Costa Rica’s New Fishing Laws Are Working

Dramatically tightened restrictions on foreign purse-seiners have meant more yellowfin tuna, and far fewer dolphins and billfish killed as bycatch in Costa Rican waters

Dolphins trapped in a purse seine net off Costa Rica
Dolphins begin to panic, trapped inside a purse seine off Costa Rica, as it tightens around them.Divine Dolphin, Costa Rica

Tighter regulations to protect Costa Rica's offshore resources are paying off in a big way, according to Todd Staley, with FECOP, a Costa Rican nonprofit sport-fishing federation.

Staley says that sport-fishing boats are seeing bigger schools of yellowfin tuna as well as larger groups of spinner and spotted dolphins as a result of the country’s restrictions on purse-seining. The purse-seine bycatch of billfish in the country’s waters have also declined — from more than 30 metric tons annually to just over 5 metric tons.

Chart shows declining bycatch of billfish in Costa Rica
Dramatic drop in the number of billfishes killed by purse seinersCourtesy FECOP

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Those restrictions, signed into law by Costa Rica’s president Luis Guillermo in 2014, prohibit tuna purse-seine operations within 45 miles of the coast. “This effectively prohibits tuna purse-seining in more than 200,000 square kilometers of territorial waters,” says Staley, also the director of fishing for Crocodile Bay Resort.

Sailfish caught in a  purse-seine net off Costa Rica
Far fewer billfishes, such as these Pacific sails hauled in as bycatch by a purse seining crew, are now being needlessly killed off Costa Rica in the hunt for tuna.Divine Dolphin, Costa Rica

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Before the decree, says FECOP’s director of science Moises Mug, 44 foreign tuna boats were catching 25,000 metric tons of tuna annually, with just 36 percent of that going to local ports; the remainder was delivered to foreign ports.

This year, only seven to nine licenses to seine tuna are being sold to foreign fleets (there are no Costa Rican-flagged purse seine vessels), with a quota limit of 8,000 to 9,000 metric tons, and all going to local canneries. This measure should continue to “reduce the bycatch impact that tuna purse seiners have on marine mammals, billfishes, sharks, dorado and wahoo,” Mug says. He adds that “This is great news also for spinner and spotted dolphins, which have a symbiotic relationship with yellowfin tuna in the eastern tropical Pacific. Dolphin are often netted during the process of catching tuna; they are later released, though not without injuries.”

Dramatic reduction in yellowfin tuna catch by foreign fleets off Costa Rica
The reduction in yellowfin tuna catch by foreign purse seiners off Costa Rica has been dramatic.Courtesy FECOP

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Legislation is pending to make that restriction in purse seining in Costa Rican waters permanent, Staley says.

FECOP is currently investing more than $100,000, working with two government agencies, in a technical learning institution where fishermen will be trained and certified. Staley says the training will include the use of green sticks — a selective method for tuna that entails virtually no bycatch (which will still further reduce billfish bycatch) — and proper handing of the product to receive optimal market value