Campaign on mercury levels sparks controversy

A recent newspaper campaign about mercury levels in sailfish and marlin has caused the commercial longline fleet to call foul. The campaign sponsored by the Costa Rican Tourist Fishing Federation (FECOPT) and affiliated organizations stated that eastern tropical sailfish’s level of mercury content exceeded the limits set by health organizations for pregnant women, nursing mothers, children under 6 and the elderly.

Todd Staley

Todd Staley

Luis Dobles, executive president of the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (Incopesca), the nation’s fishing authority, claimed the January 2010 study done by the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mazatlán shouldn’t be used as an indicator for mercury levels of fish caught in Costa Rica. He said that only Costa Rica’s National Animal Health Service (SENASA) can determine whether consumption of sailfish and marlin in this country puts the population at any type of risk, and SENASA has never made any such determination.

But FECOPT Executive Director Enrique Ramírez claimed the study is valid here.

“Marlin and sailfish are migratory species, and it is the exact same species in Mexico as in Costa Rica,” Ramírez said. “Incopesca representatives have often used the claim that if sailfish are protected here in Costa Rica, they will just be caught in another country. If that is possible, then why can’t contaminated fish also cross international borders?”

Dobles has requested a meeting between commercial longliners and sportfishermen to discuss their differences. Ramírez said the sportfishing group will be happy to meet with Incopesca and the commercial longline fleet once it receives the public-record documents requested over a month ago from Incopesca pertaining to records of sailfish landings by commercial fleets, inventories of sailfish in warehouses, and the scientific criteria used to increase the amount of sailfish allowed as bycatch from 8 to 15 percent. (It is illegal for commercial fleets to directly target species of tourist-sport interest; boats are allowed a 15 percent sailfish bycatch – fish found dead on longlines – per trip, but the catch must be sold in-country and cannot be exported. Any landing of more than 15 percent cannot be commercially sold and must be donated. In the past two years the provision has been in place, no sailfish has been donated, yet the percentage of bycatch allowed was raised from 8 to 15 percent.)

Ramírez said he recently met with Edgar Barquero, director of SENASA’s Food Safety of Animal Products Administration, who informed him that although they have done sporadic tests on a number of seafood species, no comprehensive or statistically conclusive test has been done on mercury levels in sailfish and marlin in Costa Rica.

I contacted Dr. Nelson Ehrhardt, an expert on eastern tropical sailfish with the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, for his opinion on this matter. According to Ehrhardt, the sailfish in Costa Rica just might have a higher level of mercury content than those in Mexico. The larger a fish is, the higher the mercury content, he explained. Generally speaking, the fish in Mexico are 1 to 2 years old, and by the time they reach Central America they are 3 to 4 years old. Most of the fish that reach as far as Ecuador are over 4 years old, and the largest fish come from that area. The current world record of 222 pounds was caught in Ecuador.

Apart from industry, volcanoes are another source of mercury pollution. In this volcanically active region, volcanic pollution is spread to the Pacific Ocean by strong Caribbean winds that blow each year from December through April, like Costa Rica’s Papagayo winds in the northwestern province of Guanacaste. Ehrhardt noted that scientists at Oxford University discovered a single volcano can emit as much as 7.2 metric tons of mercury per year – more than most industrial nations.

Donald McGuinness, head of the sportfishing association in the Southern Zone of Costa Rica and one of the authors of the Golfo Dulce responsible fishing area initiative (TT, Jan. 21), said the problem is both simple and complicated. Longline fishing in Costa Rica has reached the point that it is no longer sustainable. Because their catches are down, longliners are targeting species like sailfish and marlin that are supposed to be protected, and this has been virtually unregulated by Incopesca, McGuinness said.

“The answer for all sectors is to diversify and fish smarter with no bycatch. Costa Rica needs to get rid of longlines and the foreign tuna seiners and let the fishermen currently fishing longlines target tuna,” McGuinness said. “This has to be done in a sustainable manner. With the tuna seiners gone, commercial fishermen can take dorado on rod and reel, and tuna with ‘green sticks’ (a method developed in North Carolina that is extremely effective for tuna with no bycatch).

“The government needs to control the price they receive so they can make a living.”

Costa Rica was once known as the “sailfish capital of the world.” Both Panama and Guatemala have banned longlines, and in Guatemala killing a sailfish is punishable by a $5,000 fine. If Costa Rica does not follow suit, it risks jeopardizing its $600-million-a-year tourist sportfishing industry.

Skippers, operators and anglers are invited to email fishing reports by Wednesday of each week to todd@crocodilebay.com. To post reports and photos on The Tico Times’ online fishing forum, go to www.ticotimes.net/Weekend/Fishing/Fishing-Forum.

Tracking Sailfish Patterns

The Central American Billfish Association (CABA) and Dr. Nelson Ehrhardt of the University of Miami are introducing a satellite logging system to study sailfish in Costa Rica. The study has been in use for over a year in Guatemala with excellent results. A computer is placed onboard a vessel, giving the captain a touch screen to record fish sighted, fish raised, fish caught and the presence of longlines. The information is transmitted instantly to a database at the University of Miami and laid over charts of plankton, currents and water temperature.

The individual owners can get online anywhere in the world to observe as the pattern for their boat develops, as well as patterns for the areas they fish. This has proved to be extremely valuable to sportfishing fleets in Guatemala and has raised their catch rate and lowered fuel consumption. The units cost about $3,000, and a handheld unit is now available.

Dr. Ehrhardt will be in Costa Rica to discuss the benefits of this system and the results of the Guatemala study at a May 30 seminar sponsored by the Club Amateur de Pesca. The event will start at 7:30 p.m. at the club’s headquarters in Sabana Oeste, 25 meters west of La Princesa Marina restaurant in the A-frame house. For information about the meeting, contact the club at 2232-3430.

For information about CABA and the Guatemala study, email fecopt@gmail.com.