San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

New Costa Rican rule cracks down on illegal shark finning

Costa Rica’s Ministry of Agriculture (MAG) and the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute have agreed to close private docks in Puntarenas, a central Pacific port town, to foreign fishing vessels, starting Dec. 1. The move, designed to curb the illegal practice of unloading shark fins at private docks, will force foreign flagged vessels to dock at public ports.

The new measure is seen as a victory for opponents of the practice, deemed cruel and wasteful by critics and local fishermen.

Although Costa Rica’s customs law mandates the use of public infrastructure to import products, environmentalists and fishermen complain that foreign fleets evade justice by landing at private docks, where law enforcement has no access. By docking in private ports, goods from the ships can enter Costa Rica’s national market unchecked.

Randall Arauz, president of the Marine Turtle Restoration Program (Pretoma), said that not enforcing the customs law has threatened shark populations because some foreign vessels cut off shark fins and throw the body of the animal back overboard.  

Under Costa Rican law, sharks must be docked with their fins still intact, but the inability to inspect foreign ships at private docks has made it difficult for authorities to check foreign vessels for shark fins.

By docking at public docks, foreign boats are subject to inspections, a measure that Arauz believes will protect Costa Rica’s sharks.

“It’s been recognized that the fin attached regulation is a good way to stop shark-finning,” he said. “But when you don’t make them do what they are supposed to do, which is dock at public docks, they are going to be finning anyway. This measure is necessary for the policy to work.”

Aruaz estimates that between eight and 10 foreign fishing vessels dock in Puntarenas each month. Before Costa Rica passed its policy about fin attachment in 2001 and began enforcing shark-finning regulations, roughly 200-300 foreign vessels docked at the central Pacific port town.

In a press release, Rosa Brenes, a spokeswoman for MAG, wrote that Costa Rican fishermen “applauded the decision of Costa Rica’s agriculture minister and the fisheries institute to obligate foreign flagged ships to unload in the (public dock) in Puntarenas.”

According to Pretoma, Costa Rican authorities have closed the private docks to foreign fleets twice, once in 2004 and again in 2007. On both occasions, the docks were reopened to outsider vessels.

“We’ll see,” Arauz said. “So far, it’s sticking, but let’s see.”

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