In Costa Rica, new policy on sharks misses the mark

© Jeff Litton/Marine Photobank

For a country with a solid record of protecting its marine resources, it was a strange step backward.

In recent weeks, Costa Rica ratified a U.N. agreement to reduce illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing; agreed to develop a national ocean use policy; and announced that it will host an important shark conservation meeting next year.

All this makes the government’s recent decision not to support the protection of shark species with “commercial value” even more disappointing — especially given how much the Central American country has benefited from keeping sharks alive.

Opening the door to overexploitation

Recent evidence indicates that demand for shark fin products is dropping, a hopeful signal that the grisly practice of cutting fins off live sharks and leaving them to die may be coming to an end. However, it can’t come too soon for global shark populations, which are declining at a rate of about 100 million sharks per year.

Recently, some Costa Rican fishermen have protested against what they perceive as overly strict national policies, which prohibit shark finning and the export of all hammerhead products. Bowing to this pressure, the national government has announced it will not propose or support the inclusion of shark species with commercial interest in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS).

These two global agreements regulate the sale of certain species deemed to be under threat of extinction. Both lists currently include several shark species, and many of the species included in CITES are in fact threatened because of their commercial value.

There’s no question that Costa Rica’s coastal areas are suffering. As in many countries around the world, poverty is forcing people to overexploit fisheries that are already strapped after years of unsustainable use. However, opening the door to the exploitation of endangered species such as hammerhead sharks, whose global populations have decreased by more than 90%, is not the solution to this complex problem.

Worth more alive than dead

With this decision, Costa Rica is sending the message that its sharks are more valuable as a commercial product than as a living part of a functioning ecosystem. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

The value of keeping sharks in our oceans has been demonstrated extensively, and supported by countries including Costa Rica. Scientists have found that species-rich, healthy environments are more productive and can cope better with threats such as climate change. Perhaps more important to Costa Rica, a recent study found that a single hammerhead shark in the waters off the country’s Cocos Island — a haven for sharks, and a popular dive site — could bring in US$ 1.6 million in tourism. If killed, the shark would likely be worth less than $200.

All countries face challenges providing for their people without impeding the long-term benefits of nature that make all life possible. Yet in other sectors, like forests, Costa Rica has already shown the world that green development can work. It makes no sense to support actions that will continue to erode the productivity of our oceans. We must find another way to address people’s needs while still keeping our ecosystems healthy and productive.

For that purpose, Conservation International (CI) is working closely with 16 other non-governmental organizations in Costa Rica to urge the government to reconsider its recent decisions on sharks and find an alternative solution that addresses the socioeconomic conditions in our coastal areas. Fuel subsidies, weak regulations and control of fishing practices will do nothing to help make its economy more sustainable in the long term.

There is a saying in Spanish: “No borres con el codo lo que escribes con la mano” — in English, “Don’t erase with your elbows what you have written with your hands.” It means that you can lose or negate your work because of an unintended mistake. Costa Rica’s environmental legacy and leadership have not been erased, as its recent actions fighting illegal fishing make clear. But we must make sure the country’s “elbows” stay out of the way.

Marco Quesada is the director of CI Costa Rica. 

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