Nearly every day as far back as he can remember, Rafael Umaña has paddled a small wooden boat through Costa Rica’s Gulf of Nicoya and cast his nets into its silt-tinged waters. He would typically land enough red snapper (Lutjanus guttatus) and corvina (Cynoscion albus) to support his family, but over the past few years that situation has begun to change. “Now there is very little to catch,” says Umaña, president of the Local Association Committee of Fishermen of Níspero, a community located where the Tempisque River enters the Gulf. “It’s not enough to survive.”
Years of overfishing and pollution have brought fish populations in the Gulf of Nicoya to an unprecedented low, pushing the already impoverished fishing villages surrounding the gulf into crisis. These gulf communities—a dozen, in all—now experience poverty rates of 26% to 27%. More than a quarter of their total population is neither in school nor employed.
The situation stems from a vicious cycle of illegal fishing and poverty. Costa Rican fishing authorities have designated the gulf a “responsible fishing area” in which fishing-net mesh sizes are ostensibly regulated in order to protect fish populations. In reality, illegal fishing has proliferated in the gulf as fishermen have become increasingly desperate to fill their nets. “These people are innocent,” Umaña says. “It’s just that the attitude is earn today and then tomorrow…” he adds, shrugging as his voice trails off.
Against this grim backdrop, an environmental nonprofit that for several years has led efforts to stop illegal fishing in the Gulf of Nicoya has begun taking an integrated approach. The MarViva Foundation, which works on protection of the eastern tropical Pacific from offices in Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia, has concluded it must focus as well on community needs. Partnering with the U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica, MarViva in April helped launch the Red del Golfo, or Gulf Network, to enable the Gulf of Nicoya’s 12 communities to develop common approaches and proposals on issues ranging from conservation of fish populations to trash pick-up and new job opportunities. “As we got more involved with the people and the communities, we realized that the solution to illegal fishing is not isolated,” says Viviana Gutiérrez, of MarViva Costa Rica. “You need to look at all of the problems in the region together.”
Gutiérrez says that when MarViva sought to work with authorities to improve enforcement of fishing regulations, it discovered there was almost no police presence in the region. And when the group tried to find ways to create incentives aimed at reducing the number of people engaged in fishing, it found that there were virtually no alternative sources of steady employment.
Other challenges complicating the picture include high crime rates, a dearth of educational opportunities and scant drinking water due to drought. And while Gulf of Nicoya communities share many or all of these problems, they have not until now begun developing common proposals aimed at enlisting help from the government and other quarters to resolve them. “The Red del Golfo has helped us figure out where we need to go to ask for help,” says Auxiliadora Díaz, president of an outdoor vendor’s association that the network has assisted. “It has been a lot easier doing this as a group.”
From the Costa Rican capital of San José it takes four hours to get to the Gulf of Nicoya. After leaving the highway, our van is quickly swallowed by dense forest and the pavement fades into a dirt trail. Located on dusty dirt tracks and on islands in the estuary itself, communities on the Gulf of Nicoya are difficult to reach. Resources for public transportation and other important services do not make it to the communities, which complicates life for those without vehicles to commute to jobs elsewhere in the region.
The Gulf area has few high schools and one of Costa Rica’s highest high-school dropout rates. Of the schools that do exist in the twelve Red del Golfo communities, not one has a public budget, meaning only private fundraising keeps the doors open. Droughts and hasty, poorly planned well-digging by municipal authorities have led to an extreme lack of potable water. Unauthorized salt ponds have boosted populations of dengue- and Zika-carrying mosquitos. Trash pickup is limited as well. “Fewer than 20% of homes have trash collection, so people burn their trash, bury it or just chuck it in the water,” Gutiérrez says. “The Gulf of Nicoya’s problems are complicated and extend to every part of a person’s life.”
MarViva argues that more funding and institutional support will help relieve the pressures that encourage pollution and illegal fishing. But the group says residents also need opportunities to find new livelihoods. “The first step is find alternative methods of production for people who are now illegally fishing,” Gutiérrez says. “That means bringing jobs, giving people something that they can transform into an opportunity.”
Guanacaste, the northwestern province where the Gulf of Nicoya is located, is a tourism magnet known for its dry forests, white sand beaches and popular national parks and reserves. The Cipancí Wildlife Refuge, which covers 3,500 hectares (8,600 acres) of land in the Gulf area, is not one of those places. Despite its ecological importance, Cipancí is best known by outsiders as the home of the massive Friendship Bridge, which crosses the gulf and helps link the national capital of San José with the Nicoya peninsula, home of Guanacaste’s best-known natural attractions.
Donated by Taiwan in 2003, the two-lane bridge now provides one of the primary employment alternatives to fishing in the region. Every day street vendors set up tents and tables at each end of the bridge to hawk sugary baked goods, locally made honey or ice cream to travelers. So crucial are these sales to some residents’ budgets that 14 families created the Association of Outdoor Vendors on the Friendship Bridge to lobby the government—thus far unsuccessfully—for business permits to make the activity legal.
These and other street vendors face institutional resistance to their work in the so-called “informal sector,” which includes any type of self-employment that is not legally recognized. In the communities on the Gulf of Nicoya, such unsanctioned, unregulated work is common, ranging from street sales of coconuts to transport by what are known here as “pirate taxis.”
The Red del Golfo is trying to improve relations between the government and these informal workers, who include Association of Outdoor Vendors members who sell products to passersby on the Friendship Bridge. The network hopes the government will legally recognize association members as vendors and, once that happens, make improvements at each end of the bridge—installing public restrooms and picnic tables, for instance—aimed at encouraging tourists to stop and buy more products.
Díaz of the Association of Outdoor Vendors says his organization hopes boat tours can be organized that take tourists from the bridge to the Gulf’s extensive mangrove stands. Such aspirations are becoming more common in the Gulf. Though Cipancí is now a little-known refuge, it contains one of the largest mangrove forests in the country and serves as a breeding ground for many species of fish. Experts say the mangrove ecosystem and adjacent waters could attract bird watchers as well as sport fishermen. That, in turn, could employ local boat operators and guides, creating an alternative to the wholesale netting of fish now occurring in the Gulf. Tourism is especially attractive for unlicensed fishermen who face problems similar to informal workers.
Though the process to obtain a fishing license is well established, it involves paying into Costa Rica’s healthcare system. Many Gulf of Nicoya fishermen say they cannot afford the premiums, and so cast their nets illegally. “We are catching so little and just aren’t making money,” Umaña says. “But we already have boats; we could easily use those to take tourists out.”
Despite its potential, the Gulf of Nicoya still has a long way to go before it can compete with the popular beach-resort towns and national parks located on the peninsula about an hour west of the bridge.
While the Gulf area’s lack of infrastructure is likely a concern for anyone hoping to build restaurants or hotels in the area, so, too, is its reputation for lawlessness. Last March, 56-year-old Luis Díaz was out fishing in the Gulf of Nicoya when a boat full of men in black balaclavas with machine guns pulled up alongside him. They boarded his boat, clubbed him over the head and flung him overboard deep in the mangrove forest before making off with all of his possessions. Less than a year later, he was robbed again by the same criminal band.
Díaz isn’t alone. Using one of the boats they stole earlier in the year, the pirates continue to terrorize fishermen, stealing everything from motors to fishing gear, racking up thousands of dollars of stolen goods. Fishermen were forced to stop fishing before dawn, often one of the best times to catch fish.
Scarcely patrolled, the gulf is considered a haven by thieves and drug traffickers. Even when a crime is reported, police and the Coast Guard cannot reach the scene in time. The same is the case with fishing-law enforcement. Without patrols, fishermen can easily use illegal nets and ignore so-called responsible fishing areas—portions of the bay that are considered ecologically sensitive and are subject to management plans and fishing restrictions. “Enforcing fishing laws may seem like a minor concern, but 40% to 70% of the species in the Gulf reproduce within the responsible fishing areas,” says Adriana Chavarría, a park ranger at the Cipancí National Wildlife Refuge. “You need to be very vigilant to catch people fishing improperly.”
New Coast Guard station
In response, MarViva and the Red del Golfo secured 250 million Colones (US$450,000) from the Inter-American Development Bank to build a Coast Guard station in Puerto Níspero. Aside from housing a Coast Guard unit and patrol boat, the facility also includes a ranger station and an office for the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (Incopesca). The Institute, which is the government agency in charge of fisheries regulation, will offer fishermen information on how they can obtain licenses and fish legally. “The idea is that there can be more and better use of these resources and that everything can work in harmony with the marine environment,” Francisco Pizarro, the government’s coordinator for Gulf of Nicoya projects, told local media.
Coast Guard and police will also work with a security commission formed recently within the Red del Golfo. Using information from each of the Red’s communities, the group has drawn maps for law enforcement to show where and when crime, drug trafficking and illegal fishing most often takes place. MarViva also signed an agreement with the U.S. State Department’s Bureau for International Narcotics Law Enforcement Affairs to help improve enforcement.
“One of the objectives of this project is to engage local civil community groups and associations in a joint effort to increase effective detection, enforcement and prosecution of illegal activities in the Gulf of Nicoya, and the Red del Golfo is part of these efforts,” the U.S. Embassy said in a statement issued in June. “Activities include development of community watch groups and organization of outreach meetings and awareness events for community members to become better informed of the communication channels for accessing law enforcement agencies and reporting illegal activities.”
In an eight-foot dugout canoe, a fisherman pulls the rags of a torn t-shirt over his face for protection from the sun overhead. With a flick of his arms, he casts his net out over the sparkling waters of the Gulf of Nicoya and slowly lets the rope run through his fingers. As our white panga, a 15-foot, outboard-powered wooden boat, glides by he acknowledges us with a small wave of his hand before returning to his net. We do not pass closely enough to see the mesh size of his casting net, but it is likely illegal. A 2009 institute study estimates that at least 95% of nets used in the Gulf violate fishing regulations.
With over 15,000 fishermen active there, local fisheries have taken a beating. “Many factors have led to the decline in fish populations,” Umaña says. “There is contamination, over fishing and illegal fishing. By forming one body in the Red del Golfo we hope that we can address all of these issues at once.”
Though stopping illegal fishing is the ultimate goal of the Red del Golfo, it is also the most complex. Due to the lack of enforcement, many fishermen have never faced consequences for illegal fishing. This creates a cycle where sustainability measures are never fully enforced, fish populations never recuperate and sustainable fishing practices never are adopted widely enough for fishermen to see that they can work. This sequence of events was on full display following a fishing ban in the Gulf in 2012.
Neither the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute nor the Coast Guard increased their patrols during the ban, and a survey taken a year later found that over 90% of fishermen saw no difference in their catch sizes the following year. The government declared the ban a failure. “There is now an active fishing ban in the Gulf of Nicoya [for the breeding season], but if you go out you will see hundreds of people fishing,” Gutiérrez says. “Many of them probably don’t have licenses and are probably using illegal nets.”
Given the culture of illegal fishing, MarViva is working to provide environmental education in coordination with better enforcement. Park rangers plan to conduct seminars with fishing groups to sell the idea of fishing restrictions, while leaders in the community have already begun environmental outreach. “This was never about just one thing,” Umaña says. “With the Red del Golfo addressing everything maybe things could actually begin to change.”
- Lindsay Fendt