Investigation finds rampant illegal fishing in Costa Rica

fisherman, Costa Rica

Fisherman in Garza, Costa Rica. Authorities estimate that as many as half of Costa Rica’s small-scale fishers may not have fishing licenses — which means that the toll of current fish catch on the country’s waters may be worse than we think. (© Chris Goldberg/Flickr Creative Commons)

The Pew Charitable Trusts estimates that one in five fish consumed worldwide may be caught illegally — each one a small drop in the ocean in a multi-billion-dollar industry of illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing.

“In Costa Rica, where authorities believe that as many as half of the small-scale fishers who make up the country’s fishing fleet don’t have fishing licenses, that proportion is likely higher,” said Mónika Naranjo González, who recently joined a team from Conservation International (CI) Costa Rica to conduct a local investigation into this issue.

Limited resources and weak enforcement have combined to push some marine species in Costa Rica’s waters to their limits. According to an annual study assessing the well-being of the country, in the Gulf of Nicoya, populations of certain species of high commercial value are projected to collapse by 2020.

CI’s investigation found that the problem was worse than they thought.

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“Last summer, we spent a week visiting the northern Pacific beaches of Costa Rica,” said Marco Quesada, CI Costa Rica’s country director. “The scarce studies around IUU fishing and unsustainable practices in this country tend to reach alarming conclusions, and we wanted to see how prevalent these activities really were.

“We knew a week was a very short period of time in which to conduct research,” he continued. “But there wasn’t a single day in which we didn’t come across IUU activities or the selling of souvenirs made out of marine materials, which is an unsustainable practice. Small-scale fishers we talked with confirmed that catches are declining rapidly, and that what once was a reliable source of income is no more.

“Almost no fisher wants their children to become fishers themselves — unless better management can adequately prevent the exploitation of marine and coastal resources.”

The following video, much of it shot undercover, shows what CI staff found in the fish markets of Costa Rica’s north Pacific communities.

Molly Bergen is the senior managing editor of Human Nature.

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