San José, Costa Rica, since 1956
Gone Fishin

Tuna company, fishermen and environmental groups squabble over unpublished fishing decree

Expected restrictions on industrial tuna fishing have been stalled pending the publication of a decree signed by former President Laura Chinchilla (2010-2014).

Though Chinchilla signed the decree, it does not become law until it is published in the official government newspaper, La Gaceta. Chinchilla failed to give a publishing order before she left office, and the decision over whether to enact the new regulations now falls to current President Luis Guillermo Solís, who took office on May 8.

The decree, which would ban fishing with purse seine nets — the fishing method favored by industrial tuna boats — within the first 60 miles of the Costa Rican coast, was the result of two years of negotiations with artisanal and sport fishing lobbyists and Chinchilla’s administration.

With years of negotiations already behind them, environmental groups and small-scale fishermen who supported the new regulations are calling for Solís to publish the decree immediately, but complaints from the local tuna cannery Sardimar and its parent company, Alimentos Prosalud, have given the government pause.

Barely a month into the current administration, Solís and Gustavo Meneses, the newly appointed director of the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (INCOPESCA), have been presented a complex decree and have been asked to come up with a prompt decision.

Support and opposition for Chinchilla’s decree

Signed just days before President Chinchilla left office, the decree creates two regulated fishing zones where purse seine fishing is banned. The first zone includes the first 60 miles from Costa Rica’s Pacific shoreline, and the second is 48,822 square miles surrounding the country’s furthest island territory, Isla del Coco. The two fishing zones make up a little more than 37 percent of Costa Rica’s Exclusive Economic Zone, the first 200 nautical miles from its shore in which the country has the sole rights to exploit the ocean’s natural resources.


The decree is supported by Costa Rica’s small-scale commercial fishermen, the sport fishing sector and environmental groups.

“This was a compromise,” said Mauricio González, executive director of a Pacific organization that represents the country’s artisanal fishermen. “If it was up to us, there would be no purse seine fishing in the entire EEZ.”

Members of the industrial tuna industry don’t see any compromise in the decree. Sardimar opposes any regulations on purse seine fishing, claiming that if the practice is banned they will not have enough cheap local tuna to stay in business.

“The areas they have blocked are where the most tuna is caught,” said Asdrubal Vasquez, executive director of the Costa Rican Tuna Industry Chamber (CATUN). “We are in agreement that we need to let our fisheries recuperate, but we are not in favor of doing it this way.”

Instead, Vasquez and the other members of CATUN want to implement new technology to limit the environmental impact of purse seine overfishing. When asked what technology was capable of doing that, Vasquez said he didn’t know, but “there are scientists who can figure it out.”

Economic arguments

Industrial-sized purse seine fishing boats – all of which are foreign flagged ships – captured 90 percent of the tuna fished from the Costa Rican Pacific between 2002 and 2011, according to a 10-year study by the Costa Rican Fisheries Federation (FECOP). Often equipped with the most advanced fishing technology, the ships are able to capture entire schools of tuna in a single cast.

(Disclosure: Tico Times reporter Lindsay Fendt worked as a freelance translator for FECOP in 2013.)

To accomplish these massive catches, industrial tuna boats use helicopters to fly over and identify schools of tuna. Once a school is spotted, the ship deploys small go-fast boats to circle the tuna with a net. With a net completely surrounding the school of tuna, the ship hauls the catch on board using cranes.

“We can’t compete with that kind of technology,” González said, referring to the country’s artisanal fishermen who seek high-quality tuna and other fish for restaurants. According to González, the boats in his sector might catch 20 tuna in a day and sell them for up to triple the price of canned-quality tuna. An industrial ship can bring in between 10 and 100 tons of tuna at a time with nearly all of the profits going to the foreign fishing companies.

“The country is losing the economic rewards that tuna provides by giving it away to international boats,” said Enrique Ramírez, executive director of FECOP. “Small national boats can fish sustainably, get a better price for high-quality tuna and all of that money will stay within Costa Rica instead of the profits ending up in some other country.”

Currently, purse seine boats are permitted to fish in all but the first 12 miles of the Costa Rican Pacific. González and other small-scale fishermen claim the lack of regulations on purse seiners has driven them out of Costa Rica’s EEZ.

“In order to still catch what we used to we have to go farther out, using more gas and more money,” González said. “These international ships are making out with millions of dollars, while Costa Rican fishermen are losing money.”

Though fishermen say the country loses profits to industrial fishing fleets, executives at Sardimar say it is the current system that keeps them doing business in Costa Rica. In order to encourage industrial tuna canneries to operate in the country, the Costa Rican government passed a law that renews tuna fishing licenses for free to boats that sell a month’s worth of cargo (with a 300 ton minimum) to Costa Rican canneries. The regulation allows Sardimar to purchase tuna for lower than market prices, and the cannery now commands 70 percent of the Central American canned tuna market.

“Changes to the system could cause us to lose our competitive edge in an extremely competitive industry,” Vasquéz said.  “We are worried that restricting where boats can fish will mean international boats won’t want to come to Costa Rica and we will not be able to get the raw materials we need.”

According to Vasquéz, Sardimar would consider leaving Costa Rica if the decree is published into law, eliminating nearly 1,500 jobs in the Pacific province of Puntarenas.

Vasquéz and Sardimar executives say the incentive law keeps tuna and its profits in Costa Rica through the cannery, but fishermen and environmental groups claim that industrial fleets are skirting the law.

“The ships reach their 300 ton minimum with the cannery and then sail off with the rest of the tuna to sell it at a higher price in other countries,” González said. “There is no efficient way to make sure these boats are unloading all of their cargo in Costa Rica like they are supposed to, and none of the money from the tuna that gets sold elsewhere makes it way back to Costa Rica.”

Environmental impact of industrial tuna fishing

When an industrial tuna boat wraps its nets around a school of tuna, it also ensnares any other creatures swimming in the area. Valuable marlin and mahi mahi and endangered sharks are among the 1,000-some metric tons of unwanted fish caught by purse seine boats every year, according to the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC). Purse seine licenses only permit the capture and sale of tuna, so this bycatch is either tossed overboard where it often dies or is sold illegally on the black market.

According to FECOP, non-selective fishing methods — which include purse seine nets and any other type of fishing that results in bycatch — have reduced Costa Rica’s fishing productivity by more than 40 percent in the last decade. But it is a non-commercialized species – dolphins – that are put at the most risk by purse seine tuna fishing.

For reasons unknown to scientists, tuna and dolphins often swim together in the Pacific Ocean, and tuna fishermen have long used easy-to-spot jumping dolphins to help point the way to schools of tuna. The IATTC reports that more than 68 percent of reported seine nets cast in Costa Rican waters are thrown over pods of dolphins. Environmental groups estimate that between 5 and 7 million dolphins have been killed by purse seine fishing since the 1950s.

Tuna fished and canned in Costa Rica carries the “dolphin safe” label, which means crews must free all dolphins from nets before tuna is pulled on board. Despite efforts to decrease dolphin bycatch, environmental groups say dolphins are still getting hurt.

“Dolphin-safe studies don’t report the post-capture stress factor,” Ramírez said. “Stress can still lead to dolphin mortality from heart attacks or muscle tears. We have reports of pregnant dolphins aborting from stress or leaving their calves to die while they try to get out of the nets faster.”

The future of the decree

In a meeting Friday morning, members of the Solís administration agreed to a two-month deadline to complete studies of the current decree. According to Meneses, the government will not come out for or against the decree until the issue is fully researched.

“You can’t be in favor of something you know nothing about,” Meneses said. “We are not going to irresponsibly approve a decree from the previous administration before we know everything about it.”

Although he has not rejected the regulations outright, Meneses has one major concern with the decree’s current form: “What I do know is that the regulatory measures needed to implement this decree are not in Incopesca’s budget.”

Meneses added: “We agree that we need to develop a fishing management strategy, but we can’t take on something completely unviable.”

Contact Lindsay Fendt at

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Shawn Larkin

Marco Quesada, you are so wrong. Stopping the much more damaging slaughter of the purse seine netting is only a step in the right direction. What is happening to the dolphin, and thus Sardimar is immoral and wrong, and you know it. Everyone knows that removing these giant death dozers will be wonderful for THE NATION. The long lining must be managed and prohibited from certain areas of course. But how can you think that the tuna dozers should stay? The tuna fleet should be kicked out completely. What is your opinion on purse seine netting in Costa Rica? Do you offer any solutions? You are not just commenting you get paid to do this for Conservation International. Does CI really support purse seine netting and international unsustainable profits over local sustainable ones? Que loco!

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Shawn Larkin

Marco I hope your sudden silence means you understand how wrong you were. Are you keeping up with the news? Seems Earth Island Institute has put you and Conservation International to Big Blue Shame. We are all waiting for you to answer did the tuna industry pay you or Conservation International? Why are you promoting an option that hurts our dolphin friends? Earth to Marco….Are you there?
We will be watching Conservation International and your kooky comments.

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I am very disturbed by firmer President Chinchilla’s actions regarding the tuna fishery. Why sign a decree and then not follow through? I have been a tourist in Costa Rica and love this country. I don’t understand that Costa Rica will not protect it’s ocean bio productive zone. It is in stark contrast with all the advances made w.r.t biodiversity in land. I hope the new government does the right thing and signs this decree! Emptying out an ocean at rapid speed causes you to lose your natural resource. Look around you! Please let Cista Rica be a country that gets it right. We plan to visit soon again.

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Donald Mc Guinness

Marco Quesada, after 36 years of fishing experience my advice for you is to follow the tuna boats after we kick them out of Costa Rica , buen viaje!!

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Jose Moya

International Tuna Boats ” Ocean Killer”
should be remove completely from Costa Rica, just like they were remove from Panama,
there is a reason for it.
Costa Rica without this International Mega Massive Tuna Catcher Fleet the only think that they are doing is taken and steeling our Local Fish that belongs to all the Costarricenses, We dont need them, our Local fisherman and the local Commercial fishermen they are capable to catch the Tuna that Costa Rica needs.

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Shawn Larkin

Marco, it seems like you are the one who did not read the decree. Removing the death dozers to 60 is a massive change of status quo. Please explain why you think it is not. You did not answer me, What is your opinion on purse seine netting in Costa Rica? Has any group involved in the tuna industry given you or CI money? Was is CI position on purse seine netting? Please don’t avoid my questions.
Do you offer any solutions? Or a you just recommend we wait some more years?
The clause to open restricted areas in case Sardimar is under supplied will minimize their wining, they would have to probe without shadow of doubt that they are undersupplied in order to let the purse seiners in these areas. The numbers show the area the death dozers will keep using is supplies more than enough catch to supply their own numbers, and after we see how much life come back and how much more local people make, unlikely they will be let back in.
You say “Marine resource management is not done this way, anywhere” Really?
Please, I would love an example of where does it in a way you agree with and consider a model for Costa Rica.
I am very sorry if it seems if I have put words in your mouth. Thats why you need to clarify your position. Your comments, and opinion article a few day ago in Nacion, are kinda incoherent and it seems all you doing is arguing a position that benefits Sardimar and killing more dolphins, with out offering anything solution.
Marco what do you think about the tuna dozers and specifically about them killing in the offshore dolphin mega pod zone of offshore Osa, the greatest known concentrations of dolphins in the world, the only wild dolphins that imitate people , all inside 60 miles.
Dolphins are dying Marco, what will you and CI do to help?
You are paid to help with this kind of thing no?
Share you options, instead of dissing others.
What should be done for the dolphins of Costa Rica? Remember the death dozers according to NOAA and FECOP are killing and severely stressing thousands of dolphins here in the eastern tropical pacific.
I really worry after reading this

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Sean Davis

This decree MUST pass for the sake of the country. Foreign owned fleets scouring the ocean and taking the catch elsewhere is a practice that obviously must be stopped for the sake of future generations. Costa Rica is known for forward thinking environmental policy, and this must be applied to the fishing sector. Obviously INCOPESCA is unable and unwilling to behave in a responsible manner and is corrupted to the point of uselessness, so this law should at least be able to take them out of the loop. Hopefully this will pass, and hopefully it can be enforced.

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Richard Ross Tanner

Hope the decree makes it soon!!!

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Marco Quesada

Shawn, have you read the decree? Doesn’t seem like it. There is nothing in that piece of policy that will change the status quo. Even purse seiners will be allowed to fish within the “exclusion polygons” if Sardimar needs fish for processing. I don’t think ‘everyone’ knows or understands your facts in the same manner. I have never said the purse seiners must stay nor I have argued in favour of any industry. But the purse seiners are going to stay with this decree.

Just don’t put words in my mouth. Read the decree. Marine resource management is not done this way, anywhere. I of course respect your opinion, but I most certainly do not share it.

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Marco Quesada

The only thing ‘artisanal’ I see here, is the argument from both industries. What has to be in the CENTER of the discussion, is the country’s interest, NOT the industries’ interest in tuna. All this decree does is changing which industry has access to a resource, not the benefits to the country. Incopesca and other relevant national institutions must make a decision that benefits the country in the long term. Approving this, is not it.

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