Long-awaited changes could be coming to the country’s fishing regulatory agency, Environment Minister René Castro announced on Facebook last week.
President Laura Chinchilla sent a bill to the Legislative Assembly that, if passed, would eliminate the controversial board of directors at the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute, or Incopesca.
“The government concluded that the current form of the board of directors only represents the corporate fishing sector,” Castro told The Tico Times. “We want to create a management entity more disposed to promoting sustainable fishing.”
Environmental groups and artisanal fishermen have long condemned the current structure of Incopesca’s nine-member board, more than half of which is composed of representatives from the industrial fishing industry.
The new bill proposes replacing the board of directors with an executive president and general manager, both appointed by the executive branch. Members of the fishing community would not form part of the actual institute, but would serve as part of an advisory board called Conapesca.
The bill’s release was met with relief by ocean conservationists who feared the president sought merely to change the board’s structure, instead of eliminating it entirely.
“We don’t like the concept of a board of directors at all,” said Randall Arauz, president of ocean conservation group Pretoma and a member of the group The Front For Our Seas, which has fought to eliminate Incopesca’s board since 2011.
“It just opens the door for corruption,” he added.
Not only environmental groups are levying corruption charges against Incopesca. In 2012, the institute’s vice president, Álvaro Moreno, was fired following a complaint filed with the executive branch’s Public Ethics Office. Moreno, also a lawyer, had represented fishing companies accused of violating Incopesca’s regulations. The board’s current president, Luis Dobles, is under criminal investigation for failure to sanction two boats accused of shark finning in 2011.
When asked about the proposed changes to Incopesca, Dobles said he believed that a change to the board of directors is necessary to better incorporate sustainable fishing practices, but that eliminating the board of directors is overkill.
“The board of directors still works in my personal opinion,” Dobles told The Tico Times. “It should be able to adapt to new changes, but we will take any order given to us by the Legislative Assembly.”
Since taking office in 2010, Chinchilla has taken more steps than any other Costa Rican president to create a “blue” agenda to protect the country’s oceans, local conservationists said. Cracking down on shark finning and creating governmental marine agencies won her accolades with environmentalists, but ocean conservationists say that changes in Incopesca are long overdue.
In 2011, the president formed a marine advisory committee to create a road map for sustainable ocean management. One of the committee’s top recommendations was to modify the board of directors of Incopesca.
“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.
Conservationists have awaited the change since the committee’s report, but according to Castro, the political climate kept the president from making a decision. In November, during the presentation of the Shark Guardian of the Year Award, which Chinchilla was given for passing shark finning legislation, Arauz publicly confronted the president’s failure to comply with the committee’s recommendation.
“What happened to your plans to reform Incopesca, Doña Laura?” Arauz asked during a speech at the ceremony. “We want to see this government take responsibility for these reforms instead of just passing them on to the next government.”
In her speech following Arauz’s, Chinchilla promised the Incopesca reform bill would be in the Legislative Assembly by February, but, in December, there was another false start. The Chinchilla administration sent out a draft of a reform bill to conservation groups and called them to a meeting, but canceled at the last minute.
The bill now awaits an extraordinary session of the Legislative Assembly. Lawmakers only have one month to pass it before Chinchilla leaves office on May 8. At that point, a new administration could reorder the legislative agenda, possibly delaying the bill’s passage.
Castro said legislating Incopesca reform is of high priority for the president and has a good chance of passing.