San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

New Rules for Marine Protected Areas Defined

More than 10 years ago, Costa Rica passed the Biodiversity Law to better protect its rich wildlife and regulate the responsible use of its natural resources.

The law also redefined the categories of the nation’s protected natural areas.

Last week, the government finally issued the rules to create new protected areas under two of these categories – specifically, those intended to regulate marine areas.

By way of an executive decree, the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry (MINAET) established the guidelines for declaring a “marine reserve” or a “marine management area” to better protect the nation’s important marine areas and resources.

The decree maps out the criteria that an area must meet to be included in the category of marine reserve or marine management area, and it also outlines the objectives that must be followed after such a declaration is granted.

While a handful of other conservation laws mention the management of aquatic areas, these two new categories represent the first of their kind to deal exclusively with the sea.

And for Jorge Jiménez, regional director of MarViva, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting marine resources, it’s about time.

“In the last 500 years, we have learned the importance of the land. We have learned to use and regulate it with strict rules,” he said, referring to agriculture, urban development and protected forests. “In the sea, an area 10 times larger than the land, we don’t have this. Where we are going with these two new categories is to put the sea in order as well.”

Costa Rica boasts 12 traditional protected areas that include marine areas and resources, among them the cherished Isla del Coco, in the Pacific Ocean more than 500 kilometers off the country’s southwest coast.

Little activity is allowed in these areas, many of which are included in land-based national parks. In these areas, fishing is absolutely restricted and development is heavily regulated or not permitted at all.

The two new categories are aimed at maintaining marine resources, but with a more integral focus and management specifically designed for marine resources.

The marine reserve category, as its primary objective, will “conserve the ecosystems and the habitat for the protection of the species,” but also will “promote the satisfaction of population and human needs” and “facilitate low-impact ecotourism.”

A marine management area will allow fishing, as long as fishermen do not use nets or trawlers. It prohibits semi-industrial and industrial fishing, as well as exploration for, and extraction of, oil.

Under both categories, the National System of Conservation (SINAC) reserves the right to prohibit the extraction or manipulation of marine resources if SINAC considers these resources to be integral to the area’s well-being.

SINAC is working with independent sources to study the country’s existing 12 protected marine areas to determine which ones might be worthy of inclusion in one of the two new categories, or even a combination of both.

The process involves technical and scientific studies of the areas, as well as consultation with communities that would be affected, in order to devise the best possible plan.

“We want to make sure everyone participates,” said Jenny Asch, director of marine resources for SINAC. “Before we take advantage of the scientific benefits that these categories provide us, we need to ask ourselves, ‘How can we take advantage, sustainably, of this area for all sectors?’”

Asch said she believes Costa Rica’s small group of commercial fisherman will reap benefits from these new categories because they will be able to work in areas where they could fish before, but without competition from large, industrial fishing boats.

There is no word yet as to which areas might receive a declaration, since studies and queries have not been completed in some areas, but Asch speculated that the Isla de Coco and one or two areas near the OsaPeninsula might be the first areas to receive consideration.

“Scientific and technical studies of those areas are quite advanced,” she said.

The Other Side of the Issue

On the surface, it may seem as though fishermen should be jumping at the opportunity to work in zones that were once out of bounds. But an institutional tug-of-war between fishing organizations, government agencies and environmental groups has many fishermen shaking their heads.

Because neither MINAET nor SINAC deal directly with the art of fishing, Miguel Durán, a biologist for the Costa Rican Tourist Fishing Association (APTC), said he believes that the  Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (INCOPESCA) should be the only body to regulate areas that affect fishing grounds.

“I don’t understand how MINAET can create an area that affects fishing and expect it to resolve the problems of fishermen,” Durán, who is also a former INCOPESCA manager, said. “Biologists and fisherman are two distinct things, and we already have an institute dedicated to fishing that is better equipped to make these decisions.”

Jiménez, who has worked closely with MINAET in regulating fishing areas, agreed that a fishing agency is more adequately equipped to make these decisions. The problem, said Jiménez, is that under existing law, INCOPESCA does not have the legal power to issue a declaration of a marine protected area.

While INCOPESCA has declared a Marine Area of Responsible Fishing near Quepos, a port town on the central Pacific, the declaration is not legally binding.

If INCOPESCA wants control of fishing areas, Jiménez said, the Legislative Assembly must change the law to grant it more control over marine areas.

“I understand the frustration of the fishermen, but until that change is made, MINAET will be making these categories,” said Jiménez. “I think these categories are a step ahead for the country.”


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