San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Fish heads debate billfish fishing future

The Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (INCOPESCA) held a meeting yesterday with commercial and sportfishing camps, as well as the conservation group, The Billfish Foundation, to address the rapidly declining billfish numbers in Costa Rican waters.

The debate has grown intense between commercial and sportfishing sectors, who both claim the other is encroaching on their waters. In June, there were several accounts of commercial fishing rigs harassing sportfishing vessels and tourists with machine guns, helicopters and even explosives.

Guatemalan and Mexican sportfishing industries have prospered in the wake of the decline of the Costa Rican billfish population.

“The commercial fishing and sportfishing industries are in crisis,” said Nelson Ehrhardt, professor of Marine Biology and Fisheries at University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida. “ Costa Rica is losing status as an avenue for sportfishing. Your neighbors are gaining the best clients. The Costa Rican contingent is the region´s big loser right now.”

Between 2000 and 2006, the average sailfish haul in national tournaments dipped from roughly eight fish to one, and sportfishing boats failed to catch any fish on 60 percent of outings in 2007, as opposed to 37 percent that came up empty-handed in 2006.

There are also claims the commercial fishers underreport their harvests, further abating the number of billfish. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that Costa Rica is the fifth largest billfish exporter and the U.S. the second largest importer, says Ehrhardt.

In wake of this, some have called for a ban on billfish, but others have called that excessive.

“I don´t believe the voices that cry, ‘We have to (ban the harvest of billfish),´” said INCOPESCA president Carlos Villalobos. “That is the voice of dictatorship. I believe in the voice of sustainable development as shown by science.”

But Ehrhardt said some of the biggest problems are beyond Costa Rica, literally, but rather are due to Asian fleets that patrol the international waters just beyond Costa Rican shores. Besides depleting billfish populations with their fishing, Ehrhardt says, “(Taiwanese, Japanese and Chinese boats) release 50, 60 or 100 miles of line. Chlorophyll deposits are deoxidizing the water, creating these dead zones.”

Regardless of the solution the group reaches, Costa Rica stands to lose billions of tourist dollars if they mismanage the resource.

“This is a real tangible problem off the coasts of South, Central and North America,” Ehrhardt said. “ Costa Rica is losing the market power in a very important industry. If there is no sportfishing, there is no more development. Property values will fall.”

INCOPESCA plans to announce proposals and conclusions from the meeting today.

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