San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Choosing experts is fishing panel’s 1st test

The committee created by President Laura Chinchilla to analyze the government agencies that oversee Costa Rica’s marine resources will be made up of five institutional representatives of Costa Rica, three selected by the president, one by nongovernmental conservation organizations, and one representative of the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (Incopesca), according to environmental activists.

Incopesca has been accused by environmental groups of abetting shark finning, a multibillion-dollar industry decimating shark populations in and around Costa Rican waters. Environmentalists also question how Incopesca’s board of directors – many of whom are commercial fishermen or shrimp trawlers – can effectively regulate the country’s fisheries when they have strong personal and financial ties to the commercial fishing industry.

“The reason for this commission is that we have an objective review of Costa Rican fisheries policy, and that Laura Chinchilla will be advised on the political actions that need to be taken to protect these resources,” said Randall Arauz, president of the Marine Turtle Restoration Program, or Pretoma. 

Chinchilla promised to create the commission after a Nov. 4 meeting with Arauz and other activists and representatives of small-scale fishermen. In that meeting, biologist and environmental journalist Andrés Jiménez told Chinchilla that the cozy relationship between members of the Incopesca board and the commercial fishing industry has prevented meaningful enforcement of fisheries regulations.

“In the end they are judge and jury,” Jiménez said. “They have never made a decision regarding public resources that didn’t affect their personal interests or those of their partners in foreign fishing fleets, and that, without a doubt, is something unconstitutional.”

Incopesca Vice President Jorge Niño said he welcomes an analysis of the organization.

“That they come and investigate seems like an excellent idea to me,” Niño said. “For the public opinion, they have to investigate. What they will discover, I can guarantee you, is that Incopesca is an institution with very little economic means [to regulate] the development of the fishing industry, and that it does what it can.”

In the past, Pretoma and other conservation organizations have accused Incopesca of protecting the lucrative shark finning trade. Shark fins can fetch up to $40 per kilo in Asian markets where they are made into a soup with supposed medicinal qualities. In order to save space in ships’ cargo holds, shark finners pull sharks onto the ships’ decks, slice off the fins and toss the still-live sharks back overboard to bleed to death.

The practice is banned in neighboring countries. In Costa Rica, fishermen must land sharks with their fins still attached, and they must do so on public, not private, docks. Yet there are many ways to skirt the regulations, including shipping fins landed in Nicaragua through the country by land.

Arauz said that for Chinchilla’s committee, he hopes to see a representative of the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry – possibly even Environment Minister René Castro, who Arauz said has “been very committed to shark conservation.”

On Wednesday, Castro issued a statement asking Incopesca to create a better system of controls and permits to regulate fishing around Isla del Coco, Costa Rica’s legendary “Treasure Island,” some 600 kilometers west of the Pacific port of Puntarenas. The environment minister also asked that Incopesca investigate complaints that Costa Rican fleets have fished in protected waters in the area.

Arauz said that for the conservationist’s selection, they will be looking for an expert in oceanography or marine biology with a record of publishing peer-reviewed scientific articles, ideally on topics related to fisheries. Arauz also said environmentalists would categorically oppose anyone who has ever been an Incopesca board member.

Niño calls Arauz a radical who stirs up trouble so that donations will continue to flow into Pretoma.

“The day that man doesn’t make problems,” Niño said, “is when he stops getting donations. He is receiving donations based on lies, based on falsities, in my opinion.”

Niño blames Arauz for an embargo of more than two years on Costa Rican shrimp by the U.S. government due to Arauz’s claims that shrimp trawlers were endangering sea turtles.

“How can a man like the president of Pretoma come and denounce Costa Rica?” Niño asked. “And bring a case such that it puts a sanction of $15 million on the country that began with the idea that here we don’t conserve turtles, or that it is a lie that the best turtle conservation program in all of Latin America is in Costa Rica?”

Niño added that after a recent inspection by U.S. authorities, the embargo on Costa Rican shrimp exported to the U.S. has now been lifted for more than two months.

Regarding Incopesca’s board of directors, Niño said the board is made up according to Costa Rican Law 7384, which established Incopesca and created the board. The law states that the nine-member board will be made up of a president appointed by the Cabinet, a representative each from the Agriculture and Livestock Ministry and the Science and Technology Ministry, a representative of the state also appointed by the Cabinet, three representatives from fishing and aquaculture organizations, a representative of the industrial or shipping sector and a representative of the National Commission of Aquaculture and Fish.

Anybody interested in changing the way the board is made up, Niño said, should present a bill to the Legislative Assembly. That would require procuring signatures of 5 percent of Costa Rica’s voters, roughly 142,000 signatures.

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