San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Conservation Efforts Move Offshore

Costa Rica is often considered the global gold-standard for land conservation systems in developing countries.

Natural rain forest preserves rife with vibrant flora and free-roaming fauna together with volcanoes that emit the glowing orange and red sparks of Mother Nature’s fireworks attract millions of tourists every year.

More than 25 percent of the country’s national territory is protected to one degree or another, and, on the global stage, the country’s remarkable geography and widespread land conservation efforts have hogged the spotlight.

The waters that border these internationally recognized gems, however, have been largely neglected. Less than one percent of Costa Rica’s marine waters are regulated under some sort of protective category.

Over-fishing plagues both coasts and unfettered coastal development poses threats to shoreline ecosystems.

“With the ocean, it’s always been out of sight, out of mind,” said Georgina Bustamante, a marine biologist who has visited Costa Rica to help push for more ocean protection here. “Human beings live on the land, so we’ve always talked about preserving the land, but we depend just as much on the sea.”

Recently in Costa Rica, though, the conversation on conservation has begun shifting.

With land preservation largely on cruise control, discussion has turned to the themes that ocean scientists and non-governmental organizations have been screaming about for decades. Increased attention is finally being paid to Costa Rica’s marine waters and their inhabitants.

Last year, the GRUAS project came out with the first analysis of gaps in Costa Rica’s marine conservation efforts. Also in 2009, the government established two new legal categories for marine conservation – the marine reserve and the marine management area.

The Ministry of Environment, Energy and Telecommunications (MINAET) has called on the international community to increase restrictions on the commerce of sharks and endangered sea dwellers.

“We are getting closer everyday,” said Alvaro Morales, director of the University of Costa Rica’s Ocean and Freshwater Research Center (CIMAR). “We are conversing with all the sectors that impact marine conservation, and, finally, it seems that we are speaking a common language.”

Asian and European governments have joined this new dialogue. Last year, the French embassy in Costa Rica donated patrol equipment designated for use around CocosIsland. Three weeks ago, the Japanese government donated $94,995 to aid vigilance around the island and the Inter-American Development Bank approved a $3 million donation to help Costa Rica protect its Pacific waters.

In the fishing sector, several NGOs and university researchers are volunteering their time to train small-scale fishers to use less destructive fishing methods.

José Rafael Centeno, chief of international relations for the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (INCOPESCA), said that small-scale sea hunters are starting to adapt to selective fishing practices, such as hand line fishing, and are learning in which seasons they cannot fish certain species in order to prevent disturbances during breeding periods.

“They are starting to understand the damage they can cause the sea,” said Centeno: “The more we hurt these waters, the less fruitful all of our futures will be.” But even with all this new attention, the country’s marine waters still face serious threats.

While studies that plot marine habitats and population numbers exist, many are outdated or incomplete. As a result, regulation has proven difficult.

“We are supposed to be a model for the region in conservation, but when it comes to the science, we don’t have it,” said Randall Arauz, director of the NGO Marine Turtle Restoration Program (PRETOMA). “Our science is 30 years old, so we can’t really be that [good of a] model.”

Costa Rica’s universities are working with SINAC on monitoring studies, but marine ecosystem analysis is more expensive and more time consuming than land-based science.

Although INCOPESCA says they are on board with more selective fishing practices, the institute opposed more international restrictions on commerce of scalloped hammerhead and white tip sharks, limitations for which MINAET and Costa Rican NGOs lobbied strongly. Mostly as result of lobbying by international fishing interests, neither species received additional protection at the 15th meeting of the parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species held last month.

Recent proposals in Costa Rica to reduce the size of the maritime zone along certain areas of the coast and to ease restrictions for marina permits have spun conservationists’ heads into a tornado-like twirl.

“We’ve come a long way, but we are still lacking a lot,” Morales said. “There has been a culture change in the last decade and the sea is receiving more consideration than ever. Now, it’s important that we don’t make decisions that contradict this progress.”

Costa Rica pioneered the modern ecotourism sector with smart land conservation policies that showcase the breadth of the world’s terra firma biodiversity.

It has the potential to do the same for the sea. And, by combining the efforts of science and civil society with greater political will, Costa Rica can stand out as beacon of successful marine conservation.

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