San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Costa Rica’s Shrimp Industry is Shrinking

When the government released export figures for the first five months of 2010, one of the country’s smallest export industries reported some of the biggest losses.

According to the Foreign Trade Promotion Office (Procomer), Costa Rican shrimp exports are down $1 million, a nearly 57 percent decrease from their earnings during the same period in 2009. While the drop-off hardly makes a dent Costa Rica’s overall exports, which have reached more than $4 billion thus far in 2010, it is a major concern for one of the country’s oldest trades.

The shrimp industry is shrinking.

The most immediate cause of the decline is a ban on importation of Costa Rican shrimp by the United States. The ban was imposed in May, 2009 after a finding by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Oceans, Environment and Science that many Costa Rican shrimp nets lacked Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs), and that endangered turtles and other large marine species were being trapped in shrimp nets. Once the finding was made, the ban was required by U.S. law (TT, May 2009).

But the reasons for the diminutive sales of Costa Rican shrimp both abroad and within the country are varied. Most shrimpers point to rising fuel costs and heightened competition created by free-trade agreements as the two greatest threats to the industry.

“There is a very serious problem in Costa Rica,” said Jorge Niño, a shrimper for 50 years and board member of the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (Incopesca). “People in this country eat a lot of fish and a lot of shrimp. Because of that, they are looking to find it as cheaply as possible. When countries such as the United States and China enter our market and sell their fish and shrimp here at lower costs than the national product, people are going to buy the cheaper option. This has made it increasingly difficult for national shrimpers and fisherman to compete.”

Niño said cheaper fish – such as catfish, and shrimp are being made available by the free-trade agreements established by Costa Rica in recent years. In addition to the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the U.S. (CAFTA), which went into effect in 2009, Costa Rica signed a free-trade deal with Singapore and China in April. Both deals await only ratification by the Legislative Assembly. All three countries have very large fishing and shrimp industries.

Niño also said that higher costs of diesel fuel, which is used by shrimp boats, accounts for over 70 percent of overhead costs. As fuel prices rise and shrimp revenues decline, some shrimpers are finding themselves in tight financial straits.

But in addition to economic and commercial challenges, the environmental impact of the shrimp industry is also driving its decline. On June 12, Incopesca announced a collaboration with the Costa Rican Federation of Fishing Tourism (FECOPT) and seven other fishing organizations to establish the largest responsible fishing area in Central America in the Golfo Dulce, off the eastern coast of the OsaPeninsula. One of the pact’s rules required the removal of all shrimp boats from the 750 square kilometer area.

“There is no more shrimping in the Golfo Dulce,” said Donald McGuinness, president of the Costa Rican Sport Fishing Federation. “They were removed from the gulf on September 2 and will never again be allowed to shrimp there. Since they left, the fish in the area are starting to recuperate. In places where a year ago you could only catch 50 kg of snapper in three nights, you can catch 150 kg now. Fish eat shrimp, and now that the shrimp population is recovering, so are the fish.”

The responsible fishing initiative in the Golfo Dulce is not the only environmental effort to remove shrimpers from Costa Rican waters. The Marine Turtle Restoration Program (Pretoma), the marine conservation group MarViva and national scuba instructors have been railing against the shrimp industry for its ecological disregard and disruption of life on the ocean’s floor.

“Shrimp trawling is the most unsustainable, unprotected fishing practice that exists,” said Randall Arauz, director of Pretoma. “They are still operating and they shouldn’t be. Shrimp colonies are disappearing and shrimp nets kill other species as well. It’s a bad business. It’s bad economically, it’s bad ecologically and, just like any business in the world; if doesn’t work, it should eventually just disappear.”

Similar ecological scrutiny has continued to limit shrimpers’ fishing grounds. On June 15, Incopesca announced a two-month ban on shrimp fishing in the Gulf of Nicoya. And in 2006 and 2009, Pretoma and the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry (MINAET) joined together to create two marine protected areas – Caletas and Camaronal – off the coast of Guanacaste, in the northwestern part of the country. Both areas disallow shrimpers.

“If this country is married to the idea of protecting the environment, which is great and we support the cause, it will leave us (shrimpers) without any chance to maintain our position in the country,” Niño said.

“Sooner or later, shrimpers will have to cut their losses, save whatever money they have and look for another vocation besides fishing for shrimp.”

That may soon be the case. Niño said he knows of several shrimpers who have left their boats behind in search of more financially reliable livelihoods. As continued efforts are made to limit the trade in the years to come, the industry of catching tiny crustaceans could continue to get smaller and smaller.

“Fishing for shrimp is no longer a sustainable trade in Costa Rica,” McGuinness said. “Shrimpers are devastated and broke, and people can find thousands of reasons to stop the fishing of shrimp. So does that mean I think the shrimp industry of Costa Rica will disappear in Costa Rica? Yes. It is definitely possible.”

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