San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Will Costa Rican fisheries institute shakeup continue?

Communications Minister Francisco Chacón on Friday denied rumors that Costa Rican Fisheries Institute President Luis Dobles would be fired in an ongoing shakeup at the agency.

Sources on Friday told The Tico Times that Dobles could be axed at next Tuesday’s weekly presidential Cabinet meeting, a claim Chacón dismissed.

On Tuesday, President Laura Chinchilla’s administration quietly fired Álvaro Moreno, who since 2010 has served as vice president of the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (Incopesca) and vice president of the institute’s board of directors, citing multiple ethics violations and ties to the commercial fishing industry.

Dobles and Moreno are two controversial figures who, until Moreno’s firing this week, led an agency charged with regulating Costa Rica’s commercial fishing industry and promoting conservation policies to protect marine wildlife.

On several occasions, Moreno served as interim president of the agency while Dobles traveled abroad. In an interview with The Tico Times on Thursday, Dobles downplayed Moreno’s role as interim president, saying the longest he had served while Dobles was away was 10 days.

For years, conservation groups have criticized Incopesca’s board of directors for openly serving the interests of commercial fishing, a violation, they say, of Incopesca’s charter, which tasks the agency with “promoting, based on scientific and technical criteria, the conservation and sustainable use of aquaculture and marine biological resources.”

Moreno’s dismissal was prompted by a report by the executive’s branch’s Public Ethics Office that cited numerous ethics infractions, including infringement of Costa Rica’s anti-corruption law, abandonment of duties, irregular acceptance of a temporary government salary and violation of rules prohibiting Moreno from practicing law at his private firm while serving on Incopesca’s board.

The Tico Times called Moreno several times on his cellphone, but was unable to reach him for comment. On Thursday night, he told the daily La Nación: “If I get fired for defending fishermen, I accept that. Let them fire me. I will continue defending fishermen from whatever trench I’m in.”

When contacted Thursday, Dobles said he had not been officially informed of the decision, but he would “respect such a decision if it had been made.”

The ethics office report was prompted by a complaint filed in November 2011 alleging that Moreno provided legal representation to commercial fishermen and owners of semi-industrial fishing vessels while he was vice president of Incopesca.

A later case involved a May lawsuit filed by environmental groups before the Constitutional Branch of the Supreme Court. The lawsuit sought an injunction against Incopesca for issuing licenses to Costa Rican shrimp boats that employ the environmentally destructive technique of bottom trawling. 

In June, Moreno issued a court filing challenging the lawsuit on behalf of Incopesca and several shrimp boat owners and fishing companies. The filing was printed on stationary from Moreno’s private law practice in Puntarenas, the central Pacific coastal city where most of the country’s industrial fishing operations are based. 

“It shouldn’t be possible that in this lawsuit, the same person [Moreno] is judge and party [to the suit]; he used his own stationary to defend against the charges,” said Citizen Action Party lawmaker María Eugenia Venegas, who along with environmental groups pressured Chinchilla’s Cabinet to sack Moreno.

Moreno also provided legal representation for six crew members of a shrimping boat who were detained in 2009 for shrimping without using Turtle Excluder Devices, a violation of Costa Rica’s fishing law, the daily La Nación reported in January. The ethics office also reviewed that case and found Moreno in violation of ethics and corruption laws.

Confronted with the information from the ethics office, Dobles did not launch administrative proceedings against Moreno, telling La Nación, “Legally, it’s not our job to do that.”

Delayed Reaction

In July, Chinchilla unveiled a plan to improve sustainable management of the country’s marine resources, signing several decrees that created a new Cabinet-level National Marine Commission and a Waters and Oceans Vice Ministry, along with other measures. The president’s “blue agenda” was based on a marine advisory committee report that also recommended an overhaul of Incopesca’s board.

“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.

The shakeup at Incopesca appears to follow recommendations from that committee report, but it took several months for Cabinet members to act on the ethics office recommendation, which they received in January. In April, Moreno testified before Cabinet members in response to the ethics office report, bringing Dobles as a witness.

On May 4, the Cabinet extended by two months its period of review of the case, promising a ruling on July 7. Nearly two months later, following intense lobbying by conservation groups and two lawmakers, the administration moved to fire Moreno.

“They delayed and delayed and delayed,” Venegas said.

Still, environmental groups applauded the decision. “We are satisfied with the Cabinet’s decision [to fire Moreno], as marine resources belong to all Costa Ricans and they shouldn’t be administered by someone with private interests,” Jorge Jiménez, general director of marine conservation group MarViva, said in a statement. “This is a good first step, which highlights the need for operational, functional and structural reform at Incopesca to prevent cases like Mr. Moreno’s from recurring.”

Tico Times reporter Steven Ercolani contributed to this story.

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