Note: I first wrote about this many years ago in The Tico Times, but it seems not much has changed since then, and it is time to rethink our actions once again.
Bragging is part of human nature. We all do it, no matter what activity we partake in. I’ve seen bird-watchers nearly exchange punches as they reviewed their sighting scorecards at the end of the day, accusing each other of inventing the number of different species they saw. Fishermen, I believe, were born with a more dominant bragging gene than most of the public. For any type of bragging, photographic proof is the most convincing tool of all. Thus, the “hero shot” was born.
The traditional hero shot shows an angler posing in front of the camera with a giant smile, proudly displaying in his hands – or on his lap, if the fish is too heavy to lift – the trophy he or she has caught. If one is keeping the fish as a food item, it doesn’t much matter how you take the picture, because the fish is going in the icebox. If the fish is going to be released, however, it is a different story altogether, especially a fish the size of a sailfish or marlin.
As 90 percent of anglers coming to Costa Rica are after sailfish or marlin, and all sailfish must be released by law, let’s talk about these species.
You can go to almost any website that features fishing in Costa Rica and see photos of sailfish being dragged across the gunwale of the boat and posed with the angler for the “hero shot.” Then the fish is put back in the water. This had been the norm for more than two decades. Most marine biologists agree that pulling the fish overboard for pictures can severely harm the fish. Air exposure reduces intake of oxygen and offload of carbon dioxide, which causes stress to the fish. Dragging a big fish across the gunwale can damage internal organs as well as remove the protect slime making them susceptible to bacteria and parasites.
Over eight years ago, in December 2008, Costa Rica passed regulations making it illegal to remove sailfish from the water for the purpose of taking a photo. A fine of ₡2 million (around $3,500) can be imposed on those found in violation. For the most part, this regulation has been ignored by the sport fishing fleet for various reasons.
First, I’d bet you a boatload of ballyhoo most people don’t even know this regulation exists. Website and brochure photos with happy people posing with big sailfish out of the water sell fishing trips, just like years ago a bunch of dead fish hanging at the dock sold trips. When tourists see these types of photos advertised, they want to bring home their own hero shot, with the sailfish onboard, to show all their friends back home. Fishing crews oblige them in hopes of getting a good tip.
A good crew does an orientation with the client before leaving the dock. This includes discussing the boat’s safety equipment, the level of the angler’s experience and how we fish billfish in Costa Rica. I have found that when clients are informed before leaving the dock that removing billfish from the water is not permitted in Costa Rica, and why, they are very receptive. A good owner or manager insists that his or her crews give a good introduction. Good communication is a big part of the whole experience, and it should start at the dock.
The Costa Rica government is finally starting to get its feet wet in marine conservation that is long overdue. So far, all their major decisions have continued to allow sport fishing in the new management areas. The Costa Rican Fishing Association (FECOP), a sport fishing advocacy project that started with President Laura Chinchilla, has protected over 200,000 square kilometers from tuna purse sein activity as well as moving them 45 miles from shore. Sport anglers have reported better tuna fishing as well as larger pods of spinner dolphins which are often associated with yellowfin tuna.
FECOP is currently investing more than $100,000, and the government even more, in a joint project with INCOPESCA and the National Training Institute (INA) to teach the use of “Green Sticks,” a selective type of commercial fishing for tuna which eliminates bycatch of sailfish. This also includes proper handling of the catch to receive the best market price.
The regulations are far from perfect in this country, and way too many billfish die each year as bycatch in commercial operations, but that does not give us the right to not follow the regulations in place. It is not difficult at all to leave them in the water and still get a good hero shot.
Taking a good photo of a billfish: After your crew has a calm fish alongside the boat.
1. Leave it in the water.
2. Have your camera ready. Most people want a shot with their own camera, so make sure your friends know how to use it. Valuable time is wasted explaining how to use it and the chance of a bad photo increases.
3. Always touch a fish with a pair of fishing gloves on. Lean over and gently place one hand on the bill and the other hand on the dorsal fin.
4. SMILE and click. All this can be done in less than a minute if you are prepared.
5. Then you can either pass the fish back to the crew or hold it yourself while the boat moves slowly forward to pass water over the fish’s gills. When you can feel the fish resist, gently push it away from the boat and watch it swim away.
6. High-five your friends and crew and keep fishing.
World’s Ocean Day 2017 – FECOP organized beach clean-ups in Golfito, Puerto Jimenez, Quepos and several other coastal towns. Join FECOP now to learn how you can help protect Costa Rica’s valuable natural resources for generations to come.
Fishermen report more tuna, dolphin along Pacific coast
Fishermen and tourism operators have reported an increase in sightings of tuna shoals along Costa Rica’s Pacific coast in recent months, according to the Costa Rican Fisheries Federation (FECOP), a sport fishing and environmental interest group.
The increase in tuna has benefited local, commercial fishing and sport fishing in the region, and has had a positive impact on the number of dolphin in the area, the group said. Currently, dolphin “can be seen in the thousands,” FECOP said in a recent report.
The group credited an October 2014 governmental decree restricting industrial tuna fishing in Costa Rican waters with what it said were recovering tuna and dolphin populations. Pods of dolphin often travel with schools of tuna, and industrial tuna boats frequently snare dolphin when they cast their nets.
The decree, which was supported by FECOP and Costa Rican commercial fishermen, banned industrial tuna vessels from fishing within an area up to 40 miles from the coastline.
According to a 10-year study from FECOP, foreign-owned purse seine ships captured 90 percent of the tuna caught in Costa Rican waters between 2002 and 2011.
Now only small- and medium-scale longline fishing vessels are authorized to operate within these areas.
The law also requires large vessels to use satellite-tracking devices in order to allow monitoring of their position and verification of their compliance with the fishing exclusion areas.
Mauricio González Gutiérrez, executive director of the National Chamber of Longline Fishermen, supported FECOP’s report, saying many of the chamber’s associates have seen an improvement in fish populations following the signing of the decree.
González said that they have received reports of monthly catches ranging from 100 and 140 tuna over the past year. They have also gotten reports of larger tuna caught.
“We started seeing an improvement in medium-size tuna that usually ranged from 26-29 kilos. Then in April we started getting reports of tuna up to 34 kilos,” he said.
González noted that fishing exclusion areas also help local fishermen and women work closer to the coastline, which helps them reduce the time spent on the open sea, saving them money in fuel and other supplies.
FECOP’s report states that the spike in tuna schools is also having a direct impact on the tourism industry, as more tourists are choosing to go sport fishing and dolphin watching. These visitors also stay at local hotels, hire local transport services, rent boats and spend on food and entertainment, the report states.
Quesada believes sightings should be evaluated using scientific criteria before emphatically assuring that “more tuna shoals and more dolphin pods in the area are a direct result of the [government’s] regulations.”
The government’s decree, he said, “is not perfect and therefore people should scientifically verify whether these sightings correspond to effects of the restrictions or if they are incidental.”
Quesada noted that the increase in sightings could be the result of a variety of situations, such as a decrease in fishing in neighboring countries.
Educational programs for Costa Rican youth. Through training workshops, and Fun Kids and Family fishing tournaments, FECOP is bringing together Costa Rica’s youth while teaching about conservation of our waterways and the benefit and importance of sport fishing in the coastal communities. Investing in the next generations is investing in the sustainability of our activities.
In 2014 President Luis Guillermo Solis signed a Tuna Decree prohibiting tuna purse sein operations within 45 miles of the coastline of Costa Rica. Other important areas and sea mounts were also protected effectively prohibiting tuna netting operations in over 200,000 square kilometers of territorial water.
Tuna Decree Is Working
This Tuna Decree was sponsored by FECOP, a Costa Rican nonprofit sport fishing Federation made up of 7 sport fishing associations encompassing Costa Rica.
FECOP’s director of science, Moises Mug has been monitoring the results ever since as a part of the original agreement which not only includes fish stocks but also investigating more sustainable ways to supply the Costa Rican cannery with product.
Before the agreement 44 foreign tuna boats were operating, with 25,000 metric tons of tuna were being captured annually with only 36% of the catch going to the local port. The rest were being delivered in foreign ports.
Costa Rica’s governing body for fishing regulations, INCOPESCA, has put a temporary ban on new licenses for foreign fleets, (there are no Costa Rican flagged purse sein boats) until the end of the year. Hopefully this is a preamble of the new proposed tuna regulations.
The new proposal will allow for only 7 to 9 licenses sold annually and a quota limit of 8,000 to 9,000 metric tons with all fish going to the local cannery. “This measure will reduce the bycatch impact tuna purse sein fisheries have on marine mammals, billfish, sharks, dorado, wahoo and sharks”, explained Mug. This is great news also for spinner and spotted dolphins who have a symbiotic relationship with yellowfin tuna in the Eastern Tropical Pacific. Dolphins are often netted and later released in the process of catching tuna, though not without some injuries.
The actions have reduced billfish bycatch in Costa Rica by purse seiners by 70% from over 30 metric tons annually to just over 5 metric tons.
FECOP is currently investing over $100,000 in an ongoing co-project with two government agencies, INCOPESCA and INA, a technical learning institution where all people working on a boat must be trained and certified. The project includes learning to fish “green sticks”, a selective type of fishing with no bycatch, as well as the proper handling of their product to receive best market value. As longliners eventually begin using this method, the bycatch of billfish on longlines will be drastically reduced. The public demand for sustainably caught seafood is a boost to the project.
“Costa Ricans are a proud people”, commented Captain German Bustos, who has over three decades of experience sport fishing while explaining successes in marine conservation issues. “FECOP’s entire staff are Costa Rican citizens. The decision makers here will listen more eagerly to its own people rather than outside groups suggesting how things should be done.”
Other FECOP Success Stories
Stopped the exportation of sailfish for commercial purposes
Created the largest Marine Area of Responsible Fishing in Central America, the topical fjord, Golfo Dulce
Is teamed with Gray Fish-Tag research granting Costa Rican University students scholarships to study species related to sport fishing.
Reader Not Fond of ‘Torturing Fish’ — But Sport Fishing isn’t the Problem
I started doing the fishing column for The Tico Times years ago when it still had a print edition. Four years ago I went over the side of the aptly named Cerro de la Muerte, or Mountain of Death, and tumbled 200 feet downhill, nearly killing my wife.
I fell into a funk watching her suffer operation after operation. My close friends tried to convince me it was an accident, but I couldn’t help feeling responsible, and the guilt was overwhelming. I lost the desire to write, along with many other things.
My wife is much better but will never be the same, and I eventually worked my way out of the funk I was in. Recently, Karl Kahler of The Tico Times interviewed me for an article he was writing, and I mentioned that I used to do the fishing column for the paper. He invited me to return.
Well, right out of the chute on my first report about the Offshore World Championship fishing tournament at Marina Pez Vela, I found a reader who was not so fond of me. Someone using the name Wigsy wrote in, saying:
“Regarding: ‘Even though the numbers of sailfish were noticeably absent, the numbers of marlin caught were much better.’ …For cripes sake, catching these fish (for sport?!!) injures them and causes trauma and stress at the very least. So much for eco tourism. And an Oil company sponsoring it. Obviously with this size of “tourny” Costa Rica’s billfish population will continue to decline. They likely were forced to have the competition Offshore as it would be illegal to do so within the boundary limits. Time to get a new hobby, boys: how about bird watching (instead of torturing fish for fun)? Some people in Costa Rica need to fish in order to survive, making this sort of fiasco the perfect image of perverse excess. Obvious lack of any journalism in this article. (Perhaps it was written by the sponsors and should instead be labelled an advertisement.)”
My guess is that Wigsy’s father, grandfather, or even single mother, as in my case, never taught him how to fish. My mother taught me to respect and care for the ocean, to keep only what I needed and put the rest back. She also taught me the secret to happiness is doing something for others and not expecting anything in return, and that a man’s ego is his worst enemy, so Wigsy’s jabs at my lack of journalism skills didn’t sting too badly.
I am an old Florida redneck fisherman. I talk like one and write like one. It is a language both male and female anglers understand. I never went to Harvard or Yale or any fancy journalism school. My universities have been the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic, the Caribbean and the Pacific, and I have been in class for over five decades. I have learned to love and respect the ocean and the fabulous creatures that live in them. I never leave port without God and the ocean goddess Yemaya in my vessel.
Wigsy, like many others, does not understand sportfishing and thinks it is just a bunch of rich Gringos coming down here to molest fish for fun. Sportfishing benefits many Costa Ricans. I have been in the sportfishing business here over 25 years and have employed over 1,000 Costa Ricans at a better than average salary with full benefits.
I have seen them build nice homes for their families and send their children to universities with their earnings from sportfishing. In fact, a study of social economics done by the University of Costa Rica showed that sportfishing contributed 1.2 percent of Costa Rica’s annual $55 billion gross national product. Commercial fishing here contributes around .07 percent of the annual GNP.
Mark Twain taught me not to argue but rather educate. The part of Wigsy’s note that struck a chord was “Some people in Costa Rica need to fish in order to survive.” I assume he is talking about Costa Rican commercial fishermen, and he is absolutely right: they need to make a living. Where sportfishing is a sustainable activity with catch-and-release practices, commercial fishing is extraction.
A sailfish released by a sportfisherman is worth around $3,000 to the economy, while a dead sailfish off to the market is worth around $80. At the pace the world is going, experts say the world’s fisheries will be almost completely exhausted by the year 2050. The problem is not commercial fishermen or sportfishermen. The problem is non-selective and non-sustainable types of fishing. Bycatch, the killing of non-targeted species while fishing for market species, is a major problem worldwide.
Almost everyone coming to Costa Rica likes fresh seafood and Costa Rica has some of the best. Not just fishermen, but also ecotourists and even birdwatchers want to eat seafood while they are here. One thing overlooked by most eco-resorts waving the sustainability banner is their restaurant menu. Are all items on the menu captured in a sustainable manner?
Many people have no idea how fish are caught in this country. Let’s take a look.
Yellowfin tuna have a symbiotic relationship with dolphins. If you see a huge pod of dolphins on the surface, the tuna will be below. Since 1950, over 6 million dolphins have perished in purse seine nets, and even though dolphin deaths are few these days, tell me if this practice deserves a “dolphin safe” label on the can.
A helicopter takes off from the deck of a tuna boat and locates a pod of spinner dolphin. They begin to drop explosives, “cherry bombs,” illegal but often used on the dolphins to move them in the direction of the boat. The tuna will follow. When in position the whole pod of dolphins will be encircled by the net. After the net is closed, workers on the boat will drop one end of the net to release the dolphins that did not escape by jumping over it, but pods are broken up, young are separated from their mothers, a few die and the rest are traumatized. How safe is that? Not to mention all the billfish, turtles, sharks, manta rays, dorado and wahoo that are discarded, dead, back in the ocean.
A project was started by the Costa Rican Fishing Association (FECOP), a Costa Rican sportfishing lobby, during the administration of President Laura Chinchilla (2010-2014) and finally signed by decree by President Luis Guillermo Solís, moving the purse seine boats out 45 miles from the coast and protecting other sea mounts for a total of more than 200,000 square kilometers protected from purse seine activity. They also supplied the science for the current proposal to reduce the tuna fleet from 44 licenses down to seven to nine, and the annual harvest from 23,000 metric tons down to 8,000.
Another non-selective type of fishing is longlining — laying a line of baited hooks on the surface from 10 to 40 miles long or longer, and hours later picking it up to retrieve the catch. Dorado and sharks are the target species but thousands of sailfish, marlin and turtles all perish as well. If the catch is poor they will keep the sailfish, which are required by law to be released if alive. If the catch is good the sailfish is sometimes left dead on the line because the carcass creates a shadow below, attracting dorado, and the rotting flesh attracts sharks.
In January 2013 and again in November, there was an epidemic of dead sea turtles found floating in southern Costa Rica during two of the top months for dorado fishing. Nearly 400 turtles were discovered dead, and autopsies determined that longlines were to blame.
Using live bait on longlines has been a concern of sportfisherman, who say it increases the capture of non-target species like sailfish. INCOPESCA, which governs Costa Rica’s fishing laws, did a test to see if live bait really increased sailfish mortality. They set lines off Quepos from Aug. 25 to 29, varying from 4 to 10 miles in length. Of course, they picked August, when there are very few sailfish around. At the end of their four-day test, they had caught 14 dorado, three sailfish, two thresher sharks, three manta rays and 41 sea turtles.
This is probably the least sustainable type of fishing, where sleds drag the bottom, tearing up fauna and holding the nets down. For every kilo of shrimp caught, nine kilos of juvenile fish and other marine life die. Shrimping got so bad here that boats were targeting bottom species generally fished by the small-scale artisanal fleet. Shrimping has been banned in Costa Rica, with the last license expiring in 2019, but the shrimpers are lobbying with plenty of opposition to fish in a non-existent sustainable fashion.
Our oceans can no longer support non-selective types of fishing. It is not about fat rich Gringos verses humble Costa Rican fisherman. It is about the very life blood of our oceans.
Todd Staley has run fishing sport operations on both coasts of Costa Rica for over 25 years. He recently decided to take some time off to devote full time to marine conservation. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.