Thirty-seven of Rafael Umaña’s 57 years on this planet have been spent fishing in the Gulf of Nicoya. He’s from Puerto Níspero, in Cañas, and like the majority of residents who live near the gulf and depend on fishing, he started fishing illegally when he couldn’t support his family by fishing legally. (See Box: “What is illegal fishing?”)
But the sea’s fertility began to dry out. The fish stopped coming and production fell by up to 80 percent between 1995 and 2015 due to overfishing, Umaña says, based on information from seafood buyers. As his community fell deeper into poverty, the youngest members left and older members, “like me,” Umaña says, had to find a second job.
“We had to do something,” he says.
Instead of waiting for officials to solve the problem, in 2011 Umaña and the Puerto Níspero Fishing Association (composed of 35 men and 15 women) dove into the problem to save the gulf and create a responsible fishing zone.
Red del Golfo hope to recover the Gulf of Nicoya’s natural wealth.
They knew that other gulf communities, such as Costa de Pájaros in Chira, had created one before, so they set out to replicate the model. Along with the National University they presented a fishing zone code, and in 2012 the board of directors of the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (INCOPESCA) approved the plan.
In the zone, which is marked by yellow buoys to alert other fishermen, only fishing with lines is permitted, not fishing nets. Area fishermen monitor the zone and alert authorities if others enter with illegal nets.
Since then, January has been one of the most bountiful months: Instead of catching 300-500 kilograms, the monthly average, local residents caught 14,000 kilos, Umaña says, with a sense of relief that relaxes the wrinkles on his face.
Umaña likes to think his efforts – and other factors, such as closed fishing seasons – paid off, because nothing in the past six years has been easy.
The Cycle of Illegality
Illegal fishing isn’t a secret. Even the most well-intentioned fishermen occasionally commit an act that could harm the sea.
That’s what happened to “don Rafa.” When he went out to fish with his line, trying to “be legal,” he found others were in the area fishing with large nets that weren’t permitted and that swept up the entire marine population in its path, leaving him “with nothing.”
“In order for me to provide food for my family, I had to take part in illegal fishing, and later I realized that illegal fishing wasn’t providing enough to survive either,” he says.
INCOPESCA’s most recent statistics (from 2009) show that 95 percent of the tools used for fishing in the gulf are prohibited by law. Using nets with holes smaller than 3 inches sweeps up small fish and species that can’t even be sold, but that are vital for reproduction and sustainability of the marine ecosystem.
In these communities, with high rates of unemployment and poverty, it’s difficult to escape.
“Communities see themselves as obligated to use illegal equipment because they believe they are at a disadvantage,” said Viviana Gutiérrez of the Marviva foundation.
In Puerto Níspero they still have hope. A group of organized communities called Red del Golfo (the “Gulf Network,” with 12 Guanacastecan communities and Isla Chira) want to see the gulf’s entire interior area converted into a responsible fishing zone.
The Big Fish
The outlook is complicated due to administrative entanglement and a lack of reliable data to make informed decisions. The responsibility falls on the National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC), INCOPESCA and the Public Security Ministry (coast guard). Bureaucracy is the biggest fish of them all.
For example, while the coast guard has to battle drug trafficking in the gulf’s interminable mangroves, they also have to patrol for illegal fishing. They rarely catch guilty parties, but they do find illegal nets every day, according to coast guard official Carlos Quirós, who is from Isla Chira.
INCOPESCA cites a scarcity of resources to investigate, control and implement more responsible fishing zones, like the one proposed by the Red del Golfo.
“One would like (the process) to be faster, but it also has to do with the availability of human resources and the budget, and that prevents us from taking action with the clarity that’s required,” said Marvin Mora, head of INCOPESCA’s responsible fisheries department.
Mora said that the Cipancí station in Puerto Níspero, out of which the three agencies will eventually operate, will be a relief for the gulf and responsible fishing. Although the facilities have been ready for a year, only SINAC currently is working out of them.
While the various agencies work toward reaching a mutual agreement, Umaña’s dream is to see the gulf recover by at least 50 percent so that the multiplication of fish isn’t just a biblical miracle, but rather a result of everyone working together.