San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Bill would legalize fishing in Costa Rica’s national parks

Fishing is prohibited in the 0.64 percent of Costa Rica’s oceans located within national parks. A 2005 law states that protected maritime areas can only be fished with approval from the Environment, Energy and Technology Ministry (MINAET). The remaining 99.36 percent of Costa Rica’s maritime boundaries is open to licensed fishermen. But a bill soon to be debated in Congress could open protected areas to more wide-scale fishing.

In late July, five legislators from the Pacific province of Puntarenas, known as the Puntarenas Committee, submitted a bill to the Legislative Assembly to reform Article 9 of the Fishing and Aquaculture Law. The reform would allow commercial fishing in the waters of national parks and protected marine areas.

The effort to reform the law is headed by Agnes Gómez, legislator for the National Liberation Party (PLN). According to Gómez, lifting the restriction would allow fishermen living near national parks to fish for commercial and personal use. Gómez said that at least 3,000 families from the Puntarenas, Limón and Guanacaste provinces have voiced their frustration with the restriction.

“For some time now, fishermen have come to me with complaints about not being able to fish in the protected areas,” Gómez said. “Years ago, they were able to fish in restricted areas and now they can’t. Fishing is the only way they know how to feed their families. This reform would help them significantly.”

Álvaro Moreno, a former fishing captain in Puntarenas and current representative for Puntarenas fishermen with the Costa Rica Fisheries Institute (Incopesca), agrees with Gómez. Moreno said that many of the fishermen in Puntarenas were left with nowhere to fish after the restrictions imposed in 2005. He said that many lost their primary source of sustenance.

“They spent all their lives fishing in the same spot and then in 2005 were told it was crime to do so,” he said. “It left a lot of fishermen without any food for their families.”

Moreno said the amount of protected waters in national parks, despite the small percentage, is too large and “irrational.”

“The protected areas are much larger than they need to be,” Moreno said. “In the Manzanillo National Park, off Playa Bejuco in Puntarenas, for example, the protected area extends 12 miles into the ocean. The reef that is protected is 500 meters from the shore, so why is fishing restricted for 12 miles?”

Gómez said the members of the Puntarenas Committee, which includes two lawmakers from PLN and three from the Citizen Action Party (PAC), are “totally in agreement” with the reform proposal, which is expected to go before the assembly in coming weeks.

Some environmental groups disagree. When the bill was presented on July 21, ocean conservation group MarViva sent out a public statement voicing disapproval.

MarViva’s national director, Patricia Vega, said the bill is politically motivated and counterintuitive. Though reform is aimed at improving the livelihood of local fishermen, Vega said the protected areas are used as breeding grounds for species, and disruption would result in a diminished population of area fish in the long term.

“It seems like there is a lack of intelligence, to put it one way,” Vega said. “Why, in areas that are scientifically proven to be places where species reproduce and the biodiversity is recovering, would you want to disrupt this tiny amount of water when you can fish in all the rest of it? We don’t understand what these legislators could be thinking.”

Vega said the marine protected areas were created in 2005 to allow species to reproduce. She said the result is an “overflow effect,” which means surplus fish spawned in protected areas disperse into unprotected waters.

“Eventually, fish swim out of the protected areas and improve the fishing where it isn’t restricted to fish,” Vega said. “The decision is supposedly intended to please fishermen. However, in the long term it will diminish the population and disrupt a breeding ground. The reform is an absurd idea.”

Gómez said that if the bill were to pass, fishing in protected waters would be done in a sustainable and responsible manner. She said that MINAET and the National System of Conservation Areas would oversee fishing in the areas to assure it does not harm the ecosystems.

“We intend to make sure fishing is done responsibly,” she said.

According to Viviana Gutiérrez, a lawyer and manager of political strategy at MarViva, fishing in national parks is already permitted, though it must be approved by MINAET prior to fishermen dropping lines or nets.  

“It seems [Gómez] is not fully familiar with the law. Fishing is not entirely prohibited in national parks,” Gutiérrez said. “Fishing used for domestic consumption to help small fishermen is allowed, though it must be approved by MINAET and agree with the park management plan.”

Gutiérrez said the proposed reform would violate the terms of the Central America Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. (CAFTA). According to Chapter 17 of CAFTA, countries are not permitted to reduce levels of environmental protection. Article 17.2 says “it is inappropriate to encourage trade or investment by weakening or reducing the protections afforded in domestic environmental laws.” The agreement adds that each country “shall strive to ensure that it does not waive or otherwise derogate from … such laws in a manner that weakens or reduces the protections afforded” by environmental laws.

If the reform is passed, Gutiérrez said it would set a precedent that national park boundaries can be rewritten, which could result in a dangerous domino effect.

“It would open a door,” Gutiérrez said. “First it is the water for the fishermen. Then some poor lumber workers want lumber and they are allowed to cut down some of the trees in the national park. Then it is electricity and energy companies coming in. The politicians of this country have to defend the national parks.”

Incopesca Vice President Jorge Niño said the debate is emblematic of a country that is failing to live up to its environmentally friendly reputation and contradicting itself along the way.

“You make a law to protect water in national parks and celebrate it. Then you try to reform it six years later and it involves a struggle with the environmental groups,” Niño said. “It’s disappointing. If we are going to claim to be an environmentally friendly country, we have to start living by our word.”

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