Longline fishermen demand end to plan to protect waters around Cocos Island

The National Chamber of Longline Industries (CNIP) earlier this month filed litigation to annul the approval of a conservation project aimed at protecting marine resources in the country’s Pacific waters. The most important area that the project would protect surrounds Cocos Island, one of Costa Rica’s most famous natural landmarks.

The plan was outlined by the National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC) and would establish standards for regulating activities around the island, including sport fishing and commercial fishing in a reduced area, research and tourism.

But fishermen claim the project creates a new protected area, reducing the area in which they would be allowed to fish, “the main source of income for more than 2,500 fishermen who work on some 500 boats in the Pacific region,” according to CNIP Executive Director Mauricio González.

The project, the Marine Area for Management of Undersea Mountains, was approved in 2011 by President Laura Chinchilla and the Environment Ministry (MINAE).

For the past two years, officials from MINAE and SINAC, environmental groups and fishing representatives outlined recommendations for the management plan, which was finally approved this year at a cost of $150,000. 

One of the most important measures in the plan is the creation of a marine protected area of 9,642 square kilometers surrounding Cocos Island, which includes undersea mountains.

The protected area would become the country’s largest, and the second largest in the tropical Pacific, after Galápagos National Park in Ecuador.

The final draft of the plan, presented at a meeting in May by the Center for Environmental Law and Natural Resources, would reduce by 60 percent the area where longline fishermen would be allowed to operate, González said.

“We participated in at least four previous meetings with government officials. … The only proposal they presented was one for establishing a regulated fishing area, with preventive measures to ensure the sustainability of marine resources,” he said. “They never mentioned a marine protected area, with full fishing exclusion measures.”

He also said the plan has a number of irregularities, such as not including opinions from the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute, or Incopesca. Incopesca is the government agency responsible for overseeing the fishing industry in the country, and its opinions should be mandatory, Gonzaléz said. 

Conservationists for years have said Incopesca needs to be reformed, as it serves as both a regulatory agency and a special interest group.

Gonzaléz said that during initial meetings, longline fishermen presented Vice Minister of Water and Oceans José Lino Chaves with observations and recommendations, but that “pretty much all of them were rejected in the final draft of the [management] plan.”

CNIP also claimed that they requested a meeting to be informed about the plan’s details, but Chaves and Cocos Island Conservation Area Executive Secretary Fernando Quirós ignored the request.

Quirós on Friday confirmed that CNIP’s complaint was received on Dec. 9 and is being reviewed by SINAC’s legal department. For that reason, he said, the agency cannot discuss the chamber’s allegations.

Marine species unprotected

Zdenka Piskulich, executive director of the environmental group Costa Rica Por Siempre – one of the drafters of the management plan – said the lawsuit filed by CNIP means that at least 13,500 species of sharks, sea turtles, dolphins, grouper and tuna, among other fish, would be left unprotected.

“These species use the waters of this area as a migration route as well as feeding and breeding sites,” she said.

Piskulich said Incopesca was invited to participate in meetings for the plan, but its representatives did not attend all of them. “That was their prerogative; they were invited,” she said.

Incopesca was part of a technical committee during the drafting process, as were representatives of the Environment Ministry and fishing groups from the Pacific province of Puntarenas. The longline fishing sector also participated in consultation sessions, Piskulich said.

“This plan is a valuable tool that provides essential guidelines for planning, regulating and managing the area. … But it also benefits fishermen because it ensures the sustainability of all marine resources in the area,” she said.

Referring to the fishermen’s claim about the reduction of the fishing area, Piskulich said the exclusion zone covers 36 percent of the marine management area, but this represents just 0.6 percent of Costa Rica’s Exclusive Economic Zone.

Longline fishermen also said that during the final presentation in May, the Center for Environmental Law and Natural Resources did not provide documentation to justify the fishing ban in that large swath of protected area.

“Our fishing practices are conducted mostly on the ocean’s surface, we do not affect the seabed like trawling does,” González said. “No one has shown us any study demonstrating that we are affecting marine resources.”

But conservation groups say CNIP’s claims are an example of double standards, as pointed out by Marco Quesada, executive director of Conservation International in Costa Rica. “They only aim at hampering the government’s plans to make the [Marine Area for Management of Undersea Mountains] a global example in marine conservation and sustainable use of resources,” he said.

Piskulich added that environmental groups do not understand CNIP’s position. “On one hand they advocate for sustainable fishing and demand exclusivity for tuna fishing using government fuel subsidies. But on the other they disapprove of all national efforts at conservation, in which they participated and in which their requests were considered.”

She added that the plan establishes that current Pacific fishing chambers will be the only ones authorized to fish within the Marine Area for Management of Undersea Mountains.

Fernando Quirós, who also is a member of SINAC’s council, said they already informed CNIP representatives that they will hold a hearing on Jan. 7 during which fishermen can present reasons for their annulment request.

Until then, the measures and provisions of the management plan cannot be implemented. 

Marine Area for Management of Undersea Mountains

The Marine Area for Management of Undersea Mountains establishes a protected area of some 9,000 square kilometers of waters surrounding Cocos Island (orange grid). Courtesy of Costa Rica Por Siempre