San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Saving the seas one line at a time

From the print edition

ISLA CHIRA, Puntarenas – Off the mangrove-lined tidal flats of this island in the Gulf of Nicoya, a small flotilla of brightly painted boats bobs on the waves. With their fingers, fishermen hold taught lines baited with live shrimp. Some use their teeth to hold a second or third line.

Periodically, a fisherman in this or that panga hauls in his line and pulls a gleaming corvina or saltwater catfish from the sea. There are no nets in use, no longlines with hundreds of hooks and no trawlers churning the sea floor. The fishermen, mostly from the communities of Palito and Montero on Isla Chira, are fishing in the Palito Responsible Fishing Area, a little patch of the Gulf of Nicoya off the north-central Pacific coast that is dedicated to sustainable fishing practices.


“This is a community of handline fishermen,” said Gabriel Cruz, an Isla Chira native and vice president of the Association of Handline Fishermen of Palito, Isla Chira, which formed in 1995 and now administers the responsible fishing area. “It was necessary for us to protect where we’ve always fished.”

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Gabriel Cruz, vice president of the Association of Handline Fishermen of Palito, Isla Chira.

Alberto Font

In 2009, the association won protection or approximately two square kilometers that stretch from mangroves in front of the sleepy town of Palito out into the murky waters of the Gulf of Nicoya. It was the first Responsible Fishing Area recognized by the Agriculture and Livestock Ministry and the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (Incopesca). Today there are four other Responsible Fishing Areas in Costa Rica.

For association president Eugenia Fernández, it’s not just about protecting the fishery.

“Catching a fish on a handline is always exciting,” Fernández said. “Every time I feel a fish on my line, my legs shake.”

Palito’s association and one from the nearby village of Montero are working to expand the sustainable fishing zone. 

“Responsible Fishing Areas, more than representing a protected area the way we generally think of it, refer to a new mechanism for [a marine area’s] management,” Incopesca Technical Director Antonio Porras said. “It is a part of a participatory process that involves the fishermen and their organizations and establishing measures for regulating fishing.”

Fishermen like Cruz and the other 12 members of the Palito association are wise to be proactive about establishing management plans for the fisheries they rely on. A recent report by the University of British Columbia Fisheries Center indicates that for more than 50 years, Costa Rica’s annual fish catches have been  underreported by as much as 50 percent. The effects of poorly managed fisheries, including declining fish stocks, tend to disproportionately effect subsistence and small-scale fishermen. 

Underreporting catches isn’t an issue unique to Costa Rica, said Pablo Trujillo, coauthor of the study, “Reconstruction of Costa Rica’s Marine Fisheries Catches (1950-2008),” which estimated the total annual catch of all Tico fisheries during the period of study at nearly 30,000 tons – a far greater amount than the 13,000 tons the country reported to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (TT, April 26).

Without accurate totals of fish catches in Costa Rica and around the world, policymakers cannot make accurate, data-based fisheries-management decisions.

“The issue for Costa Rica,” Trujillo said, “was that artisanal fishermen weren’t able to catch as much as they used to. There were problems with capacity. With the reporting of catches, if we’re not able to get an approximation of the biomass [of different fish species], we can’t really manage the fisheries by setting adequate quotas for fishermen.”

Another alarming issue raised by the study is the removal of sharks from Costa Rican waters, Trujillo said. 

“When an important component of an ecosystem is removed, it creates a cascading effect that can have all types of unforeseen consequences,” Trujillo said. The result is “dwindling numbers of species that are important for subsistence fishermen.”


Regulations in the Palito Responsible Fishing Area are simple: a fishing license, use of handlines with single hooks and minimum size limits so that smaller fish have a chance to grow and reproduce before being caught. For corvina, the main target species here, the minimum length is 70 centimeters; anything smaller should go back.

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A fisherman in the Palito Responsible Fishing Area hoists a corvina caught using handlines baited with shrimp. Fishermen on Isla Chira organized to regulate fishing in the area.

Alberto Font

Fernández said the effort to protect the Palito fishery started in 1995. The association’s work, which received organizational and data-management training from MarViva Foundation, culminated in 2009, when the Palito Responsible Fishing Area was recognized.

“It wasn’t difficult to create the Responsible Fishing Area,” Fernández said. “The area was already there. What was difficult was convincing people who use other fishing methods to respect the rules of the area.”

Trujillo brought up a similar point: “It’s called fisheries management,” the researcher said. “But it’s really managing people.”

Fernández said her son, for example, fishes with nets outside the restricted area. Some other association members do too.

“Handlining is an art of patience,” she said.

To make sure trawlers and gill-netters are not illegally fishing the Palito Responsible Fishing Area, men from the association patrol at night. Cruz said they can’t arrest anyone, but they can take down the name of the boat and file a complaint.

“We are very clear that these areas have a major problem with illegal fishing,” Porras said. “Fishing is done with methods that aren’t permitted, especially in the Gulf of Nicoya, where we count on the Coast Guard’s help for enforcement. But you can’t have a police boat every 100 meters. … We have to raise awareness among fishermen that we have to change the methods of managing fisheries and there are obligations for them to participate in those changes.”

To Market

Mario Zamora is owner and manager of Corporación Z&M Del Pacífico S.A., a seafood distributor in Puntarenas that sells the association’s sustainably caught fish.

“I was a fisherman for 16 years,” Zamora said. “I took care of my family by fishing, but back then there was a lot of product. Today the area is overfished. I hope fishermen start to become conscientious of this, because I want my grandkids and future generations to have something to eat.”

Zamora doesn’t have a lot of customers for responsibly caught fish. A National Geographic research team buys from him when they come to Costa Rica, and a seafood distributor in San José is the only steady client. But he wants to support sustainable fishing projects. 

Projects like the Palito Responsible Fishing Area are a step in the right direction, he said, but there’s still work to be done to make responsibly caught products viable in the seafood market.

“What I’ve found is that we don’t have a certification for responsibly caught fish,” Zamora said. “When I sold product to a National Geographic research team, the only proof I had was a receipt from the project. It was all done on trust.”

Without an official certification, Zamora said, it’s hard to justify a markup on the price of the products, but he believes there is a demand.

“This is an upper- or middle-class market,” Zamora said. “The people who come here aren’t too worried about the prices; they’re ready to pay.”

Responsibly caught products could catch on, he said, with certification and more awareness in the public about sustainable fishing practices and protecting fishery resources.

Future Fish

“Responsible Fishing Areas are like a farm in any other place,” Porras said. “You have to manage things so that they are sustainable, so that land use is sustainable, so that the production is sustainable in terms of what you harvest. … We’re talking about managing all of these factors.”

Proper management starts by having an accurate data set with which to make decisions about fisheries policy. A key aspect of the Palito Sustainable Fishing Area’s management is a database of catches, an area where MarViva Foundation has provided training for local association members.

That’s a good start, Trujillo said, but he noted the problem extends beyond Costa Rica. Regional collaboration and action to set reliable standards and quotas for fisheries management are needed in Caribbean and Pacific waters throughout Central America. 

Thinking about fisheries the way other industries think about their products is a step in the right direction.

“Without real data about your fisheries, you don’t know where to start,” Trujillo said. “If you start off with an error, everything you base your projections on would be wrong. In any other industry in the world that would be unacceptable.”

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