A controversial plan to raise thousands of tons of yellowfin tuna in cages off the southern Pacific coast has been given the goahead, after the Supreme Court suspended the project in 2007.
The Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) had halted the project over concerns that concentrated fish excrement and food waste from the tuna farm could flow into the biologically rich and nearby Golfo Dulce gulf, choking the ocean ecosystem.
The court order came in response to an injunction filed by the Marine Turtle Restoration Program (PRETOMA) against the Environment Ministry’s Technical Secretariat (SETENA), which approved the project’s environmental impact study in August 2005.
“There were many concerns,” said PRETOMA’s Randall Arauz this week. “One was the impact on turtles and whales, and another one had to do with sanitary concerns, like what’s going to happen with all the crap from the fish.”
The tuna farm, which is believed to be the first of its kind to raise yellowfin, would be located 1.5 kilometers off Playa Banca beach, on the southern side of the mouth of the Golfo Dulce, just north of the border with Panama.
The approved plan calls for 10 cages, 50 meters wide, to be filled with tuna captured by fishing boats. The fish would then be fattened inside the cages, producing 3,600 metric tons of live tuna per year, according to SETENA.
Legal representative for the project Eduardo Velarde has told The Tico Times that he hopes to one day begin hatching tuna from eggs, something that is not technologically possibly today (TT, May 12, 2006).
PRETOMA and other environmentalists groups that protested the project fear massive amounts of fish excrement and uneaten bait used to feed the tuna will fall to the bottom of the ocean, where currents will pull it into the gulf.
The Golfo Dulce, one of five tropical fjords in the world, is a vital breeding and feeding ground for critically threatened species of marine mammals and fish, including whales, sea turtles and dolphins.
The gulf is also deeper in the center than at the mouth. According to Arauz, this means that if the waste is pulled in, it will likely sit in the depression, and not wash back out to sea. The combination of nitrates and phosphates in the fish waste could cause excessive growth of algae, called an algae bloom, he said. The bloom, in turn, could cover the surface of much of the gulf, reduce oxygen and block sunlight from the Golfo Dulce’s depths.
Velarde said the currents flow away from the gulf mouth. However, the Sala IV ordered the project halted until SETENA carried out “the necessary technical studies” that could “guarantee beforehand, with reasonable certainty, that the metabolic waste resulting from the farm will not cause environmental damage.”
However, SETENA issued a resolution Nov 6 recommending the project continue, based only on the existing environmental impact study, other documents provided by the developer and one new outside report.
In early September – 16 months after the Sala IV ruling – SETENA asked the University of Costa Rica’s Ocean Science and Limnology Research Center (CIMAR) for its “technical criteria” for the tuna farm, a report that was undertaken and submitted to SETENA in 11 days.
According to SETENA’s own resolution, “CIMAR’s information does not refer directly to the area of the project nor does it define aspects that relate directly to the project by Granjas Atuneras de Golfito” – the name of the company developing the project – “but rather supplies very general information and analysis.”
CIMAR’s report, which is a summary of existing information on the Golfo Dulce ecosystem and other studies on tuna farms around the world, declares itself “neither in favor nor against” the project, noting that fattening tuna in cages “leaves a variety of impacts on the environment.”
It concludes that if the government wants to promote fish farming in the region, “it should do so guaranteeing the greatest effort possible is made to avoid or diminish negative impacts on the marine environment.”
SETENA’s resolution also includes a recommendation by one of its own officials to conduct a monitoring program of the ocean currents in the area that is broader in scope than what was done for the environmental impact study, taking into account various depths, a larger area and the various seasons.
The study was apparently not undertaken by SETENA, but rather the agency instructs the developer to monitor currents once it begins raising the tuna.
When addressing the currents and the possibility of waste accumulating in the bay, the study repeatedly references information supplied by the developer and the developer’s original environmental impact report.
As for PRETOMA’s concerns that the tuna farm could negatively impact marine turtles that travel and nest in the region, SETENA again refers to the developer’s prior documents, saying the cages are not an obstacle and they are not in front of a nesting beach.
“The environmental impact study indicates that the beaches in front of where the cages will be located are not apt for turtle nesting,” the resolution reads.
“That kind of shocked us because we’ve been working for 11 years right on the beaches in front of where this tuna farm is going to be,” he said.
On Playa Banca, the beach SETENA uses as the reference point for the project, between 300 and 500 sea turtles – mostly endangered Olive Ridley turtles – nest every season, Arauz said.
The Tico Times was unable to reach a representative of the tuna project this week, however Velarde said in an interview last year that environmental groups should be applauding the project, not fighting it (TT, May 11, 2007).
“We’ve got 600,000 square kilometers of ocean. We need protein. You can grow it, or you can fish it. We know that we can’t keep fishing or we will lose them all,” he said.
CIMAR, however, in its report, warns that tuna farming “is not going to reduce the fishing pressure on tuna populations and runs the risk, if the activity increases in the area, that the fishing pressure will increase.”