Tuna cannery dispute freezes proposed net-free zone

A fishing protection agency and the nation’s largest tuna cannery are battling over a signed but unpublished decree that would make purse seine fishing illegal within 60 miles of Costa Rican shoreline. The principal combatants are the Federación Costarricense de Pesca and tuna giant Sardimar.

Former president Laura Chinchilla put her signature on the decree just before she left office. The administration of Luis Guillermo Solís has yet to make it official by ordering it to be published in the official newspaper.  Dependent on weighted net fishing, the cannery, Alimentos Prosalud S.A., has told the new government that it will close operations here if the decree becomes law. That could mean 1,500 jobs. The firm markets the Sardimar brand.

Enrique Ramírez Guier, the director of the federation, called the comment a bluff and said the country could find cheap international alternatives to the cannery.

“They are threatening with an empty holster,” Ramírez said. “What is happening here is that the government is giving a subsidy for Sardimar to get cheap tuna from in close to the coast.”

Large-scale purse seine fishing has faced constant protests from small, non-commercial fisherman over the years.

Ramírez estimates that 15,000 of them are impacted by declining fish numbers due to large commercial operations close to shore. He said a legal designation for fishing zones would immediately give fishermen more access to tuna, while not crippling giant fisheries like Sardimar who can still retrieve fish from farther distances.

The prohibition against  purse seine also is seen as a measure protective of dolphin.

Under the decree that would have the strength of law, Ramírez said an ocean area seven times that of Costa Rica’s surface size is still available to these fisheries.

Ramírez and partners from the federation met Thursday in Casa Presidencial with the Minister of the Presidencia Melvin Jiménez, Sardimar representatives, and officials from governmental Instituto Costarricense de Pesca y Acuicultura.

During the meeting Jiménez said he expressed concerns related to funding and worried that it may be unconstitutional to zone off the waters. Ramírez said his team has researched the issue for nearly a year and can find no potential contradiction in the nation’s Constitution.

“They do not have an infinite right to fish in our waters, and no one can give them that right because its a public domain,” Ramírez said.

Representatives from Casa Presidencial and the government’s fishing institute did not return phone calls placed Tuesday regarding the decree’s status.

Tuna purse seining has also come under heavy fire because the practice often traps dolphin in the nets. According to a plan summary, the decree was expected to not only drastically minimize dolphin captures, but should also save 1,000 tons of billfish like marlins every year. This promise has lead sport fisherman to also get on board in promoting restrictions against the weighted nets.

A 180,000-square meter protection zone off Isla del Coco is also required in the decree, safeguarding marine life near the U.N. world heritage site.

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