San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Oversight coming for oft-criticized Costa Rica Fisheries Institute

The shape of the commission called by Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla to analyze the management of the country’s marine resources by the Costa Rica Fisheries Institute (Incopesca) is starting to take form.

Chinchilla called for the creation of the five-person commission in November after meeting with environmental activists who accuse Incopesca of conflicts of interest in regulating fisheries. Environmental groups also accuse Incopesca of abetting the practice of shark finning, a multi-billion dollar a year industry that is depleting shark populations worldwide.

The commission, according to the Program for Marine Turtle Restoration (Pretoma) will tentatively consist of Environment Vice Minister Ana Lorena Guevara, Agriculture and Livestock Vice Minister Xinia Chaves, Marco Quesada, marine coordinator for Conservation International in Costa Rica, Maria Virginia Cajiao, an advisor to Chinchilla on environmental issues, and a representative of the Costa Rican Coast Guard. 

That is similar to a list Incopesca President Luis Dobles said he had received at the end of November.

As it stands, Incopesca will not have a representative on the commission. Dobles said the commission is not technically an investigation of Incopesca.

“It is not a commission of intervention against Incopesca,” Dobles said. “That was categorically established by the president of the republic; but it is a commission to analyze the management of the Costa Rican fishing sector and the governance of our seas. Hopefully, the result of the commission’s analysis will be helpful because there are many situations, many problems and many topics that can be tackled in relation to how to improve the encouragement and development of conservation and the responsible use of our marine resources.”

Possible members of the commission did not want to comment yet on the group, as they have yet to actually meet or have a formal inauguration. Pretoma President Randall Arauz said he expects Chinchilla to hold a formal inauguration for the commission before the end of the year. 


 Pretoma and Arauz accuse Incopesca of abetting shark finning in and around Costa Rican waters, and of having a conflict of interest in managing Costa Rica’s fisheries – namely that most of the Incopesca’s board members have personal and business ties to commercial fishing fleets.

Incopesca board members call Arauz a “radical” who attacks the institute in order to garner attention and donations for Pretoma.

“At times one has to think, unfortunately, that these environmental organizations in their interest to maintain their presence in the media, and to generate or obtain resources for their own activities talk a lot about problematic situations, and in many situations with a lack of objectivity,” Dobles said. “They don’t want to acknowledge the force of the actions taken by public institutions at the level of the fishing sector, and not only by Incopesca, but [by many agencies].”

Arauz and several other environmental activists, including biologists and environmental journalists, met with Chinchilla in early November to discuss ongoing accusations of Incopesca turning a blind eye to shark finning in Costa Rican territories as well as the composition of the Incopesca board of directors and their potential conflicts of interest.

“From the very beginning we were calling on Chinchilla to intervene on Incopesca,” Arauz said. “For us the best action [from this commission] would be a strong recommendation that Incopesca needs to be reformed.”

If the commission does make such a recommendation, the decision as how to proceed would then rest in the Chinchilla’s hands.

“Basically, what we need is the political will [to change the way the Incopesca board of directors is composed],” Arauz said. “I think popular support and popular will are with us. People recognize that this board represents a conflict of interest, and we will never have sustainable fisheries that way.”

Incopesca vice president and board member Jorge Niño told The Tico Times recently that the Incopesca board is organized according to Costa Rican Law 7384, which created the institute in 1994. If anyone is interested in changing the law, Niño said, they can collect the signatures of 5 percent of Costa Rica’s voters (about 142,000 signatures), and with those signatures, present their case before the Legislative Assembly.

Currently, a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the 1994 law on grounds similar to Pretoma’s accusations is before the Supreme Court. The challenge to the law submits that the composition of the Incopesca board of directors favors private interests in the commercial fishing sector, thereby making it difficult for the board to work in the interest of the general public when “it tries to dictate regulations, norms or policies that restrict its own acts and interests.”

The Value of a Shark

The market for shark fins -– just the fins, not the rest of the meat on a shark’s body – is a multibillion-dollar industry. Matt Rand, director of global shark conservation for the Pew Environmental Group, says shark fins can fetch more than $900 per pound in some markets, mostly in Asia where fins are made into a soup with supposed medicinal qualities. The soup, according to reports provided by Pew Environmental Group, may sell for upwards of $100 a bowl, particularly in mainland China, where Rand says it is viewed as a “prestige” product.

In order to save room in their cargo holds for more fins, many dedicated shark boats slice the fins off of live sharks and dump the bodies back into the ocean where the sharks bleed to death.

“Of the shark species that we have data on,” Rand said, “about 30 percent are threatened with extinction. Of the 50 percent of shark species that we don’t have data on, many are also probably threatened with extinction.”

Peer-reviewed scientific studies show that many shark populations have seen global reductions of up to 90 percent in recent years. A study of Hong Kong shark fin markets found that humans kill up to 73 million sharks annually.

“It’s not really about shark finning anymore,” Rand said. “It’s about the fact that we catch too many sharks.”

Sharks can take up to 18 years to reach sexual maturity, unlike other ocean fish that may be ready to lay millions of eggs at only 2 years of age. Sharks, in general, give birth to only a handful of babies after a long gestation period, meaning that shark populations take a very long time to recover once depleted.

“Many shark species we’ll actually see go extinct in our lifetime,” he said.

As the oceans’ top predators, sharks reside at the pinnacle of a delicate web of food-chain interactions. Disruptions in that web have repercussions in all parts of the web.

“Oceans and all the fish in the oceans have evolved for 400 million years with sharks playing the top role,” Rand said. “Any marine ecologist will tell you that by removing top predators you have effects in the whole food chain.”

Costa Rica has outlawed the unloading of shark fins detached from the rest of the shark’s body, and they must be unloaded at public docks. That doesn’t mean that shark fins can’t be unloaded at Nicaraguan docks and shipped overland into Costa Rica. It also doesn’t mean that Costa Rica is strongly enforcing a ban on shark fishing or, technically, on shark finning – it is not.

But Dobles, the Incopesca president, says Costa Rica is not a haven for shark finning boats.

“If we look at the global statistics of shark extraction,” Dobles said, “Costa Rica doesn’t even account for 1 percent. … Incopesca officials inspect all official off-loadings of boats carrying sharks and we have measures and controls that don’t exist in other countries. But they continue accusing us of being a country that is conducive to shark finning, which is absolutely false and a propagandistic attempt to try and discredit the public authorities of Costa Rica.”

Boats found carrying cargos of only shark fins in Costa Rican waters have been detained, Dobles said, and in some cases are being processed judicially.

To its credit, Incopesca has a big job to do and not very many people to do it with. Dobles said the institution has 18 inspectors at the public dock in Puntarenas, on the Pacific coast, where the majority of commercial fishing catch is off-loaded, and only a handful more inspectors for the rest of the country.

Data provided by Pew Environmental Group highlights the economic value of live sharks. Belize, for example, rakes in almost $4 million annually from whale shark tours. Shark diving in the Indo-Pacific region generates an estimated $40 million annually, and Spain’s Canary Islands get $24.7 million each year from shark diving. Sharks and shark-related tourism have earned the Bahamas more than $800 million in the 20 years since the country banned long-line fishing.

“Countries recognizing the benefits of sharks have established shark sanctuaries,” Rand said. “In Honduras, the president announced that they’ve seen the economic and ecological value of sharks.”

In June, Honduras closed almost 250,000 square kilometers of its maritime territories to commercial shark fishing and is developing a shark diving industry. 

Costa Rica, Rand said, has the potential to develop the economic value of its own sharks. Key steps toward doing that include creating large areas of protected marine areas where fishing is illegal – something Costa Rica has shown it is willing to do.

“Costa Rica has Isla del Coco,” Rand said, referring to the National Park some 600 km west of the Pacific port of Puntarenas. “People pay thousands of dollars to visit there and see sharks, and shark species there are very difficult to recover once they’ve declined.”

Even if Costa Rica never bans commercial shark fishing, Rand said carefully regulating shark catches by identifying vulnerable species and setting precautionary limits would be a step in the right direction. Key to implementing those two goals, though, is a stock assessment of the fishery, a study that can be costly and difficult.

In the meantime, Chinchilla’s commission will have plenty to consider.

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