Costa Rica’s long-line fishing industry poses grave threats to marine wildlife, according to a new study published in the Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology. But the country’s fishing authority, the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (INCOPESCA), has downplayed the study’s importance.
Conducted from 1999 to 2010, the study placed observers on boats run by Papagayo Seafood S.A. and tasked them with documenting bycatch – unintentionally ensnared species – in the Pacific waters off Costa Rica. The boats were fishing mahi mahi and tuna, but over the decade, observers estimated that 699,000 olive ridley turtles and 23,000 green turtles were mistakenly captured.
Many of the turtles were released, but the harm from hooks killed least 2-3 percent of them (including an estimated 18,000 olive ridleys). Nearly all of the seized sharks died, because fishermen often removed their fins – worth $10-$70 per kilogram in Asian markets where they are sold – and tossed them back in the ocean, the study reported. The total deaths could be higher, but the study did not monitor the long-term effects of trauma.
It did, however, record diminishing shark and turtle sizes as well as the capture of juvenile sharks, indicating damage to organisms with long maturing processes and low reproduction rates.
“You don’t have to be a fishery biologist to know that if you’re killing 80 percent of the animals that haven’t reproduced yet, you’re … on a collision course towards extinction,” said study author Randall Arauz, president of the Marine Turtle Restoration Project, or PRETOMA.
Furthermore, he explained, a drop in one species can be devastating for the ecosystem. For example, olive ridleys are one of the major predators of jellyfish, an animal whose population has exploded with recent warmer ocean temperatures, Arauz said. Jellyfish and many fish species all eat the same things – fish larva and zooplankton. An increase in jellyfish means many fish that compete with jellyfish for food will starve.
With fewer and fewer fish, the Costa Rican fishing industry has struggled, forcing the Costa Rican government to subsidize an increasing amount of fuel to offset some of the losses, Arauz added.
Then there are the long-term consequences for bycatch species. In the past 20 years, sea turtles have declined by 80 percent, and Arauz worries that the olive ridley will again become endangered. Currently, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the turtle as vulnerable.
Although fewer sharks become bycatch, the effect on them may be worse.
“For a shark getting caught on a line, it’s certain death,” Arauz said. Worldwide, shark numbers have plummeted 90 percent in the last 50 years, and the IUCN listed sharks as nearly threatened in 2007.
Costa Rica banned shark finning in October 2012, but the practice continues.
Study author James Spotila, a biologist at Drexel University – a private research university in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the United States – said the Costa Rican fishery is not sustainable, and he’s seen a collapse like this before.
“[It will be like] what happened in the North Atlantic, where the cod fishery has collapsed,” Spotila told The Tico Times in a phone interview.
INCOPESCA downplays study
The president of INCOPESCA, Luis Dobles, said he doesn’t trust results from Arauz, a longtime foe.
“We are receptive to good data from serious studies,” Dobles said in a phone interview. “But this study is a total falsity.”
Dobles said that Arauz has foregone authorization for wildlife studies in the past, and may not have obtained it for the recent study. According to Dobles, researchers must obtain authorization from INCOPESCA, the Environment Ministry or the Agriculture and Livestock Ministry (MAG).
Dobles himself is under investigation for allegedly authorizing the landing of illegal shark fins. Prosecutors in the central Pacific city of Puntarenas have accused him of dereliction of duty and lying about the authorization. Dobles confirmed the investigation, but said the charges are false.
“It still continues,” he said. “It’s a two-year investigation, and the process is open.”
For Arauz and Spotila, INCOPESCA is the heart of the problem. Spotila said the organization fails to enforce the regulations, and Arauz said its nine-member board of directors has no accountability to the people of Costa Rica.
According to Arauz, five board members represent the interests of the commercial fishing industry, and four are appointed by the government. The board has been autonomous since 1995, and Arauz said he hopes to bring it back under the control of a ministry, such as MAG.
“We all know the typical [attitude of] fish, overfish and move on that goes on all over the world, and Costa Rica is a classic example,” Arauz said. “INCOPESCA has guaranteed that that system continues.”