San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

U.S. lifts Costa Rica shrimp embargo

From the print edition

Wild Costa Rican shrimp have a new shot at arriving on plates in the United States.

The U.S. Embassy in San José announced last week the lifting of a three-year embargo on Costa Rican shrimp exports. Officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) levied the ban on Tico shrimp in May 2009, when inspectors found that fisheries officials were not adequately sanctioning shrimp trawlers that did not use turtle excluder devices (TEDs) on their nets.

U.S. law requires shrimpers who want to export their product to U.S. markets to  utilize TEDs to avoid bycatch of sea turtles, many species of which are facing extinction.

NOAA inspectors visited Costa Rica last October and November and found the country had taken appropriate actions regarding the shrimping fleet to qualify for recertification, according to a statement issued by the embassy last week.

“It deserves mention that Costa Rica successfully pursued legal action against captains of ships who did not take the simple step of using TEDs,” U.S. Ambassador to Costa Rica Anne S. Andrew said in the embassy statement. “We should give credit to [the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute, or Incopesca] and the National Coast Guard Service. The protection of marine resources is essential for sustainable development.”

Incopesca Board of Directors President Luis Dobles said Costa Rica’s turtle management program, including the use of TEDs on shrimp trawlers, is one of the best in Latin America.

“The discussion, and this can be collaborated by U.S. officials, has never been about compliance with the technical aspect of the program,” Dobles told The Tico Times. “The discussion has always been about anomalies or failures detected in the use of turtle excluder devices on Costa Rican shrimp boats that were subject to legal or administrative sanctions.”

NOAA inspectors felt that pursuing legal action against noncompliant shrimp boat captains was too difficult in Costa Rica. Dobles said the Costa Rican legal system, not Incopesca, is to blame.

“It was never a simple issue of the will to sanction or the will not to sanction by the [Incopesca] board of directors or public authorities,” Dobles said. “It is strictly a matter of the Costa Rican judicial and administrative systems and regulations [that made it hard to prosecute boat captains].”

Since 2009, Dobles said, Incopesca and public officials have worked to come into compliance with the U.S.-mandated regulations.

“During the last visit of authorities from NOAA, a team of approximately five people came in October and November in 2011,” Dobles said. “They were working for 15 days in Costa Rica, where they checked shrimping businesses, they visited shrimp boats, they had meetings with captains, workers and employees. They visited ports and shrimp boats at sea, and they determined that there had been significant improvement in the application of turtle management programs across Costa Rica.”

Improvements included streamlining legislation to allow punitive sanctions against noncompliant boats to happen much faster than before. Dobles said that sanctions previously could take four or five years to be applied while cases wended through the Costa Rican legal system. Now, he said, a decision on punishment can be reached in a matter of three or four months. Since 2009, Incopesca implemented an Environmental Unit charged with monitoring and continuing the turtle management program, said Dobles, as well as increasing cooperation with the Costa Rican Coast Guard to inspect shrimp boats for turtle excluder devices.

According to data from Incopesca and the Foreign Trade Promotion Office, since 1997, Costa Rican shrimp exports fell off from approximately 1,500 metric tons to about 100 metric tons in 2008. That trend follows a crash in overall annual shrimp catch in Costa Rican waters from a 1997 high of about 1,500 metric tons, most of which was exported, to a 2007 low of approximately 700 metric tons – a reduction of almost 50 percent.

Erick Ross, sustainable fisheries coordinator for the nonprofit MarViva Foundation, said the collapse of the Costa Rican shrimp fishery – measured in diminishing catches and a diminishing fleet of active trawlers – is due to over-exploitation of the fishery.

Dobles said there are currently 27 shrimp trawlers that fish regularly, down from a total of 63 that are licensed to trawl for shrimp by Incopesca. He admitted the reduction in the fleet is a direct result overfishing.

“What’s happening is that boats aren’t fishing because there’s no resources for them,” Ross said. “They’re not fishing because it’s not profitable for them, not because Incopesca has revoked shrimping licenses. Those 27 boats that are fishing are people with the most economic power with a focus on fish species and not shrimp. Other shrimp boats don’t go out simply because there’s not shrimp, and for them to go out is to lose money.”

A report on trawling in Costa Rican waters coauthored by Ross and published by MarViva recommends reducing the shrimp trawling fleet in Costa Rican waters to a maximum of 12 boats with a 27.2 metric ton annual quota per boat. 

“It is necessary to restrict trawling in the country to certain coastal zones where the socioeconomic and environmental impacts will be reduced. Multiple economic, social and environmental reasons justify the restriction of this activity,” the report said.

Dobles said there are suggestions at Incopesca to cancel or deactivate some shrimping licenses with the aim of keeping the fleet of active shrimp trawlers in the country at or below 30 boats.

In her statement announcing the end of the U.S. shrimp embargo, the U.S. ambassador added: “We firmly believe that Incopesca should exercise, with the same diligence, the promotion of responsible fishing of all the marine resources of Costa Rica.”

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