San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

What about the shrimp trawlers?

Recently, the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (INCOPESCA) asked a group of artisanal fishing associations to impose catch restrictions based on minimum sizes of fish species, to prevent them from being caught before they are mature enough to reproduce. 

The fishermen agreed to the requirement – with a caveat: First, stop the industrial shrimp trawlers. 

According to a letter artisanal fishermen sent to INCOPESCA, a conversation about sustainable fishing in Costa Rica would be incomplete without discussing bottom trawling, an environmentally destructive practice that involves dragging a net along the bottom of the ocean, or just above it. The nets swoop away anything in their paths, including young fish species and other ocean life. 

INCOPESCA’s request follows the release of a report by the Comptroller General’s Office that calls on the regulatory agency to take steps to preserve the country’s marine resources. The study notes that among INCOPESCA’s responsibilities is the issuance of fish size charts to prevent young species from being caught.

In their letter, artisanal fishermen acknowledge that the industry should be regulated, and minimum size and age requirements should be enforced. But they accused trawlers of disregarding any type of technical consideration required for responsible fishing.

“Immediately imposing these measures without first stopping shrimp trawlers would mean the extinction of artisanal fishing associations, and along with them, the great majority of the coastal culture in the province of Guanacaste,” said Dehivis Jiménez, an artisanal fisherman in Playas del Coco, Guanacaste.

Randall Arauz, president of the Marine Turtle Restoration Program (PRETOMA), agreed that INCOPESCA’s request would be ineffective without including the shrimp trawlers. Arauz accused INCOPESCA officials of ties to the commercial shrimping industry in Costa Rica, a cozy relationship he said has protected the industry from stricter regulatory control. 

“If INCOPESCA is really interested in sustainable artisanal fishing, they should immediately ban bottom trawling. Their current proposal is a joke in terms of the public interest, and far from promoting sustainability, what it does is promote over-fishing to the benefit, as usual, of private interests,” Arauz said.

INCOPESCA President Luis Dobles said minimum size requirements already exist for some species, and the Comptroller’s report increases the number of species that are included in the regulations. 

Dobles said INCOPESCA would not accept conditions being set by artisanal fishermen, and the measures should be adopted immediately by all fishing sectors, artisanal and industrial alike. 

However, the only control over fish sizes for industrial trawlers is enforced at the moment boats are unloaded and the fish sold, after they’re already dead. 

“How in the world are we supposed to control everything caught in the fishing industry?” Dobles asked. “Are we supposed to put police on every boat? There’s absolutely no way to control what is caught by trawling, an activity that’s legally permitted in Costa Rica.” 

To change that would require lawmakers to adopt new legislation, Dobles said. And that would affect “entire families who depend on the practice.” 

According to Arauz, 25 industrial shrimp trawlers operate in Costa Rica, each of them employing approximately five crew members – about 125 workers. On the other hand, some 10,000 Costa Ricans make their living as artisanal fishermen. 

“INCOPESCA is a club of private businessmen with the façade of a public institution,” Arauz said.

A spokeswoman for the Comptroller General’s Office said the report was only recently sent to INCOPESCA, and would require more time for its implementation.

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