San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

U.S. renews ban on Tico shrimp

Costa Rican shrimp aren’t making their way onto U.S. platters like they used to.

In late May, the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Oceans, Environment and Science renewed the ban on the U.S. import of Costa Rican shrimp for a third consecutive year. Since May 1, 2009, not one shrimp caught in Costa Rican waters has been exported to the U.S., which was the crustaceans’ biggest consumer prior to the passing of the embargo (TT, May 1, 2009). The ban will be reassessed in April 2012.

The renewal of the ban, which is now the sixth U.S. trade embargo placed on Costa Rican shrimp since 1999, is accompanied by polemic response. Several organizations, such as the Marine Turtle Restoration Program (Pretoma) and ocean preservation organization MarViva, celebrate the continued ban as a victory for other ocean species, particularly endangered sea turtles, which they say are often caught and killed in shrimp nets.

“Irresponsible shrimping is an extremely devastating practice to the other species and ocean floor. About 95 percent of what shrimpers catch in their boats gets discarded, and studies show that shrimpers discard about 9,000 tons every year,” said Randall Arauz, Pretoma’s president. “It has a tremendous impact on ecosystems, as well as a devastating affect on artisanal fisherman who are trying to do the right thing and fish responsibly. One drag of the net of the shrimping boat and the entire practice of sustainable fishing is ruined. There is really no room for shrimping anymore in Costa Rica.” 

Arauz, who has led the charge against Costa Rican shrimping practices for more than a decade, said that the ban is “well deserved” and that the method of shrimp capture continues to plague national waters.

But shrimpers and members of Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (Incopesca) vehemently disagree with Arauz. According to Incopesca Vice President Jorge Niño, who also sits on the organization’s board of directors, the State Department has failed to outline clear regulations for what needs to be done to lift the embargo.

“The U.S. government hasn’t come to observe the practices of the shrimping boats. We really have no idea what needs to be done to remove the embargo,” Niño told The Tico Times. “We are trying to protect the ocean, the environment and the turtles, and we thought that shrimping boats had accomplished all the requisites required to lift the ban. It seems like we are being judged unfairly and it is killing the industry.”

Niño, who has been a shrimper for more than 50 years in Costa Rica, said that his shrimping fleet of several boats once employed 35 to 40 people in the Pacific waters off Puntarenas. Currently, Niño said that he employs only three people.

“No one really wants to be a shrimper anymore,” he said. “It’s become too difficult. Everyone wants to run you out. There is almost no interest in the industry left.”

According to the Foreign Trade Promotion Office (Procomer), Costa Rican shrimp export sales fell from $4.8 million to $3.9 million in 2010, an 18.6 percent decrease from 2009. Export sales of shrimp have fallen each of the last three years.

Pretoma vs. Incopesca

While Niño claimed the State Department has failed to visit Costa Rica or clearly explain what Incopesca must do to lift the shrimping ban, he was also very candid with his opinions on Arauz and Pretoma.

“Randall Arauz and his extremist organization are feeding the U.S. government with lies, lies, lies, and more lies,” Niño said. “He is doing all he can to further denigrate this sector and put shrimpers out of work. The truth is that Costa Rica has some of the best turtle protection efforts in Latin America.”

While imports of Costa Rican shrimp are disallowed in the U.S., other regional countries such as Nicaragua, El Salvador, Panama, Honduras and Guatemala are certified to export shrimp to the U.S. Niño attributes Costa Rica’s embargo to Arauz.

“He writes the U.S. Embassy letters about how shrimping is killing the turtles and it appears they just take his word for it,” Niño said. “He is just supplying them with misinformation.”

Arauz, known for being an outspoken critic of Incopesca, quipped that the reason other nations of the region haven’t been sanctioned by the U.S. is because “they don’t have Pretoma breathing down their neck.”

According to Arauz, another reason that the sanctions aren’t wider reaching is because the State Department alerts the regional nations of their inspection plans before making an official visit.

Requests for comment from the U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica were not answered by press time.

“You make a call to announce you are coming and all the countries put Turtle Excluder Devices [TEDs] on their boats and pass inspection,” Arauz said. “Then when the U.S. inspectors leave, shrimping boats ditch the TEDs.”

The lack of the use of TEDs is Arauz’s biggest complaint with Incopesca. Arauz says that in recent years, 39 shrimping boats have been caught trolling national waters without TEDs, yet none have been sanctioned.

“It is always the same problem with Incopesca. Nobody ever gets sanctioned or reprimanded for not using TEDs, even though it is part of fishery law,” Arauz said. “If Incopesca wants have the ban removed, they are going to have to prove that there is actually some sincerity in their plans to sanction shrimp trawlers.”

According to Niño, an urgent meeting has been called with the U.S. Embassy and the Costa Rican Foreign Trade Ministry to address the issue. Niño said that shrimpers are desperately trying to have the embargo lifted to reverse the recent plummeting of income in the sector.

In the meantime, Pretoma, Marviva and other organizations, such as the Costa Rican Sport Fishing Federation and Costa Rican Federation of Fishing Tourism continue to push shrimpers out to establish responsible fishing practices. In June 2010, the 750-kilometer area of Golfo Dulce on the eastern side of the Osa Peninsula was designated as an area for responsible fishing. To assure that responsible fishing practices were upheld, all shrimp boats were removed from the area.

“Fishing for shrimp is no longer a sustainable trade in Costa Rica,” Donald McGuinness, president of Costa Rican Sport Fishing Federation told The Tico Times last year. “Shrimpers are devastated and broke and people can find thousands of reasons to stop the fishing of shrimp. So does that mean I think the shrimp industry in Costa Rica will disappear in Costa Rica? Yes. It is definitely possible.”

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