San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Should Costa Rica open national parks to fishing?

I am about to open a can of worms. Can you imagine a fisherman doing that? 

Recently, a bill was introduced to allow fishing in national parks (TT, Aug. 19). Thirty-eight organizations have come forward in opposition to the idea. My guess is that 50 percent of those people have never fished in their lives, and a large percentage of the rest have no idea how fish are caught to send to market in this country. 

I am in favor of opening the parks to fishing. Before you throw your Tico Times across the room and call me an idiot – or worse, use it to wrap fish – please read on.

The current system is a dismal failure. Right now the only ones fishing in the parks are illegal fishermen using unsustainable fishing methods, mainly gill nets. The government agencies in charge of patrolling the areas are underfunded and understaffed and do not have the equipment to enforce regulations. Even the nongovernmental organizations doing patrolling efforts pulled out due to lack of funding.

Conservation equals commerce. Without one, you can’t have the other. Here are two examples of land-based conservation efforts, one a success and the other a failure. 

The Tropical Science Center, a nongovernmental scientific and environmental organization, manages and protects 4,000 hectares of primary forest in Monteverde, in north-central Costa Rica. It took 120 hectares of that and put in hiking trails and charged tourists to visit. Over the years, the project has developed to where 75,000 tourists visit each year, bringing in $1.5 million to $2 million annually. Lodging for 40 students, a restaurant and souvenir shops have been built, and the budget allows for patrolling the rest of the project and developing education and research programs, according to Enrique Ramírez, who was the director of the center for five years and who is now director of the Costa Rican Tourist Fishing Federation (FECOPT). Only 12 percent of the center’s budget is used for administrative expenses. The facility supplies jobs for 75 local people and the local naturalist guide association.

On the other hand, a very popular NGO raised millions of dollars to purchase large areas of rain forest as a means of protecting it. They figured by owning it, they were protecting it. No one is managing the area, and illegal woodcutters and animal poachers enter every day.

If I were asked to come up with a plan to allow fishing in national parks, it would go something like this: I would change them into “responsible fishing areas” and allow small-scale artisanal handline fishermen and tourist sportfishing. No unsustainable methods such as gill nets or trawling would be allowed. Everyone entering these areas would pay a fee on top of the regular fishing license, with all money going toward management and enforcement.

The areas would need to be governed by the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (Incopesca), the Environment Ministry, the Coast Guard and the Costa Rican Tourism Board (ICT). Strict, concrete regulations would have to be established for using these areas – not regulations with loopholes large enough to drive a truck through, like some of the present regulations. (Shark-landing regulations in Costa Rica are a perfect example of loopholes that can be intentionally or unintentionally put into play.) Large fines and a two-strike system would be put in place. The first time you are caught breaking the law, you pay a large fine and all gear not authorized for use in these areas is confiscated and destroyed. The second time, you lose your fishing license. 

Artisanal fishermen in these areas mainly target snapper and grouper. They would be allowed to fish only with handlines or rod and reel with a maximum of three hooks per line. A slot size limit would be established so all breeding stock is released, and a daily catch limit would be established. It would be illegal to have onboard any type of unauthorized fishing gear while inside the responsible fishing area.

Tourist sportfishermen would pay an entrance fee to fish in the parks. This money would go entirely toward marine management in the park. Of course, fishing would be done strictly with rod and reel. Almost every tourist who comes to Costa Rica, whether for fishing or ecotourism, wants to enjoy fresh local seafood, so a one-fish-a-day limit, again within a slot size limit, would be allowed. Most tourists wouldn’t even mind the parks being strictly catch-and-release for them. Tourist fishing boats would not be allowed to have fish caught in other areas onboard while fishing in parks. 

The ICT has finally begun to realize that nearly 25 percent of high-season tourists come here to fish. Its sustainable tourism program is to be applauded. Hotels making the changes necessary to earn a sustainable tourism certificate from the ICT are also proud of their achievements. One thing that was overlooked when establishing the requirements to earn the certificates was the menus in hotel restaurants. Many of these “sustainable” hotels serve seafood that are on near-endangered lists or are captured by unsustainable fishing methods.

Opening the parks will encourage artisanal fishermen to fish in more sustainable ways. Groups like MarViva and product-c restaurants are already working with them to market their sustainably caught products. If the ICT requires hotels to have “sustainable menus” and encourages them to purchase products caught using sustainable practices, the network will grow. Then, when it comes time to expand these areas and create larger marine parks, there will be less resistance from the commercial fleet.

Fishermen allowed to use the parks legally will be eyes for illegal activity. They will want to protect the right to use the area sustainably. It will take some time, but eventually the parks will generate enough income on their own to properly manage them.


Fishing Report, Sept. 15

The Caribbean is on fire. Diann Sánchez from Río Colorado checked in and reported that guests Brian Noreski and Gary Mellwig jumped 92 tarpon, landing 47 between 60 and 160 pounds. Man, I used to love September when I lived over on that side. A mixed bag of tuna, jacks and barracuda are also taking baits. The bite slows right on top of the full moon, and the action is in the early morning or late afternoon. After the moon passes, it will be off to the races again.

The full moon seems to have slowed the bite on the central and southern Pacific coasts, where most of the action has been inshore. Up north, they are still taking some sails about five miles outside of the Catalina Islands, and tuna have been bending rods closer to the beach.

Todd Staley is the fishing manager at Crocodile Bay Resort in Puerto Jiménez, on southwestern Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula. Skippers, operators and anglers are invited to email fishing reports by Wednesday of each week to To post reports and photos on The Tico Times’ online fishing forum, go to

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