Is Costa Rica on the edge of regaining the Sailfish Capital of the World Title?
Costa Rica is enjoying some of the best billfishing in years. Record catches have been recorded this year in both Los Suenos and Marina Pez Vela’s fishing tournaments as well as consistent double digit catches recorded daily by the charter fleets. Lucky enough to have two separate peak seasons, from December until May in Central and Southern Costa Rica, May until December in Northern Coast off Guanacaste, anglers in the north are preparing anxiously for this year’s numbers. The numbers of fish being caught is reminiscent to 20 years ago when Costa Rica was known as “The Sailfish Capital of the World.” But is this a double edge sword?
FECOP, (Federacion Costarricense de Pesca), is the sportfishing lobby group in Costa Rica. It was formed by a small group of anglers in 2008 that discovered that nearly 480,000 kilos of sailfish were being exported annually to the United States, most of it ending up in seafood restaurants as smoked fish spread. Consumers never really knew they were actually eating sailfish. FECOP successfully lobbied the government and the international exportation of sailfish from Costa Rica was stopped, although, it can still be sold on the national market.
With funding provided by donors and through tireless efforts of its first president Donald McGuinness, FECOP began to begin is list of major success by creating the largest marine area of responsible fishing in Central America in the Golfo Dulce. Nonselective arts of fishing, like shrimp trawling and gill netting, were prohibited and only sportfishing and small scale artisanal commercial fishing is allowed. FECOP has worked with these groups of gillnetters to teach them new ways to make a living, such as oysters, which now gives them a successful livelihood without the previous indiscriminate bycatch that has been impacting the waters of Costa Rica. FECOP also hosts children’s fishing tournaments in three locations along the coast every year, teaching the kids about responsible fishing and conserving the oceans for the future through educating our youth today.
The latest major achievement by FECOP was a project that took over two years to complete and involved a different approach to conservation in Costa Rica. It involved the sportfishing group working hand in hand with local longliners on a common goal after years of opposing each other. The process began by sitting at the same table, setting aside our differences, and discussing the problems caused by tuna purse seiners in the country. After tons of documented evidence, the groups lobbied the government in a combined effort and got the tuna boats pushed offshore. For around six months now, the tuna boats cannot work within 45 miles of the coast and other parcels of territorial waters became closed to purse seiners in an area that encloses 44% or over 200,000 square kilometers that are off limits to tuna boats.
It is still early to see the long term effect of this new law, but in short term the sailfish numbers being caught and released are phenomenal. One of the largest fish processers in the country has also reported that the commercial longline fleet is bringing in more tuna and a surprisingly large number of dorado (dolphinfish) to the dock for this time of year. Again, results that have been previously unseen due to the horrendous numbers of bycatch of dorado by tuna seiners.
The Conservation Wars
When the whole sportfishing community should have been celebrating the new tuna law together, The Billfish Foundation took a shot at FECOP with both barrels in a campaign to mislead the fishing community by labeling the FECOP group as “quasi-green environmentalists”. This started with a statement taken out of context made by FECOP’s ex-president McGuinness and current board member at an open forum.
At an open forum he made a statement that was his own personal opinion stating that there should be a conscious effort to review the number of fish allowed per boat on conventional tackle or the frequency with which certain locations are used for some back-to-back tournaments. A suggestion was made that after so many fish are landed, anglers be required to switch to fly tackle. The idea is that this will reduce the total number of fish landed while still producing a great sporting event. That personal statement was translated into a FECOP sponsored statement to proposed change in regulations, when in fact, the intentions were to open a dialog of discussion within the forum. Do to the reality that tournaments are good business and brings the fishing community together, the shots began.
Shooting ourselves in the Foot
It is the nature of humans, fishermen included, to boast. Whether the motive is to draw in more business or ego, people are screaming all over the internet about the fantastic fishing in Costa Rica for sailfish and marlin. Not only are potential clients watching, but also the people who would like to kill and sell those fish.
Almost all internet sites selling billfishing trips have recent “hero shots” with the sailfish being hauled onboard for a photo with the angler. This has been an illegal practice for six years now, but sportfishing crews in Costa Rica continue to pull sailfish from the water. I have found that if the angler is informed of the law and how leaving them in the water reduces stress and damage to the protective slime before fishing begins they are very understanding and willing to cooperate with the law.
Talks are continuing with the longline groups to help change some from longline fishing to “green sticks”, a selective art of catching tuna. With their increased landing of fish, it is time to negotiate changes to reduce the billfish bycatch that is affecting this great sport resource. This is easier done with a conservation group that has local access to the fishermen and the branches of the governmental with the power to bring about change. The sportfishing community needs to take part and be the leader by setting good examples on how we handle the fish that we want to continue to entertain us.
Conservation work has done marvelous things for deer, ducks, trout, billfish and many other species of fish and their habitat. The sad side of conservation is the lack of communication between the different groups. The politics of conservation and the business of conservation keeps scientists and groups competing for funding to keep to their own agenda and not share information with one another. If they could all work together, positive change could come about more rapidly.
Current FECOP President Alberto Laurencich explained who FECOP is. “We are made up of fishing Associations from Guanacaste, Quepos and Golfito, as well as two National Fishing Clubs. Our board members are made up of some of the best known captains in the country, marina owners, people who make a living sport fishing as well as recreational anglers. We want there to be fish to catch for many years to come. We are conservationists, not environmentalists.”
About the author. Todd Staley has been in Costa Rica nearly 25 years and is Director of Fishing at Crocodile Bay Resort. He is the co-recipient of IGFA’s 2015 Chester H. Wolfe award for his conservation efforts in Costa Rica, and sportfishing advisor to FECOP