

In an e-mail provided to The Tico Times, marine biologist and dive master Edward Herreño, reported seeing fishing boats between July 12 and 24 as close as two kilometers from the island shore.

Herreño, of the dive company Undersea Hunter, which regularly takes tourists to Isla del Coco to scuba dive, also described pulling from the ocean a 500-meter fishing line that was dangling hooks.

MarVivia’s patrol boat, the MarViva I, went back on duty July 25 and arrived back at port last weekend.

“We collected more than 40 kilometers of fishing line,” Jiménez said of the most recent patrol.

Hooked on that line, he said, were 32 sharks, 73 tuna, two marlin and two dolphins. While the dolphins were still alive, most of the sharks and tuna – 50 in total – were dead.

“And that line was probably put in Sunday night. Imagine how much they could have fished during the whole month, when there was no protection,” Jiménez said.

“It is a recurring phenomenon that repeats every year during this season,” said Fernando Quirós, director of the Isla del Coco National Park, referring to the intense illegal fishing. The dearth of patrols in July, however, was a combination of bad luck and chronic poor funding.

The park’s boat, Cocos Patrol, went out of commission due to electrical problems officials have not been able to fix for lack of money, Quirós said.

The park is now getting quotes for an overhaul of the electrical system, a job that will be paid for by the non-governmental organization, Friends of the Isla del Coco. If the park were to pay for it, the bureaucracy of approving and bidding the job would likely postpone the work until December, Quirós said.

But hope could be on the horizon. Following the report from Undersea Hunter, Jiménez sent a letter to the Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE) and fired off a press release calling on the ministry to act.

MINAE Vice Minister Jorge Rodríguez promised last week a supplemental budget for maintenance and repairs to the park’s patrol boats, saying MINAE hoped “to strengthen actions in the marine area, with the Isla del Coco National Park a priority” in 2009.

Rodríguez also said a patrol boat from the National Police called the “Juan Santamaría” would be sent to Isla del Coco.

That boat was to be joined this week by Capitán, a vessel brought down from the United States by Friends of the Isla del Coco.

“Costa Rica has made an effort to sell (Isla delCoco) as an international wonder, which obliges the government to invest in its protection,” Jiménez said. “(Rodríguez) is trying to find solutions to a serious problem.

But at the same time, we are conscious both of the seriousness of the problem and the limitations MINAE is facing.”


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