San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Will a blue agenda work?

From the print edition

For decades, environmental advocates have extolled Costa Rica’s forestry conservation initiatives, including the creation of a vast national park system and a plan to be the world’s first carbon-neutral country by 2021.

But the country has a less-than-stellar record on protecting its marine resources, and in recent years, Costa Rica’s “blue” policies have fallen behind other countries in the region, hampered by a lack of regulatory legislation, personnel, financial resources and political will.

Last month, President Laura Chinchilla’s administration took a major step forward by announcing a series of measures aimed at strengthening Costa Rica’s “blue agenda.” By promoting sustainable marine management, the president hopes to replicate by 2022 the success of conservation efforts on land.

Armed with a comprehensive report of what remains to be done on marine conservation – provided by a presidential advisory committee convened last November – Chinchilla signed July 17 executive decrees that created a Cabinet-level National Marine Commission to coordinate marine conservation policy, a new Waters and Oceans Vice Ministry under the current Environment Ministry, and an Oceanic Navigation Bill that would establish an updated regulatory framework for patrolling and enforcing environmental laws at sea.

“Our goal with the efforts [at marine conservation] by this administration is for Costa Ricans not to think of this as a small country, one of the smallest in the region, but rather as a great nation,” Chinchilla said during a mid-July signing ceremony at Casa Presidencial. “We have to start thinking like a big nation whose policies have consequences for our [marine] territory, which is 10 times the size of our land territory and has 3.5 percent of the world’s marine biodiversity.”

Conservation groups applauded the new measures and challenged Chinchilla to announce a date for their implementation. The National Marine Commission, comprised of the ministers of public security, environment, agriculture, and public works and transport, has not yet held its first formal meeting to begin implementing the president’s new policy goals.

“We view the National Marine Commission’s creation as a positive step, in that a governing body will dictate policy with a more integrated vision toward marine management without sectorial divisions,” said Viviana Gutiérrez, political advocacy director at MarViva Foundation, a private conservation group. “But at the same time, there is concern about when, exactly, this commission will start its work.”

Gutiérrez recalled 2009, when then-President Oscar Arias created a similar Cabinet-level group called the Oceans Council, whose members failed to hold a single meeting.

A long-overdue overhaul

One of the strongest recommendations in the marine advisory committee report, published June 14, is a complete overhaul of the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (Incopesca), including a restructuring of its board of directors. 

Since its creation in 1994, Incopesca has fielded strong criticism from conservationists for its fisheries management. The institute’s board mostly is comprised of individuals with business ties to commercial fishing industries, the equivalent, conservationists say, of letting the fox guard the henhouse.

“We have been saying this for years,” said Randall Arauz, president of the Marine Turtle Restoration Program and a member of a Costa Rican coalition of NGOs called Front for our Seas. “The public interest will never be served without the reform of Incopesca, an institution that currently serves only the economic interests of its board members.”

Critics accuse Incopesca of turning a blind eye to shark finning in Costa Rica’s 590,000 square kilometers of maritime territory, a charge Incopesca officials deny. Shark finning, driven by the demand for shark fin soup, a prestigious product in China and Taiwan, is driving global shark populations toward extinction. Fins can fetch hundreds of dollars per pound in some markets. To save space in cargo holds, fishermen slice off fins from sharks and toss the animals overboard to bleed to death or drown. 

The practice is illegal in Costa Rican waters, but overland shipment of shark products, including fins, is not. Data provided by Incopesca indicate that between January 2010 and August 2011, nearly 60,000 kilograms of shark products, including dried fins, were imported into Costa Rica overland from Nicaragua (TT, July 6).

Other criticisms of Incopesca include a lack of accurate data management on fisheries and stonewalling on public information requests. 

According to the law that established Incopesca, the institute’s board is comprised of nine members, including an executive president who is appointed by members of the Cabinet. Also on the board are one representative each from the ministries of agriculture and livestock and science and technology, another government representative appointed by the Cabinet, a representative from fishing or aquaculture organizations in each of the three coastal provinces (Puntarenas, Guanacaste and Limón), a representative of the commercial fishing export sector and a representative of the National Commission of Aquaculture and Fish (TT, Dec. 9, 2011).

“We recommend a revision of Incopesca’s Charter Law in order to change its institutional structure. This includes significant modifications of its board of directors to ensure the public interest is protected during decision making,” the committee report stated.

Conservationists want that change to happen soon. “We’re happy that at least it’s on paper,” Arauz said. “But I want to ask the president a question: When is the reform going to start?”

Changing the law governing Incopesca’s board – in order to allow representatives from academia and conservation groups – could take years, as it would require lawmakers to pass a reform bill. Some members of the assembly – particularly those from coastal districts with big commercial fishing interests – strongly oppose the idea, including a handful of legislators from Chinchilla’s own National Liberation Party (PLN). 

“PLN lawmakers from Puntarenas will never support this,” Gutiérrez said. “They have a considerable political commitment to [commercial fishing] interests. It gets complicated.”

Still, officials from the current administration said they are committed to laying the groundwork for a “blue” legacy that would transition to future administrations after the president leaves office in 2014. 

In the spotlight

Costa Rica’s lack of a sustainable marine management strategy caught global attention recently in an unexpected way: the May 13 arrest in Germany of oceans advocate Paul Watson, the 61-year-old president and founder of Sea Shepherd and star of Animal Planet’s popular TV show “Whale Wars.” Watson was detained at Costa Rica’s request on charges that he endangered the lives of a Costa Rican fishing vessel’s crew in 2002. Watson, who fled house arrest in Germany on July 22 and currently is in hiding, accused the Costa Rican government of protecting shark finners and conspiring with Japan to have him arrested, a charge that Costa Rican Foreign Minister Enrique Castillo dismissed last week.

While the Chinchilla administration has kept its distance from the Watson case by saying the matter is for the courts to resolve, Castro, the environment minister, said Costa Rica should do more to stop the bloody trade in shark fins: “It’s time for us to execute these new policy initiatives, and our success depends on demonstrating concrete results on an issue the country already has begun combating. I’m referring entirely to shark finning.” 

He added that, “The country [Costa Rica] that has pushed for the protection of the hammerhead shark under the CITES convention cannot allow people to circumvent regulations and continue shark finning.”

For Arauz, the next step in shutting down the shark finning industry is adopting a ban on imports of shark fins and their byproducts, a measure Incopesca opposes.

Incopesca President Luis Dobles, whose job is now in the crosshairs – not only by conservation groups, but also by some administration officials – responded to the advisory committee’s report by saying the recommendations were “helpful.” 

Isla del Coco

Costa Rica’s Isla del Coco is home to dozens of endemic marine species and several species of sharks, making it a prime target for poachers. Courtesy of Avi Kapfer, MarViva

“Incopesca is mentioned in several places [in the report],” Dobles said. “The most relevant parts relate to the modernization of the institute to try and keep pace with many dynamic changes relating to the regulation of fishing activities, both nationally and internationally. [The advisory committee] also mentions the importance of strengthening Incopesca in terms of human and financial resources.”

Dobles added that he is not opposed to an analysis and possible revision of the law governing Incopesca’s board, but as it stands, the board is formed in accordance with the law.

“The committee recognizes that the makeup of the board of directors now includes five members that may, in some way, share a vision with the private sector, and that four members come from the public sector,” Dobles said. “In that regard, the idea of the committee’s recommendation is to analyze the possibility of giving the public sector more participation in the decision-making process.”

Conservationists interpreted the report differently. Wagner Quirós, a spokesman for the Front for Our Seas, called the committee’s recommendation to overhaul Incopesca “historic.”

“Hopefully, this isn’t only the end of Incopesca as we know it, but also the dawn of a new era in national marine conservation,” Quirós said.

A new vice ministry

Another key element to Chinchilla’s blue agenda is the creation of the Waters and Oceans Vice Ministry, which will promote sustainable marine and coastal development and oversee policy for the country’s oceans, wetlands and rivers – a monumental task, according to the vice ministry’s new leader, José Lino Chaves.

For nearly a decade, Chaves has served as the president of the Environment Tribunal, an administrative tribunal under the Environment Ministry that has jurisdiction to prosecute environmental crimes. According to analysts, Chaves is politically savvy, is comfortable in the halls of the Legislative Assembly, and understands Costa Rica’s challenges in enforcing environmental law.

“We’ll be pushing strongly for the development of marine protected areas and responsible fishing areas,” Chaves told The Tico Times. 

Costa Rica currently has 20 marine protected areas covering 5,300 square kilometers – less than 10 percent of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). 

“In the Exclusive Economic Zone, we’re going to look for ways to help provide access to artisanal fishermen, while at the same time protecting [the EEZ]. Obviously, we can’t forget about protecting Isla del Coco, and our goal there is to regulate marine areas and implement systems to know where boats are,” Chaves said. “It’s an enormous panorama, but little by little, we understand what needs to be done and are planning to begin with specific objectives.”

Filling a legal vacuum

Some of Costa Rica’s biggest vulnerabilities at sea are a lack of regulatory legislation to allow authorities to patrol and prosecute violators, and a shortage of trained personnel and equipment to combat illegal fishing and drug trafficking. One of Chinchilla’s decrees sent an Oceanic Navigation Bill to the assembly that would help fill the country’s current legal vacuum.

As Gutiérrez noted, “There is no discussion; it is absolutely vital for Costa Rica to have this law.” 

The bill seeks to strengthen the ability of harbor masters – who work under the Public Works and Transport Ministry, or MOPT – to better regulate licensing for fishing vessels, and in coordination with the Coast Guard – which operates under the Public Security Ministry – track boat locations to ensure they are within areas permitted by their licenses. Currently, harbor masters have no way of determining if ships abide by the distances from shore that their licenses permit, and officials at sea often encounter vessels as far away as Isla del Coco – some 590 kilometers from Costa Rica’s mainland – with licenses allowing them to fish only eight kilometers out. 

For harbor and Coast Guard officials, regulation is essential not only for public safety – rescue operations for disabled boats at sea are not only costly for taxpayers, but also endanger fishermen’s lives – but also to help combat illegal fishing and drug trafficking and plan sustainable management of fisheries.

By 2013, MOPT, the Environment Ministry and the Public Security Ministry will have a radar system in place in the Pacific, enabling them to track ships and cross-reference their locations with licenses. The navigation bill would require ships to utilize onboard GPS tracking systems.

The bill also outlines penal sanctions for violators, allowing for better enforcement. Costa Rica currently has no oceanic navigation law, and violators of fishing regulations are subject only to weak administrative sanctions, Gutiérrez said. 

“We are very involved [in the navigation bill], because [Costa Rica] needs to establish criminal penalties for ships that don’t respect the limitations of their licenses,” Gutiérrez said. “If we know that there are 500 fishermen with five-mile licenses, we can start to ensure that our resources are sustainable, by regulating the number of licenses issued and controlling where people fish. Right now, fishing boats are going wherever they want because it’s disordered and there are only weak sanctions.”

Saving the seas

Other organizations, such as the Costa Rican Fishing Federation (FECOP), have also called for a furthering of the president’s blue agenda, including stronger regulations on industrial and semi-industrial fishing fleets that using nonselective fishing methods such as trawling, longlines and purse seining.

“The major impact on the marine ecosystem in our country is that of overfishing with nonselective fishing gear,” FECOP President Enrique Ramírez noted in a May 25 Tico Times opinion column. “Between 2000 and 2007, total volume of fisheries products decreased by 40 percent, and by 2012, this decrease has probably reached 50 percent or more. This is the result of extractive fisheries policies – more comparable to those of the 17th century – in which the prevailing criteria are maximum capture, least possible effort, lowest cost and as quickly as possible,” Ramírez noted. 

According to FECOP, data from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and World Bank indicate the world economy could recover up to $50 billion annually if fish stocks were restored.

“In Costa Rica, we are lacking this type of study, as there is no planning involved in the management of fishery resources,” Ramírez wrote.

At stake, say conservationists, is the future not only of Costa Rica’s 6,700 marine species – including 90 endemic species, mostly found near Isla del Coco – but also of the thousands of mostly poor families who live in coastal areas and depend on the sea for a livelihood. 

Halfway through her administration, and armed with a new road map for marine policy reform, Chinchilla has publicly presented a plan for comprehensive change. But according to analysts, implementing those policies likely will depend on the degree of pressure applied by nongovernmental groups and citizens.

“It probably won’t happen under this administration, but at least the strategy is there,” Arauz said. “I think it will be up to us, the NGOs, to make sure that strategy prevails into the next administration.” 

Gutiérrez agreed: “We’ll have to see if the president really gets involved in this. It’s going to require a serious commitment from politicians. Otherwise, we’ll be left only with a report written on paper.”

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