How Commercial Fishing Threatens Costa Rica’s Seas

Costa Rica’s coasts, long renowned for being rich in biodiversity, have recently come under attack by industrial fishing. While living in the country for 10 months as a Hart Leadership Fellow, I interviewed fishermen on both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts who spoke seriously about the dire threats facing their livelihoods. As commercial boats dramatically diminish fish and lobster populations on both the coasts, artisanal fishermen in this country have suffered immensely.

Sámara is a small town nestled along the Pacific Coast within the Guanacaste Province of Costa Rica. While living there, I spoke with local fishermen who found themselves nearly without work. The men there still use traditional fishing methods, relying on a single, hand-held line to bring in their daily catch. Families pass down their boats to each successive generation and teach the value of a sustainable harvest.

Unfortunately, the town’s tiny fishing community, made up of about 15 to 20 fishermen, appears to be on the cusp of disappearing. Several of the men reported that in the past their daily catch weighed in at between 70-80 kg. Now, however, boats typically bring in only about 10-15 kg worth of fish. Sometimes, they return utterly empty.


The fishermen in Sámara travel out to sea every day around 6:30 a.m. and do not return home until 4 or 5 p.m. They explained that the work is very difficult—the heat is hard on their bodies and the strain of the line is difficult on their backs and shoulders. Knowledge regarding how, when and where to fish has been passed down through generations, and yet for the first time the ocean seems void of fish.

Fishermen in Sámara blame the dramatic decline in their local fish populations on industrial fishing boats that arrived en masse near Costa Rica’s coasts over just the past few years. The fishermen complain that these boats use illegal tactics, such as throwing bombs in the water to scare dolphins away from tuna schools and utilizing nets with holes that are far smaller than regulations allow. Long-line fishing is occurring, with lines up to 200 km long and covered in over 3,000 hooks catching not only fish, but seabirds, sharks and turtles as well.[i] The entire ecosystem seems to be unraveling.

Fishermen in Mal País, a village on the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula, complained of industrial overfishing as well. Artisanal fishermen there also rely on fishing by hand using a single line. This method has, in the past, yielded enough fish to provide for the alimentary needs of the fishermen and their families, as well as afford the ability to sell at local markets and at the nearby port city of Puntarenas.

Unfortunately, fishing has changed dramatically for these families in less than a decade. While six years ago, the average fisherman in Mal País brought home up to 30 tuna a day, last year the entire village combined reeled in only 30 tuna all year. While individuals estimated that their boats historically brought in nearly 200 kg of fish daily, most fishermen now bring in catches weighing only 6 or 7 kg. Local fishermen assert that large industrial boats from Venezuela, China and Japan are to blame, their nets encroaching into what are legally Costa Rican waters.

Fishermen in the Mal País consider their work more responsible and ecological than the industrial practices employed by both Costa Rican and foreign-owned industrial fishing boats. Unfortunately, reeling in one fish at a time by hand, these fishermen have been incapable of competing on either scale or price with larger boats. Combined with recent drastic declines in fish populations, these local, small-scale fishermen are becoming desperate—unable to make ends meet. Making matters worse, while artisanal fishermen in this area traditionally used sardines and shrimp caught in the local gulf for bait, those species have become overfished recently as well. Bait prices have risen as populations decline, and most of what is caught is exported internationally.

The ecological decline appears equally dire on the Caribbean side, where lobstermen have all but seen their industry disappear over the past decade. One interviewee explained that when he was a young man, the lobsters measured the size of his forearm. Now, however, what animals he is able to bring in are only about five inches long.

When I asked him what he thought was contributing to the decline in lobster size, the lobsterman voiced his concerns about industrial fishing boats from Korea and Japan, which have been working off the coast dragging kilometer-long nets. Lobsters spend their juvenile years out at sea before returning inland to the reefs, making them vulnerable to exploitation by this destructive type of fishing. A ban on lobster fishing has been instated along the entire Central American Caribbean during the species’ reproductive season (March 1-June 30)[ii], but because so many lobsters are being caught far out to sea – before they even reach reproductive age – the population has so far failed to recover.

To protect and allow fish stocks to be replenished, fishermen in Sámara, Mal País and Puerto Viejo – on the Caribbean Coast – have begun advocating for the creation of marine reserves, areas where either fishing is outlawed entirely or where entry is limited to local fishermen. As is, most fishermen can no longer survive on fishing alone, or at all, and have turned to tourism as their primary way to make a living. Local fishermen have begun to take tourists out to see dolphins or to go sport fishing, a venture that has so far enabled them to keep their homes and boats. Unfortunately, even this livelihood has become threatened, as species popular with sports fishermen and with families eager to see charismatic ocean life have become ensnared as bycatch. Surface long-line fishing, a commercial fishing technique, has been implicated in an 85% decline in marlin populations and a 90% decline of local sailfish populations alone.[iii]

According to La Nación, one of Costa Rica’s largest newspapers, the exhaustion of shrimp populations due to overfishing has incentivized commercial fishing boats in search of conger eel, red snapper and cabrilla to move in closer to shore—where they unfairly compete with artisanal fishermen. The burden of overfishing has become so great, that between 2000 and 2007, the total volume of fish caught in Costa Rica declined by 40 percent. [iv] By 2012, that volume had declined by another 50%.[v] This dramatic decrease illuminates the fact that many juvenile fish live in more protected areas near the shore. When large fishing boats sweep into hatchery locations, they destroy the next generation of important commercial species before they have even grown to marketable size (or more importantly—become sexually mature).[vi]

In 2013, Costa Rica banned all shrimp trawling in the country in the hopes of revitalizing the shrimp population.[vii] Unfortunately, while no new shrimp fishing licenses will be available for sale, active licenses will remain valid until their original expiration date. In the meantime, 80 percent of the total catch trapped in these trawling nets is bycatch, according to the Marine Turtle Restoration Project (PRETOMA). Shrimp fishing boats are estimated to cause the death of 15,000 sea turtles annually, discarding some 4,000 to 6,000 tons of bycatch from their nets each year.

Long-line fishing continues in Costa Rica’s waters as well—and hooks have caught an estimated 699,6000 olive ridley sea turtles from 1999 to 2010.[viii] These lines also severely impact mahi-mahi, silky sharks, and pelagic stingray populations.

Environmentalists agree that we must both write new regulations, and do a better job enforcing existing maritime laws in Costa Rica. La Federación Costarricense de Pesca (FECOP) recently provided data hinting at the presence of approximately 50 illegal tuna fishing boats operating off the Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast between the years of 2008 to 2011.[ix] The quantity of bycatch hauled in is by these boats is large, and at least 1,000 metric tons of unwanted oceanic species may have been ensnared and killed during these period as a result of these illegal boats operating alone.[x] Unfortunately, efforts to curb illegal fishing have been insufficient thus far. There are rarely inspectors anywhere except at ports and the Costa Rican coast guard continues to suffer from insufficient resources—unable to patrol and enforce the laws in even marine protected areas.[xi]

A representative from MarViva, an environmental group working to conserve Costa Rica’s marine protected areas, explained that the Costa Rican government has made agreements with fisheries promising not to back the inclusion of new species on protected lists that are of commercial interest.[xii] This group also complained that the penalties of noncompliance are too lenien, with illegal tuna vessels being charged a measly fine of $8,000 for a haul worth $2.5 million.[xiii]

Bicky Cajiao, a member of Fundación Ambio and legal consultant to PRETOMA, spoke of the dire situation facing Costa Rican shark populations in the following statement:

“In spite of the fact that Costa Rica’s fishery authority INCOPESCA emitted a Board of Directors Agreement in February of 2001, forbidding the landing of shark fins unless they are attached to the carcass, controls are practically null because the government has failed to allocate the needed funds to face the current lack of economic and human resources to carry out efficient controls. Moreover, there is currently no legislation to file criminal charges against fishermen engaged in illegal fishing operations, and foreign vessels take advantage of the current loophole to operate illegally in the waters of our Exclusive Economic Zone.”[xiv]

Swift legislative action and the deployment of those human and capital resources needed to ensure that fishing regulations, quotas, and bans are upheld are essential if we are to save the ecosystems along Costa Rica’s coast. Marine reserves must be created, existing areas expanded and all of them protected if Costa Rica is to preserve its fishing sector, oceanic ecosystems and the livelihoods of small-scale and subsistence fishermen.

Of course, we consumers in the United States and other countries around the world have a role to play as well. Don’t buy fish that has been caught illegally or unsustainably. This means buying and consuming fish from fisheries that you know are being sustainably managed and, better yet, buying directly from your local fisherman (and make sure you’re asking about their fishing practices).

We are the demand that is creating this broken system built on industrialized (and horrifically wasteful) fishing methods. The good news is that being the driving force gives us the power to shut it all down—and shut it down fast—if we so desire.

Of course, other challenges face the seas off Costa Rica’s shores. Global warming poses a massive threat, as it raises ocean temperatures and increases ocean acidification.

However, we can give our seas a fighting chance by keeping ocean populations strong and well cared for. We can pay attention to breeding times and take care of protective ecosystems like estuaries and sea grass meadows, which serve as nurseries for many commercial species. We can watch what flows downstream, and ultimately into the ocean by utilizing biodegradable products, stopping industrial and residential pollution, and moving away from conventional farming towards organic and regenerative practices—halting the use of synthetic fertilizers on agricultural fields (and thus limiting the creation of oceanic hypoxic zones).

There are two plotlines right now—one of a desolate earth and human hunger, and the other a story of change, renewal and healing. It is up to us to choose our path. And sometimes, the choice is as simple as what we put on our plates—from whom we choose to buy our food. Or what stories we choose to listen to. And share.

We are living in an often ugly reality, but that doesn’t mean we have to stay here.