San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Gulf ‘no longer dying’

From the print edition

GOLFO DULCE, Puntarenas – Marvin Villalobos leans forward in his boat and revs the motor. “I think I see dolphins over there,” he says, looking out to a swath of blue several hundred meters ahead.

The bottlenose dolphins appear in seconds, riding the wake around the boat. Onlookers pull out their cameras.

Venturing into another part of the gulf, Villalobos pulls his boat close to two sea turtles at the ocean’s surface. Cameras snap. 

This is a different reality for Golfo Dulce, located off the southern Pacific coast. Several years ago, local and foreign shrimp trawlers overran the waters, bringing the gulf’s resources to near-oblivion. Trawlers, which use large funnel-shaped nets that scrape the ocean floor, netted as much un-targeted marine life as shrimp. Sea life dwindled. 

Shrimp trawlers dominated the local market by selling volumes of low-priced shrimp, and artisanal fishermen couldn’t compete. Each big score by the trawlers led to the discarding of tons of conger eels, snappers, sailfish and other species.

Then, in 2008, sport fishing operators, artisanal fishermen, shrimp trawler owners and conservationists worked out a million-dollar deal to ban trawlers from the gulf. The agreement, headed by the Costa Rican Federation of Fishing Tourism (FECOP), had the body of water declared a “marine area of responsible fishing” in 2010. The plan called for teaching local gill-netters sustainable practices and doing biological studies to monitor sea life in the region.

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Helena Molina, a biologist at the University of Costa Rica, is studying the growth of sea life in the Golfo Dulce, off the southern Pacific coast.

Hannah J. Ryan

Today, marine biologists studying the gulf have reported a slow resurgence in fish

and shrimp in the 750-square-kilometer area, the largest responsible fishing zone in Central America.

A press trip sponsored by conservation organization Pronature brought more than two dozen journalists to the southern Pacific port city of Golfito last week for a day of boating and discussing the responsible fishing area.

Behind sunglasses and in an unbuttoned dress shirt, Villalobos powers the motorboat through the ocean, gabbing about the beaches, water and beauty of whale-watching season. He has a license to fish in the zone, and at one time supported his family with what he caught. But the 55-year-old boat captain considers himself a full-time tour guide these days, even if there’s only enough tourists for two or three trips a week. 

In these times, a couple tours can be more profitable than a week’s worth of fishing, he says.

A few years ago, fishermen struggled because they couldn’t take on trawlers that pillaged the waters. Now, anglers face difficulties because they are not catching fish.

Members of the Golfo Dulce-based National Federation of Artisanal Fishers (Fenopea) and marine scientists extolled the rebirth of ocean life in the region. But the trip also showed the challenges that lie ahead. 

Fenopea, which consists of six fishermen’s associations from around Golfo Dulce, dreams of turning business in the sustainable fishing area into a profitable practice.

Villalobos guides his lancha toward another local resident, Cirilo Quintero, who is president of the Association of Puntarenitas Fishermen. Quintero is fishing with his two children near the Osa Peninsula town of Puerto Jiménez. His daughter hooks a shimmering red fish about the size of her forearm and pulls it on board. Quintero looks at his daughter and laughs, joking to reporters that she’s caught two fish today, which is more success than he’s had.

Someone asks him how often he winds up with nothing in his bucket. The fisherman turns downbeat. Quintero has lived in the gulf for 48 years, and claims that this is the worst he’s ever seen the place.

Still, he supports sustainable fishing, as does Villalobos. Quintero says it’s the only way to keep the gulf alive for his children and grandchildren. 

The Golfo Dulce is no longer dying, he says, but nor are artisanal fishermen like Quintero reaping the benefits of the revival. 

“We’re in a very bad situation,” Quintero says.

Nirlady Artavia, of Fenopea, describes a tangible vision for local fishermen. She says as long as they can keep the trawlers out, artisanal fishermen can benefit from more favorable prices. In the future, Fenopea members hope to develop a brand for their sustainably caught seafood, which could sell for an even higher market price. 

Artavia says the group also wants to push the renewed Golfo Dulce as a tourist destination. This could establish the area as a popular sport fishing destination and bring dividends to the artisanal fishing community, whose members could give tours and supply fresh catches to hotels and other businesses. 

But Artavia admits organizing the effort has been a challenge. Many residents are bitter with the government. Boaters and fishermen seen out on the water, including Villalobos and Quintero, blame the government for not aiding them as the area transitioned into a responsible fishing zone. They curse the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (Incopesca) for not making the fishermen’s own livelihoods – which rely on handlines and outdated equipment – sustainable. 

The most vocal fishermen do not take issue with the responsible fishing area. Quintero explains that the situation was no better before with shrimpers controlling the waters. But, he says, artisanal fishermen think the government is neglecting them. 

Gerardo Zamora, of Incopesca’s Golfito office, said they are collaborating with the small-scale fishermen, but improving the situation is not a quick fix. He said Incopesca  and other governmental and private entities are working with the fishermen to teach sustainable fishing techniques and how to better commercialize their product.

“We are conducting a series of projects in order to implement everything that is reflected in the [responsible] fishing plan,” Zamora said.

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Marvin Villalobos checks a GPS on his boat in the Pacific Ocean.

Hannah J. Ryan

For example, he said Costa Rica’s Mixed Institute for Social Aid is working on a strategy to get the fishermen new motors. 

Donald McGuiness, a former president of FECOP, negotiated the deal with the trawlers to keep them out of the gulf. He understands local fishermen’s gripes with the fisheries institute, noting several complaints with Incopesca’s practices. 

But there’s a sentiment in FECOP that fishermen also need to be more flexible in order to build a sustainable community, he says. Asking for compensation and better boats only serves shortsighted purposes, according to the expert. 

FECOP wants fishermen to work on a comprehensive business plan. Tourism and artisanal fishing communities must now figure out how to turn the sustainable brand into reality, he says.

McGuiness also criticizes the recent proliferation of illegal fishermen in the Golfo Dulce. He says some of the same fishermen attending Fenopea meetings sneak into the waters at 2 a.m., cast nets and tow in huge illegal catches. The fishing tourism federation is unsure how to deal with this ongoing problem, McGuiness says. He used to loan a boat to the Coast Guard, the only entity allowed to arrest illegal fishermen. For two years, the crew patrolled the gulf until the contract ran out in May 2011.

McGuiness says he’d like to start the patrol program again and set up radars to monitor activity in the waters. But implementing these plans requires investment and a concerted effort by all groups involved in protecting Golfo Dulce. 

Villalobos zooms his boat around the gulf’s mouth. He checks with each fisherman, who tell him they’re not catching anything. 

Out in the ocean, as authorities and conservation groups contemplate how to stave off illegal fishing, Villalobos wonders in which direction the gulf will go next. 

“I think it’ll work,” Villalobos says. “We knew we had to make these changes. We want to make these changes, but what we need is the government to help us.”

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