San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Purse seiners that use FADs should be banned

Recently a boat out of Los Sueños on the central Pacific coast stumbled across a strange floating object that had a satellite antenna attached to it. Below it, going down several meters, was what looked like a line with ribbons tied to it. Such an object is known as a fish aggregating device, or FAD, and is used to create an artificial ecosystem. 

As with natural floating objects like tree trunks or branches, fish are attracted to FADs and use them to seek protection from predators (TT, Dec. 23, 2011). But in the case of the abovementioned manmade FADs, the shelter the fish seek will actually be their demise. 

There are reportedly hundreds of such FADs floating in Costa Rican waters. Besides being an extremely efficient method of attracting fish, they are made deadlier by today’s technology. Beacons that float with the FADs have fish sonars on them, allowing the captain of a fishing vessel to monitor the fish mass below on a computer from far away. FADs are employed mostly by tuna purse seiner vessels, although their use is illegal in Costa Rica. 

Tuna fleets use FADs to attract yellowfin and bigeye tuna off the coast of Costa Rica, but juvenile dorado, wahoo, bonito, sharks and sea turtles also seek refuge in these manmade devices. When the purse seine circles the FAD, the tuna are extracted and most often the other juvenile fish are dumped back into the ocean dead.

Herbert Nanne has long been an opponent of FADS. A decade or more ago, when he was head of Incopesca, the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute, he convinced the rest of the institute’s board of directors to make FADs illegal in Costa Rica. Today, Nanne is the Central America representative for The Billfish Foundation, serves on the newly appointed sportfishing commission for Costa Rica, and is a Costa Rican adviser to the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission.

“[FADs] are appearing everywhere and killing everything,” Nanne said. “As a member of the new sportfishing commission, we have to put this problem on the top of our agenda.”

Clashes between sportfishing vessels and the commercial tuna fleet are nothing new. There have been documented cases of purse seiners encircling sport boats with their nets and dropping small sticks of dynamite from helicopters at the sport boats. The tuna boats use dynamite to separate tuna from the dolphins that swim with them. Using explosives in Costa Rican waters is also illegal.

Satellite monitoring of tuna vessels operating in Costa Rican waters is already in use, but not really effective. The boats are not monitored 24 hours a day and often not at all on weekends and holidays, and the transmitting devices on the vessels are subject to tampering. 

Tuna purse seiners use three methods to capture fish. One is to place the net around free-swimming schools. Another is to fish on schools of dolphin because they travel with the tuna. The third is to fish FADs, which is the most damaging method to other sea life, resulting in horrific numbers of bycatch of juvenile fish. Additionally, most of the tuna taken off FADs are small, and many have not had the chance to spawn even once before they are taken from the water.

According to Nanne, it shouldn’t be that difficult to control illegal fishing with FADs in Costa Rica. It would require only the cooperation of the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission and Incopesca, which governs Costa Rica’s fishing regulations. 

Costa Rica has no tuna fleet. All the tuna boats fishing in Costa Rican waters – approximately 25 at present – are foreign-flagged vessels that must purchase fishing permits to fish in Costa Rica. All tuna boats are required to report to the tuna commission which method they use to fish. This information is confidential and is released by the commission only with the permission of the fishing vessel’s owner. Incopesca could require this information before issuing a permit for a foreign vessel to fish tuna in Costa Rica. Any boat that fishes FADs should not be given a permit to fish, and all boats caught using FADs should have their permits permanently revoked. 

It sounds simple. But unfortunately some things that should be easy to fix turn out to be complicated. 

On Dec. 20, President Laura Chinchilla named a commission to analyze the state of Costa Rica’s marine territory, which is 11 times larger than the country’s land area. Beginning this month, the commission will work to consolidate a strategy that involves all marine natural resource users. Over the course of the next three months, through a process of consultations and discussions, it hopes to devise a diagnosis that exposes the true state of the country’s marine territory. In June, the commission is scheduled to present its findings to the president, along with its recommendations for improving marine governance in order to arrive at a better marine management strategy.

Hopefully the commission’s work plan will include taking a hard look at tuna purse seiners in Costa Rica.

Fishing report, Jan. 5

Anywhere you trolled a lure along the Pacific coast between Christmas and New Year’s, a marlin would pop up in the spread. I heard the same reports over and over again. One boat landed five in one day, another gave a fly fisherman nine shots, and Don Bradley landed a fish estimated at 280 pounds on a fly rod.

Guanacaste in the north reported good numbers of dorado, sails, marlin and wahoo up to 60 pounds just outside the national park near “el codo.” Los Sueños and Quepos on the Central Pacific both reported big numbers of marlin and sails, as did the Southern Zone. Santa Claus was good to fishermen.

But it couldn’t last forever. A couple of days ago, the wind started blowing hard up in Guanacaste, and boats either didn’t go out or opted to fish near shore, where the water was much calmer. The numbers dropped all over the country, but most boats were managing to bring up four to 10 sails a day and a marlin now and then.

Inshore fishing has been hot and cold, with boats catching 15-20 roosterfish one day and three or four the next. Snapper fishing has been OK, and some nice amberjack have fallen to deep jigging.

Over on the Caribbean, alerts went out for high surf, keeping all boats inside the rivers, but they are managing some fat snook (calba) in the rivers and common snook just inside the river mouth. Anglers willing to anchor in bouncy water inside the mouth are jumping a tarpon or two.

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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