San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Fishers Try to Tackle Reel Crisis on the Sea

The Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (INCOPESCA) is reviewing four policy changes to the nation’s billfish policy following a meeting this week with representatives from feuding commercial fishing and sportfishing camps.

The goal was to address the rapidly declining billfish numbers in Costa Rican waters and the related loss of tourist dollars as sport fishermen look to other fishing destinations in the region.

The recommended changes focus on an outright ban of the export of billfish from Costa Rica, currently the world’s fifth largest exporter of the popular angling targets. The United States is the world’s second largest importer.

“I think (the ban) will take away the incentive (for commercial fishermen) to intentionally fish for bycatch,” said Todd Staley, vice president of the Costa Rican Association of Tourist Fishing. “Bycatch” refers to species caught incidentally to those being targeted.

“Right now they can market whatever they bring in because they export it to other countries. It’s pretty much a free-for-all,” Staley said.

The current policy is centered on an unwritten law among Costa Rican fishermen and buyers that if a fish lands on the dock dead, it is considered a shame to waste it and should be taken to market. Many feel that this system has encouraged commercial fishermen to seek out bycatch.

“All (billfish sold) is supposed to be incidental catch,” Staley said. “There is supposed to be no intentional catch of billfish.”

In 2004, the harvest of billfish spiked during a particularly weak year for another popular fish, the dorado, Staley said. During that time, a market for smoked sailfish emerged, and exports increased. There are also claims commercial fishermen underreport their harvests.

From 2001 to 2005, the United States alone received an average of about 342 tons of billfish per year from Costa Rica — 130 more tons than the total that Costa Rica reports exporting each year, according to Staley.

Though no definitive population surveys have been carried out, catches reveal lower numbers. Between 2000 and 2006, the average sailfish haul in national tournaments has 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 who came up empty-netted in 2006, said Nelson Ehrhardt, professor of Marine Biology and Fisheries at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida.

Guatemala has emerged as one nearby country taking sportfishing revenue away from Costa Rica, which previously virtually dominated the international market for sportfishing tourists.

“The commercial fishing and sportfishing industries are in crisis,” said Ehrhardt.

“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.”

This week’s meeting also called for the help of an old bycatch rule stating that fishermen can sell 15 percent of their incidental fish, with any excess being donated to a combination of the poor, prisons, hospitals and schools. This law, although on the books, has long been ignored by commercial fishermen and likely will require better enforcement.

“We’re going to petition the tourism board to take some money out of its budget to support the Coast Guard and INCOPESCA in supporting current fishing laws,” Staley said. “(Commercial fishermen) will follow it if there is enforcement.”

The group also voted to ban the use of live bait both on longline fishing vessels and in sportfishing.

“With the use of live bait, your incidental catch goes way up,” Staley said. “On the longline, if it’s just a dead piece of squid or sardine, the billfish aren’t going to go for it.”

“(Foreign longline fleets) release 50, 60 or 100 miles of line,” Ehrhardt said. With that many hooks in the water, bycatch can be considerable on a single boat.

Finally, the experts decided to ask that a sportfishing representative be appointed to the board of directors of INCOPESCA, something that had been promised in 2001.

The debate has grown intense between commercial and sportfishing sectors, which claim the other is encroaching on their waters.

In June, several sport fishermen reported that commercial fishing rigs harassed their vessels and tourists with machine guns, helicopters and even explosives (TT, July 4).

The escalating tensions do not seem to be lost on INCOPESCA president Carlos Villalobos. “Today, we are going to speak like the friends that we are. If we don’t follow science, we might as well move back into the caves and trade blows,” Villalobos said. “I don’t believe the voices that cry, ‘We have to (ban the harvest of billfish).’ That is the voice of dictatorship. I believe in the voice of sustainable development.”

Villalobos said it would be foolish to ban of the sale of billfish.

“I understand that sportsfishing makes a lot of money,” Villalobos said. “But I challenge you to go to the sodas that serve fish.

They have said to me, ‘If you ban this fish, I don’t know what I’m going to serve people. Shark? Forget it.’ I don’t accept that we can’t find a solution in the middle.”

Staley, among others, was concerned by the absence of many key commercial fishing representatives. Only one, Jorge Barrantes, spoke and appeared at the event.

“I was really disappointed because the commercial fishermen were not present,” Staley said. “We can all work together for the benefit of all Costa Ricans instead of fighting against each other for the benefit of a percentage of people who make their livelihood off of the ocean.”

Costa Rica stands to lose millions of tourist dollars if it continues to 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.”

INCOPESCA is scheduled to report back to the group within two weeks. Villalobos will present the proposed solutions to INCOPESCA’s board. If approved, they would then be put in place immediately.


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