San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Judge’s injunction leaves sharks unprotected

A three-day temporary injunction issued Jan. 24 by a San José judge suspended a Costa Rican law that requires foreign fishing fleets to land cargo at public docks, where customs officials can inspect product.

While the injunction applied only to three specific companies, nothing would prevent other companies from filing similar injunction requests, a spokeswoman for the court said.

Judge Rosa Cortés granted the injunction – which didn’t go into effect until Feb. 4 – in response to an appeal filed against the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (Incopesca) by Mariscos Wang, S.A., Porta Portese, S.A. and Transportes El Pescador, S.A., three private fishing companies that operate docks in the Pacific port of Puntarenas.

The “emergency” temporary injunction did not require a legal response from Incopesca before it went into effect, because it says that “irreparable damages” would be caused to the plaintiffs (the owners of the private docks).

The companies’ complaint, filed in the Administrative Contention Court, claims that the public dock at El Carmen, where foreign-flagged ships are required to unload cargo, does not meet storage standards.

 “The plaintiffs argued that public docks do not comply with specific standards to load their cargo, but that’s not true,” said Heiner Méndez, Incopesca’s chief legal advisor. “They also tried to question our [legal] authority over the issue, but we presented the required paperwork that shows our regulations are legitimate.”

Mariscos Wang is the same private dock where biologist Jorge Ballestero, of the Marine Turtle Restoration Program (Pretoma), filmed two ships flying foreign flags docking less than two weeks after Incopesca and the Ministry of Agriculture (MAG) announced last December that private docks would be closed to foreign fishing vessels (TT, Dec. 21, 17, 2010).

Costa Rican customs law prohibits foreign fishing boats from unloading cargo on private docks without proper customs inspections. Less than two months ago, a government order required foreign-flagged vessels to start using a public dock in Puntarenas.

Mariscos Wang is one of several private docks that foreign-flagged vessels use to unload shark fins, a multi-million global industry that is depleting shark populations at rates unknown to biologists. The fins are used primarily to make shark fin soup, an expensive delicacy in many countries, including parts of Costa Rica. The Tico Times has documented foreign-flagged ships unloading cargo at Mariscos Wang since at least 2003 (TT, July 11, 2003).

“We have no way to explain how Judge Cortes has decided to ignore Articles 211 and 212 of the Customs Law, a resolution of the Constitutional Court, an order of the Comptroller’s Office and a recommendation of the Ombudsman’s Office, all of which mandate the use of public docks by foreign fleets,” Pretoma’s Randall Arauz said in a statement.

Arauz is an outspoken opponent of shark finning and has been working to expose Costa Rica’s participation in the trade for more than a decade.

“The judge is not annulling the [public dock] rule. This is just a provisional ruling,” Maria Isabel Hernández, spokeswoman for the court system, told The Tico Times.

Incopesca had until 4 p.m. on Wednesday to appeal the provisional ruling, or it would have remained in effect indefinitely. Incopesca formally appealed the injunction a few minutes before the deadline. Another ruling on that appeal may take another three business days.  

       Environmental groups, which were fundamental in pressuring Incopesca and MAG into adopting the public dock rule, were outraged at the judge’s order.

“It looks like we will keep on being a well-known shark-finning nation in the eyes of the rest of the world for a long time to come,” Arauz said.

The Feb. 4 timing of the injunction was on the same day that the Costa Rican Foreign Ministry issued a press release lauding the country’s efforts at ending the shark-fin trade.

According to the release, Costa Rican officials Xinia Chaves, vice minister of agriculture, Antonio Porras, Incopesca’s technical general director and a powerful official at that government agency, and Fernando Sánchez, Costa Rica’s representative to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), organized an anti-shark-finning seminar at the FAO’s annual Fisheries Committee meeting, held Jan. 31-Feb. 4 in Rome, Italy. The workshop was titled “Toward the eradication of the practice of shark finning and [toward] sustainable fishing.”

“Costa Rica has been constantly and consistently [involved] in the issue of responsible fishing, and specifically in the control of shark finning,” Sánchez was quoted as saying in the Foreign Ministry statement.

“It’s fundamentally important for us to share our efforts and advances on this issue with a world forum like the FAO,” he said.

Rommel Téllez contributed to this report.

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