San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Yellowfin tuna: Costa Rica’s blood diamond

The money generated by allowing foreign-flagged tuna-purse-seine boats to work in Costa Rican waters has some financial benefits to the country. Money from licensing fees is split between various organizations by law: 25 percent goes to the University of Costa Rica, 25 percent to the National University, 10 percent to the Coast Guard, 20 percent to the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (Incopseca) – the governmental agency that controls fisheries – and 10 percent each to University of Costa Rica high school programs in the provinces of Guanacaste and Limón.

The exact figure of revenue from licenses was not available from Incopesca at press time, but estimates put the sum between $1.5-2 million annually. The question: Is the benefit worth the ecological cost?

Tuna boats can legally fish in Costa Rica from 12 miles from the coast to the territorial limit. There are three methods of catching tuna by purse seine: One is to encircle free-swimming schools of tuna; another is to encircle tuna swimming with dolphins; and the third is to encircle tuna drawn to Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs), artificially made floating eco-systems. The first two methods are perfectly legal in Costa Rica, but the use of FADs by the tuna industry is illegal here. 

Free-swimming schools of tuna are located by using helicopters that take off from the deck of a tuna boat to spot schools feeding on the surface, as well as by using side-scanning sonar to find schools under the surface. Radar is used to locate groups of birds that often feed on the same baitfish as tuna. 

This is probably the least destructive, but bycatch includes billfish, sharks and other types of sea life.

 Fishing on schools of dolphin has led to the most controversy and created the infamous “dolphin safe” campaign. For unknown reasons, yellowfin tuna and certain dolphins (especially the spotted and spinner dolphin) swim together. One research theory is that tuna rely on dolphins’ acute sense of hearing, or echolocation, to find food or to avoid predators.

The number of dolphins killed since the fishery began in the late 1950s is estimated at more than six million animals, the highest known for any fishery. The bycatch of dolphins in the Eastern Tropical Pacific tuna fishery has now been successfully reduced by more than 99 percent, but even at the present level of about 1,000 dolphins a year, it remains among the largest documented cetacean bycatch in the world.

Sierra Goodman, founder and president of the Vida Marina Foundation in Drake Bay, on the northern Pacific side of the Osa Peninsula, believes the actual number of dolphin mortality is highly underreported. She watched the tuna seiner Tauros I hammer the same school of spinner dolphins day after day right off Caño Island, a biological reserve off the Pacific coast of Drake Bay. Each day, the school of dolphins was smaller. At one point, she dove in the water next to the net and observed a dead dolphin that had gotten hung up in the net and asphyxiated. 

Goodman’s concern is that tuna companies that fish and net dolphins are labeling their product dolphin safe: “Ok, so this is my question,” she noted. “Are the dolphins still chased and encircled in the nets to get the tuna? Are dolphins involved in any way for tuna that is labeled dolphin-safe? Because any time free and wild dolphins are chased and entrapped, it is not dolphin-safe. I saw what happens in those nets. While I’m sure the nets help with mortality, what about stress factors? We know that these tuna boats were out here for at least three days in a row netting the same group of Costa Rican spinner dolphins.” 

Willy Atencio, a sportfishing captain out of Drake Bay, called to report the activity to the Coast Guard and was told they were busy on a drug operation and could not respond to the call. 

Another Osa Peninsula captain, Anthony Rhoden, told of an encounter with a tuna-spotting helicopter. He was fishing six miles off the beach near a school of dolphins when he heard the whirl of the helicopter above. He then observed “cherry bombs,” a firecracker-type of explosive equal to about a quarter stick of dynamite, being tossed in the water from above to scare the school offshore. The crew continued to drop explosives in the water until the dolphins were moved 12 miles offshore, where a tuna seiner waited and encircled them to catch the tuna underneath. Use of any type of explosives is forbidden in Costa Rica.

The third method of fishing, the use of FADs, has replaced fishing over dolphins as the most destructive type of tuna purse seining and is forbidden by law in Costa Rica, but is often used regardless. Modern technology allows ships to monitor schools from many miles away, and an exact location – and even the mass of sea life underneath – can be determined with the click of a computer. FADs are often very simple and made with bamboo and old pieces of net. Over time, it is amazing to see the ecosystem that develops underneath the logs or artificial devices. Fishing boats have picked up many of these signaling devices in Costa Rican waters. 

Tuna are naturally attracted to floating objects. So are a lot of other types of fish, and often, they are juvenile fish that use the object as a safe haven from predators. The tons of unwanted bycatch discarded back into the ocean each year include undersized tuna, dorado, bonito, sharks, marlin, turtles and small whales. 

The real problem is lack of enforcement of any of the rules that apply to the industry. Commercial fishermen have long complained about the lack of dorado due to the illegal use of FADs and the killing of juvenile fish. Costa Rica should apply its new “Blue Agenda” and move these boats far offshore. Better yet, the country should ban their use in territorial waters altogether, as Panama has done. 

A good portion of the Costa Rican commercial longline fleet could switch to a more selective and sustainable method to catch tuna without dolphin mortality and massive bycatch to supply the cannery in Puntarenas. “Green Sticks” is a method first used in North Carolina, in the United States, and has proven to be very effective, yet sustainable, for catching tuna.

A study by the University of Costa Rica and sponsored by The Billfish Foundation in 2009 determined that tourist sportfishing generated $78 million in tax revenue that year. If the government allocated a few million dollars to university programs in exchange for a more sustainable use of our ocean, it would improve the livelihoods of both Costa Rican commercial fishermen and sportfishermen who live in this country. According to Herbert Nanne, Costa Rica’s representative to the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission, tuna boats must register the methods they use to catch tuna. Why Costa Rica would even grant a license to a boat registered to fish with FADs is a question many ask. 

I recently met Bill McDonald. McDonald was a pioneer in underwater filming who helped produce documentaries in the 1970s for the Cousteau Society. Naturally, the conversation led to marine conservation. He put it better than I ever heard when he said, “If Costa Rica gives as much attention to its oceans as it has to its land area, they will create a blue-green renaissance that will be an example for the entire world.”

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