Billboards Warn of Illegal Fishing in Costa Rica

Three billboards — modeled after the award-winning movie — on the highway to San Jose’s airport: We’re losing our marine resources.

November 8, 2018
Billboards Warn of Illegal Fishing in Costa Rica
These billboards, modeled after the movie Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, now appear prominently along the highway connecting Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose, with the international airport. The first says, “There are foreign boats fishing illegally in Costa Rica.” FECOP

If you are driving from the airport towards San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, you will pass two simple sets of three billboards each. Lettered in Spanish the signs basically translate into English as:

1. There are foreign boats fishing illegally in Costa Rica
2. They are taking our marine resources without permits
3. Together we can change this… Find out how at

The campaign billboards were modeled after the ones depicted in the award-winning film “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri.” Designed to be a simple yet effective message, it is estimated that more than 25 percent of all tuna taken by foreign purse seine boats in Costa Rican territorial waters goes unreported or is harvested by vessels not licensed to fish in Costa Rica with zero bene-fit to the country.


Carlos Manuel Rodríguez, Minister of Environment and Energy, says that the country loses mil-lions of dollars in the illegal fishing of tuna. According to the minister, of the total $50 million generated by the sale of licenses to foreign purse seiners, the country only receives $1.3 million. An estimated $12 million more is un-documented. Through an analysis done by Conservation International and the Coast Guard using satellite technology, it was determined more than 100 vessels in 2016-2017 were involved in illicit activities.

The yearly average legal take from these boats had been around 25,000 tons of tuna a year. Of this 9,000 tons goes to the cannery in Puntarenas and most of the rest never lands in Costa Rica. A study done by Federacion Costarricense de Pesca (FECOP) in 2013 showed Costa Rica only earned $37 a ton from tuna taken by foreign vessels. This triggered the first tuna reform legislation in 2014, which moved the tuna fleet 45 miles offshore and protected other important areas like the waters around Coco Island and a total of 200,000 square kilometers from purse seine fishing. In 2017 INCOPESCA, the governing board of fishing regulations in Costa Rica, reduced the number of legal licenses from 43 down to 13 and this year put limits on the overall harvest. The problem is with very little enforcement and control, the illegal fishing activity is bound to increase. The initial tuna harvest rules were enacted after sport and commercial fishermen set aside their differences and worked together to accomplish shared goals.

FECOP staff recently met with commercial longliners in Puntarenas and Quepos to discuss the tuna industry and the market need for sustainably caught tuna. Sport fishermen are seeing noticeable increases in tuna catches in the protected 45-mile zone since the Tuna Decree went into effect in 2014. The amount of tuna being taken illegally or by foreign vessels remains a deterrent for li-censed local commercial fishermen to switch to more selective gear like “green sticks,” or pole and line which have nearly zero bycatch and still make a reasonable profit.


The longliners are receptive to using sustainable gear if it’s economically feasible. Tuna is a premium value species and if they were targeted selectively, it would take pressure off sharks and bill-fish as bycatch in longline fishery. The incidental catch rate of other species would drop drastically.

FECOP also met with several marine-related non-government organizations to discuss the issue of sustainable fishing.

Billboards Warn of Illegal Fishing in Costa Rica
More than 25 percent of all tuna taken by foreign purse-seine boats in Costa Rica waters goes unreported, with zero benefit to the country. FECOP

Tourist Sport Fishing
The recreational sport-fishing industry generates $380 million or more for the Costa Rican economy annually and supports thousands of jobs for locals. Critics claim sport fishing is a senseless sport and a form of cruelty to animals.


Commercial Fishing
Commercial harvest is also a multi-million dollar industry and the life blood of coastal communities. Critics claim the high rate of bycatch in certain types of fisheries is unsustainable and damages the environment.

There are many non-governmental non-profits headquartered in Costa Rica that specialize in marine conservation issues. Many have an accomplished track record. But conservation is a competitive business as organizations compete for limited donor contributions. Because of this, communication between the groups is often lacking. Many times groups are working on similar projects but don’t share information for fear of losing donations or credit for successes (which is parlayed into more donations). If communication among the groups was more common, positive changes could come more rapidly on smaller budgets.

General Public
Costa Rica has the highest cost of living in Central America. Many sectors have been on strike or protesting the proposed new tax reform for the past month. Critics are upset with tax breaks companies receive whose products manufactured in Costa Rica cost nearly double domestically as the same product sold by the same company in neighboring countries. Many feel it is unfair to give away Costa Rica’s resources to other nations with little benefit while its citizens are asked to pay higher taxes.

Billboards Warn of Illegal Fishing in Costa Rica
Many marine mammals are killed as bycatch in these illegal fisheries. FECOP

Tuna Canning Industry
The tuna cannery in Puntarenas employs more than 1,000 local workers and processes 9,000 tons of tuna annually. Because of the high demand of sustainably captured seafood products, the cannery is forced to import tuna harvested with sustainable gear from other countries to meet the demand.

Tuna and Dolphin
The fish and the mammals have a symbiotic relationship and swim together in the ocean. Most nets set by purse seiners are made over dolphins on the surface. Historically over 6 million dolphins perished with this method. By today’s standards, after the set one end of the net is lowered for the dolphins to escape to qualify for the “Dolphin Safe” label. The estimate of dolphin mortality is still around 1,000 a year in the tuna industry. Critics say the repeated netting of the same pods of dolphins should not qualify for the dolphin safe sticker on cans of tuna.

Critics also question whether boats fishing illegally are careful about dolphin welfare. Boats have been observed throwing explosives from helicopters or speed boats to herd the dolphin into the nets. There are also questions about how carefully the dolphins are released.

The goal is to bring all these various interest groups together to make more tuna available to benefit Costa Rican fishermen and the country’s economy. An increase in sustainable harvest would have a domino effect. With more tuna available there would be less bycatch of sharks, billfish, turtles and marine mammals, plus better economic conditions for struggling coastal communities.

The billboard campaign directs viewers to the FECOP website, A link on the site leads to a petition urging decision-makers to support more responsible ocean management and fair-ness for the people of Costa Rica.

For more information, contact: [email protected]


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