PLAYA HERMOSA, Guanacaste – Some time ago, a family of tiny crabs scuttled single file out of an empty beer can and onto the deck of a speedboat – and just like that, Christian Lemouche was inspired. “Condofish,” the affectionate nickname for the Playa Hermosa Artificial Reef Project, was born.
The project, which builds fish habitats out of cinder blocks offshore of this beach community on the northern Pacific coast, was funded by the local Playa Hermosa Association. Lemouche, who works in real estate in the area, is the association’s fiscal officer.
A PADI dive instructor, Lemouche has been diving the “Gold Coast” for 11 years, and, like any good diver, he collects plastic bags and other trash he encounters on his dives. Over the past decade, the 58-year-old Belgian has noticed an increase in ocean detritus, but he had never observed anything actually living inside the garbage.
“That’s when I realized something that is trash to me might be some other animal’s home,” said Lemouche in his thick French accent. “So why not create something safe and sustainable that won’t have a negative impact upon the environment?”
His idea was to construct a haven for fish where local species could thrive and reproduce in peace. He wanted the artificial reef to replace some of what humans have destroyed through pollution and overfishing and other irresponsible angling practices.
“This project is a way to restore and give back,” Lemouche said. “Ten to 12 years ago, it was easy to catch a mahimahi here in the (Hermosa) bay. Now you have to drive one hour offshore to catch the same fish.”
Many years ago, Lemouche was involved in a successful reef recovery program in the BayIslands of Honduras. With knowledge from this experience combined with the power of the Internet, he researched and designed a submerged complex of 12 igloo and caterpillar-shaped piles that would provide thousands of hiding places – little fish condominiums – for marine species to use as breeding grounds.
To build the stacks, Lemouche needed a simple, affordable material that wouldn’t rust or disintegrate in salt water. As this excluded wood, stone and metal, cinder blocks were the most logical and readily available option.
Cinder blocks are loaded with calcium and myriad other minerals to fertilize autotrophic organisms like algae and vascular plants. They have holes that allow for easy passage of water, yet are sturdy enough to keep their shape even when surges and currents are strong.
With the initial design complete, the next question was simple: where to put it? Ideally, the fish condos should be located next to an already thriving reef. Lemouche interviewed area fishermen for suggestions. Someone recalled that in 1985 a 60-foot Mexican tuna vessel caught fire and sank into the depths just 400 meters off Playa Hermosa’s shores.
Uncertain of the vessel’s exact whereabouts, the angler pointed toward Playa Hermosa’s mile-long beach and vaguely assured Lemouche that the wreck was “somewhere over there.” In 2002, Lemouche strapped on his neoprene scuba suit and set out to find it. He was prepared to spend hours or maybe even days scouring the bay.
Lemouche discovered the sunken ship on his very first submersion, well within snorkeling distance from the beach. It is an underwater wonderland of coiled ropes and twisted nets, all completely covered in aquatic vegetation. The anchor, drum, fuel tank and hull look like a serene, abandoned battlefield half-buried in sand.
With the how, why and where settled, only one piece of the Condofish puzzle was now missing: the permit. When it comes to getting things done, Costa Rican bureaucracy can be notoriously daunting to expats.
Just hearing the word “permit” can give chills to people who have lived through the process of obtaining one.
In December 2009, Lemouche sought authorization from the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry (MINAET), and was impressed by how quickly officials from the Tempisque Conservation Area saw the inherent value in the undertaking. Within four months, the office had inspected and given authorization for phase one of the Hermosa Artificial Reef Project – the first approved venture of its kind in Costa Rican history.
The Hermosa association board members were thrilled.
“In Costa Rica, if someone wants to put blocks into the sea, they don’t ask anybody – they just do it,” Lemouche said. “We didn’t want to be that way. We have something really well structured and well thought out, and we wanted proper government approval to do it legally and responsibly.”
By April 15, the Condofish project had assembled a dozen structures. Since then, it has already reported an increase in fish populations around the reef, though it has no scientific way of measuring precisely how much. At least 25 species of fish, including parrot fish, barber fish and sergeant majors, can already be seen jetting in and out of their new environment.
The icing on the cake came in the third week of May, when a delicate Pacific seahorse was discovered beside one of the first underwater igloos. Classified as “vulnerable” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species (www.iucnredlist.org), these fragile creatures are known to seek out shallow and safe ocean habitats. With any luck, the area will eventually attract predators like sharks and rays – another true sign of a prospering ecosystem.
Thaddeus Rund, co-owner of GreenLifeAcademy school in nearby Playas del Coco, has been involved in the undertaking for several months.
“To keep the project going, it’s easy for community members to adopt their own reefs online,” Rund said. “They get a cool sign with their personal or business information. We put it in front of their particular fish condo underwater, and also on www.condofish.com (the project’s website).”
So far, a number of local businesses and institutions, including Diving Safaris and the Green Life Academy, have stepped up to the plate by getting involved. Sponsorships cost $150 and last for two years. All proceeds go to fund improvements and additions to the artificial reef.
“This reef project represents something,” Lemouche said. “Not the dive shop. Not the fisherman next door. This is something not-for-profit and special that represents the people. Our goal is to protect our beach and to present our association as a way to help local marine life.”