Will guide help chaotic coasts?

March 15, 2013

Costa Rica is set this year to begin a strategy of better organizing management of marine and coastal areas, Oceans and Water Vice Minister José Lino Chaves said last week.

That strategy is based in part on a guide produced by Jorge Jiménez, general director of the marine conservation group MarViva Foundation. 

“In Latin America and the Caribbean, it is more common to hear discussions about the planning of land areas than about marine and coastal areas,” Jiménez said. “But in recent years, overfishing, pollution, an increase in marine traffic and development of coastal infrastructure have had a devastating effect on marine and coastal resources, which is why it is necessary to implement in our countries marine spatial planning policies that establish order.” 

Jiménez said the strategy is a process of political and technical decision-making that requires support from politicians to better coordinate the different agencies involved in marine management. Better research of coastal areas by experts is also needed, he said. The MarViva guide is meant to be a type of blueprint for these steps. 

Marine spatial planning, or MSP, is a recent trend that began primarily in Europe less than a decade ago. The United States followed Europe’s lead two years ago, Jiménez said. The process involves identifying, zoning and planning human activities along coastal areas with the diverse actors involved, from commerce to conservation. 

Coasts, chaos

Commercial fishing, port infrastructure, tourism, trade and energy generation are a few of the sectors that would be incorporated in the plan. 

“There is increasing competition among the different users of marine and coastal areas, but there is no planning,” Jiménez said, adding that chaotic development produces conflicts between actors and puts pressure on politicians to act against long-term interests. Tourism businesses complain because beaches are dirty or polluted, while fishermen complain that their livelihoods are disappearing – along with marine life. 

“We’re definitely not organized,” Jiménez added.

But the guide’s recommendations cannot be implemented without support from government officials, and – as has historically been the problem in Costa Rica and other Latin American countries – resources are limited. For example, the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute – charged with enforcing marine regulations and often the target of conservationists’ ire – doesn’t have a single boat among its inventory of enforcement tools.

While establishing order will mean government expenditures will increase, Jiménez pointed out that better-managed energy generation and commercial fishing can help generate more revenue. 

“We’re on the verge of ecological and social collapse along our coasts, and there is no excuse for ignoring the work that needs to be done,” Chaves told The Tico Times. “We are alarmed about overfishing, pollution and the effects of climate change. This guide is a valuable tool to establish order along our coasts.”

The first step for officials is establishing marine spatial planning that is adapted to the economic, social, environmental and topographical realities of Costa Rica. A key part of that process is involving members of coastal communities in the process, Chaves said. 

The process will be spearheaded by the National Oceans Commission, a new government agency that includes the ministers of environment, agriculture, public works and transport and public security. 

“Studies must be conducted to determine, for example, the best site for oyster cultivation, for responsible fishing, where fishing bans should be implemented, where reefs should be protected and the best areas for tourism development,” Chaves said. 

NGOs already initiated an MSP pilot project that stretches from Corcovado National Park, on the Osa Peninsula in southern Costa Rica, to Punta Burica. That could help officials plot methodology to extend the plan to other areas. 

But Jiménez stressed the importance of producing measurable results: “This won’t advance from being an academic-theoretical exercise unless the government follows through.”

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