San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

NGOs to pick up tab for protecting prized Isla del Coco marine park

The newly created Seamounts Marine Management Area (SMMA), a protected zone around Costa Rica’s Isla del Coco, in the Pacific Ocean, will not receive any special funding from the government.

Instead, authorities will rely on funding and other resources from nongovernmental organizations, including MarViva and Conservation International, to patrol the area against illegal fishing, particularly tuna fishermen.

The SMMA, created by presidential decree on March 3, seeks to protect marine turtles, rays, dolphin, fish and other endangered species living in the nearly 10,000 square-kilometer area. Because the SMMA is not designated a national marine park, but rather a lesser category called a management area, commercial and sportfishing may continue under regulated conditions (TT, March 8).

But it won’t be the Costa Rican government enforcing those regulations.

“We are unable to create a separate budget for the new management area,” said Teófilo de la Torre, minister of Environment, Energy and Telecommunications. “The country is facing a fiscal deficit and we can’t generate more resources. Hopefully in the near future we will be able to further fund not only this but all protected areas of the country.”

De la Torre said the marine conservation area was created after several requests from environmental groups, who promised to manage it despite the government’s limited resources.

The Costa Rican government currently spends about $700,000 a year to protect Isla del Coco National Marine Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site located 365 miles off Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. The same budget will now also cover the SMMA, which is the second-largest protected marine area after Galapagos Island in Ecuador.

“Many international organizations are interested in supporting our efforts,” De la Torre said. “This is something we negotiated in advance with them. That’s why we moved forward and had the decree signed. Our main interest is to provide a legal basis from which environmental groups can start working.”

On Friday, President Laura Chinchilla was awarded the Peter Benchley Ocean Award for her commitment to the protection of marine areas, which many believe was a result of her support for the SMMA. Given by the Blue Frontier, a marine-preservation NGO in Washington, D.C., the award acknowledges outstanding achievements in the protection of oceans, coasts and the communities that depend on them.

Chinchilla was nominated for the prize by oceanographer Sylvia Earle and the Costa Rica-based MarViva Foundation.

Despite the honors, some environmentalists believe the Costa Rican government should play a more active role in enforcing its own policies.

“In a way, creating new protected areas without having the resources to implement tangible measures, it’s an irresponsible decision,” said Randall Arauz, president of the Marine Turtle Restoration Program, or Pretoma. “We understand that no government in the world could actually protect 100 percent of its marine resources, but it’s not fair that a government becomes totally dependent on the hard work of environmentalists.”

“Issuing the decree was an important step; however it does not make sense if the government is unable to actually take care of its resources,” said Luis Diego Marín, director of the Costa Rican chapter of Preserve Planet. “I would suggest the authorities reach an agreement with the United States, so that their Coast Guard services patrol our protected areas and scare away illegal fishers.”

Environmentalists’ Challenge: Tuna

Allowing national tuna fishermen access to the managed area is one of the initiative’s main objectives.

Currently, the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute, or Incopesca, issues permits to foreign-flagged tuna vessels fishing in Costa Rican waters. However, this practice has been detrimental to local fishermen, Arauz said.

“It is almost impossible to catch a single fish when you are surrounded by big vessels,” he explains. “We have heard of cases where foreign crews threaten the local fishermen, who ultimately decide to enter the areas of the sea where fishing is prohibited. This is an enormous problem, because they damage the environment and also put their lives in danger.”

To address the problem, the decree states that the presence of any foreign vessel in the managed area will be prohibited and only local fishermen will be allowed to fish there.

Thus, in the absence of resources to ensure compliance with the new rules, environmentalists decided to train local fishermen on sustainable fishing practices. They are also creating a monitoring network to spot foreign vessels in the area.

The organization of local fishermen also brings an additional benefit: a reduction in the amount of tuna that is fished.

By press time, Incopesca officials did not respond to a Tico Times request for updated records of the amount of tuna that is fished from Costa Rican waters. But experts say that foreign vessels fish much more than what is recommended by the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission, an international agency that establishes parameters for sustainable fisheries.

“If a vessel is caught extracting more fish than what’s allowed, then Incopesca officials are empowered to issue a fine,” said Fernando Quirós, director of the Isla del Coco Conservation Area. “However, sometimes the fines are so small that offenders just don’t care.”

“We should get rid of the licensing system in the future,” said Arauz. “Tuna fishing is a great business, but most of our own people don’t get any benefit from it. Thankfully that’s about to change.”

In 2005, Incopesca received $724,000 for granting 30 fishing licenses to foreign vessels, according to data provided by Pretoma. Those same vessels extracted more than eight metric tons of tuna, worth $30 million.

MarViva will provide assistance to Costa Rica’s Coast Guard by patrolling the SMMA, a task the foundation has performed in the past.

MarViva will also set up a trust in order to finance the purchase of radars and other technology to help spot illegal fishing in protected zones.

“The whole protected area went from big to enormous with the new decree,” said Jorge Jiménez, general director of MarViva. “It is now impossible to patrol the entire area, so we will install special surveillance systems that will let us detect anything out of the ordinary. The equipment will also be used by park rangers.”

“The collaboration from NGOs is invaluable,” said Quirós. “The cost of protecting marine areas is at least 10 times higher than protecting forests, so I don’t expect the government to actually embrace that challenge. The good thing is some people understand that protecting our natural resources is a shared task.”

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