San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Prosecutor probes Fisheries Institute

From the print edition

The executive president of the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (Incopesca), Luis Dobles, is under scrutiny from the Prosecutor’s Office in Puntarenas for possible dereliction of duty.

The allegations stem from events in 2010 and 2011, when Taiwanese fishing boats flying Belizean flags unloaded cargos that included shark skeletons with fins attached, and shark bodies with the fins removed and then artificially reattached, in apparent attempts to circumvent Costa Rican regulations.

In May 2010, the boat Wang Jia Men arrived at the public dock in the Pacific port of Puntarenas, but refused to unload its cargo before heading off in the direction of El Salvador. The Wang Jia Men returned to Puntarenas five days later carrying 36 shark carcasses with the flesh removed and only the highly lucrative fins attached. Four months later, a different ship, the Wang Jia Men 89, docked at Puntarenas but was prevented from unloading some 145 shark skeletons. In a separate incident in October of last year, another ship, the Wan Jia Men 88, attempted to unload some 1,000 kilograms of shark spines and fins (TT, Oct. 14, 2011).

The global trade in shark fins, driven by demand in China and Taiwan, where the fins are featured in an expensive soup, is decimating world shark populations. Fins can fetch more than $900 per pound in some markets, and bowls of shark-fin soup can sell for more than $100 each. In order to save room in cargo holds for more fins, living sharks are tossed overboard once fishermen have removed their fins.

Shark Finning 2

Shark fins seized recently by the Coast Guard on a boat near Golfito, on the southern Pacific coast. Courtesy of the Public Security Minister

“There is a mix of information and some errors that I believe a digital newspaper reported last week, dealing with certain observations and complaints made by Mr. Javier Catón to a Puntarenas prosecutor, of which I have official knowledge and which has been communicated by the prosecutor to me as an allegation of dereliction of my duties,” Dobles said, referring to a report last week on the website

The Incopesca executive president added that he met with prosecutors, and “considers [the accusations] to be absolutely false, propagandistic and absolutely bad-intentioned and biased.

”That particular case, Dobles said, is based on the Wang Jia Men’s arrival at Puntarenas in 2010, when it did not unload its cargo for Incopesca inspectors to examine, but instead sailed off for El Salvador. A second complaint focusing on the Wang Jia Men 89’s arrival at Puntarenas last October is actually leveled at the captain of that boat, Dobles said, not himself.

The Incopesca executive president denied wrongdoing in any of the incidents, saying instead that allegations were leveled against him and Incopesca by local fishermen trying to use complaints to harm the business interests of foreign industrial fishing fleets that they do not want to have to compete against.

“That gentleman,” Dobles said, referring to Catón, who made the complaints, “represents a fishing organization that is determined to stop the commercial activities of businesses in Puntarenas that are associated with the Chinese and Taiwanese.”

“They want an end to competition,” he added.

Catón, who represents the Pacific Coast Fisherman’s Union in Puntarenas, said foreign shark fishermen were trying to “invent a new way of shark finning.”

“The fishermen of Costa Rica will not permit this,” Catón said. “We decided to take measures to pressure, as we have other times, the government by using our rights as citizens and our country’s legal framework. We filed complaints to that end, not against anyone in particular, but by saying that this is a new type of shark finning. So, the judicial system is who will have to investigate and determine a course.

”By Costa Rican law, only three cuts are allowed to be made on sharks caught in Costa Rican waters – one on the stomach to eviscerate the animal, another on the head and a third small cut on the shark’s fin to allow the animal to bleed out and for the fin to be bent to the side.

Catón didn’t deny Dobles’ statement that Tico fishermen want to thin out competition by foreign fleets, and he called Taiwanese and Chinese boats “the biggest problem we have.”

“I lodged the complaint because our lawmakers believe in the law, and therefore they’ve given me the opportunity to bring complaints against public institutions,” Catón said. “But I want this to stop. The Costa Rican fishermen want the Taiwanese businesses flying Belizean flags to stop doing this and get out of the country, because they are hurting our image.

”Incopesca and Dobles have long fielded criticism that they abet foreign fleets illegally finning sharks in Costa Rican waters.

“We always have this situation,” said Randall Arauz, president of the Marine Turtle Restoration Program and an outspoken critic of the fisheries institute. “Incopesca is always breaking or bending the law to favor the interests of foreign fishing fleets.”

Arauz pointed out that though it is illegal to unload shark fins without the rest of the animal’s body at Costa Rican docks, it is not illegal to import shark fins overland from neighboring Nicaragua. Arauz said that in 2011, some 20 tons of shark fins were imported into Costa Rica overland.

Enrique Ramírez, president of the Costa Rican Sportfishing Federation, an organization that is pushing Incopesca for stronger regulation of industrial fishing fleets, said “interpretation of the law has been very loose and in favor of the Chinese [and Taiwanese] fleets.

”Those industrial fleets using nonselective forms of fishing including longlines – heavy fishing lines with several hooks that stretch for kilometers – and purse seines – large nets set around schools of fish – have reduced by up to 85 percent marlin and sailfish populations in Costa Rican waters. A study of the sportfishing industry in Costa Rica by the University of Costa Rica found that a live sailfish can generate as much as $3,000 for the country, while in markets sailfish flesh sells for about $3 per kilogram.

Humans kill over 73 million sharks annually, despite the fact that more than 30 percent of all shark species are endangered. In places where sharks are left alive, they can generate huge revenues for a country. Belize, for example, rakes in about $4 million annually from whale shark diving, while in Spain’s Canary Islands, shark diving generates about $27 million each year (TT, Dec. 09, 2011).

Dobles seems unfazed by such matters. Last January, he said, a Costa Rica-backed initiative made it necessary for fisheries authorities to provide verification that any shark products imported or exported across borders in Central America were caught in a legal manner.

“The use of shark species is legally permitted, like it or not,” Dobles said. “Someone could say, ‘At the national and global level, you should stop eating sharks,’ but the consumption and sale of shark resources isn’t prohibited if it is verified not to have originated from a shark-finning situation. In that case, it is perfectly valid.”

However, some governments are taking steps to ban or limit consumption of shark-fin products. In the United States, for example, Illinois is one of its largest markets for shark fins.

On July 2, Illinois signed a bill making it the first inland state to prohibit the shark fin trade. California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii have also adopted restrictive measures for shark fins.And on Tuesday, China announced it would ban shark fin soup at official banquets, the state-run news agency Xinhua reported.

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