Eco-Exchange - April-May 2001 - Modern-Day Pirates Plunder Saltwater Booty Near Costa Rica's Fabled Cocos Island


April - May 2001

Modern-Day Pirates Plunder Saltwater Booty Near Costa Rica's Fabled Cocos Island

Legend holds that gold doubloons hidden by early 19th century pirates are buried in the steep, rocky shores and luxuriant forests of Cocos Island, 330 miles (532 km) from the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. Today, though, the island's most coveted treasures are the enormous fish that teem around the nine-square-mile-wide (24-sq km) uninhabited island and national park. Fishing within 14 miles (22 km) of the island is prohibited, but commercial anglers routinely ignore the ban. At risk is one of the most diverse populations of fish in the Pacific.

Illustration by Allan Núñez ('Nano')
Illustration by Allan Núñez ("Nano")

A nonprofit conservation group in Costa Rica, Friends of Cocos Island Foundation (FAICO in its Spanish acronym), is dedicated to protecting the island itself -- the only island in the eastern Pacific that receives sufficient rainfall to support a humid, tropical forest. The steep peak of a mostly undersea volcano, Cocos features plunging waterfalls, elegant tree ferns, and trees draped with moss, orchids, and bromeliads. Three of the island's species of 85 species of birds are found no place else on Earth, including the Cocos Island finch (Pinaroloxias inornata), a close relative of the Galapagos Island finches identified by Charles Darwin. In fact, a long-ago storm likely blew the Cocos Island finch to its new home from the Galapagos, which lies 423 miles (680 km) south. The island is famous as a rare nesting spot for the fairy tern (Gygis alba), whose name in Spanish is "espiritu santo," or holy ghost, after the delicate bird's all-white plumage and habit of hovering like a specter.

Offshore, the biodiversity is equally remarkable, and FAICO is determined to protect the impressive marine populations that throng about the island. Sea turtles, whales, and dolphins swim off Cocos, as do 310 species of fish, including such pelagic, or sea-going, species as tuna, marlin, jacks, wahoo, seven shark species, plus colorful reef fish. The fish tend to congregate in huge schools near the island, whose reef and volcanic tunnels, caves, and massifs provide shelter and a foundation for a complex food chain.

But this watery web of life may be permanently disrupted by overfishing. Last year, experts with FAICO and Costa Rica's parks system completed a study of fishing around the island that analyzed the social and economic forces behind the industry. Now they are working on practical responses to the problems the report revealed. Their study was funded by the US Agency for International Development-supported project called Regional Environmental Program for Central America/Protected Areas System.

Elvira Sancho, executive delegate of FAICO, says a principal problem is long-line fishing, which involves lines that can extend for miles. In addition to the target species, the hundreds of hooks snag scores of other marine animals, including sea turtles and manta rays. Because it takes so long to tend the lines, most of the hooked fish die before they can be released. Juvenile fish of the target species -- such as marlin and sharks -- are frequent victims, which means that thousands of young fish die before they can reproduce.

Shark populations have plummeted worldwide and are probably decreasing around Cocos, the FAICO study concludes. Shark meat is one of the most widely consumed seafood in Costa Rica, but the animal's fins are even more valuable. In Asia, a bowl of shark-fin soup is a much-in-demand delicacy, and shark fins can fetch $30 a pound at the dock. Typically, fishermen rip the fins from sharks and throw the carcasses back into the sea, since only a few boats have the equipment needed to freeze and store the meat.

Shark meat spoils quickly, while fins can be tossed aside onto bloody stacks.

Sharks grow and mature slowly, making them particularly vulnerable to overfishing. Some species don't reproduce until they are 12. Females have long gestation periods and give birth to just a few young.

FAICO notes that the sharks and other sealife around Cocos draw hundreds of thousands of dollars to Costa Rica, as the island is one of the world's premiere scuba-diving destinations. Although it takes more than a day to reach the island, divers endure the lengthy voyage and pay hefty fees for the privilege of diving through clouds of rainbow-hued reef fish and among schools of perhaps a hundred hammerhead sharks, with their wide, flat, scalloped-edge noggins. Costa Rica collects about $400,000 a year from visitors, through parks, anchorage, and other usage fees. If the sharks and other fish species disappear from Cocos, so will the tourists.

Fishing pressure on Cocos may increase, though, if Costa Rica imposes a proposed ban on fishing in the Pacific Coast's Gulf of Nicoya, where the catch has declined more than 50 percent since 1985. If fishermen are banished from the gulf, Cocos may be their next stop. Currently, just five percent of the approximately 3,000 fishing boats in Costa Rica's Pacific coast ever travel to Cocos, according to the FAICO report.

Sancho believes that an education campaign aimed at Pacific Coast fishermen is an important next step for the group. But she recognizes that "it is very difficult to change people whose culture is fishing, unless we offer alternative economic options."

Ricardo Guitiérrez, a biologist with the Costa Rican Institute of Fish and Aquaculture agrees. "These fishermen are aware that there's overfishing," he says. "But families on the coast are traditionally large -- there are many mouths to feed. The problem is that they have no economic alternative."

The best way to reduce illegal fishing around Cocos, says Sancho, is through more effective patrolling and tough punishments for poachers. "If the justice system imposed jail terms in just a few cases, that would reduce the problem," she says, adding that the penal code actually calls for sentences of up to 15 years in jail for pirating. She also blames a lack of interest among political leaders, which also accounts for a reduction in Cocos Island National Park's budget by as much as 75 percent in recent years. With currently available equipment and staff, no more than 25 percent of illegal fishing boats are caught, she estimates.

That percentage soon may increase thanks to an agreement signed May 7 by the ministers of the environment and of public security. With new and more sophisticated boats and other equipment, the Coast Guard and parks service personnel will work together to patrol Cocos water in search of illegal fishing boats and drug traffickers. Environment minister Elizabeth Odio also announced that strict sanctions will be imposed on anyone caught illegally fishing within the island's protected waters.

Contacts in Costa Rica:

Elvira Sancho
Apdo. 276-1005
Barrio México, San José
tel-fax: 506/243-7363

Ricardo Guitiérrez
del Restaurant el Chicote
100 Norte, 25 este, 25 norte
Sabana Norte
tel: 506/220-3952
fax: 506/296-2662

Click here to read about this project, along with the full FAICO report, on the Eco-Index.

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