|Tonight’s sunset – Day Seven Without Rain
Seven straight absolutely gorgeous days here on Cocos Island. Seven days without a drop of rain; “It’s not normal,” says Manuel. The small stream that runs onto the beach has dried up, and the water is so low in River Genio that it barely spills over the top of the dam just below the Genio Casade. For an island that receives an average of 275 inches of rain, seven straight days feels downright drought-like.
But I’m not complaining. I’m sitting in the beachside pavilion after the day’s work is done, with Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow playing softly, and a gentle breeze is rustling the coconut palms and wafting the scent of cut grass into my face (the doing of Manuel’s weed whacker), and that golden, low-angle light reminiscent of a late 1980’s western film illuminates the early evening. Life is good.
I’m leafing through my borrowed copy of Costa Rican Law 8436, the Law of Fishing and Aquaculture (a robust 140 page affair), and comparing it to the English translation I found on Google, trying to make sense of the situation here in the park. The key piece, park director, Golfin tells me, is Article 9.
Here is Article 9, copied exactly :
Artículo 9. Sobre la pesca y vigilancia en areas protegidas. Prohíbense el ejercicio de la actividad pesquera con fines comerciales y la pesca deportiva en parques nacionales, monumentos naturales, y reservas biológicas. El ejercicio de la actividad pesquera en la parte continental e insular, en las reservas forestales, zonas protectoras, refugios nacionales de vida silvestre y humedales, estará restringido de conformidad con los planes de manejo, que determin para cada zona el Ministerio de Ambiente y Energía (MINAE), en el ámbito de sus atribuciones. Para crear o ampliar zonas protegidas que cubran áreas marinas, salvo las que apruebe la Asamblea Legislativa de conformidad con las leyes vigentes, el Ministerio deberá consultar el criterio del INCOPESCA, acerca del uso sostenible de los recursos biologicos en estas zonas. La opinión que el INCOPESCA externe deberá estar fundamentada en criterios técnicos, sociales y económicos, científicos y ecológicos, y ser emitida dentro del plazo de treinta días naturales, contados a partir de la fecha de recibida la consulta. La vigilancia de la pesca en las áreas silvestres protegidas indicadas en este artículo, le corresponderá al MINAE, que podrá coordinar los operativos con el Servicio Nacional de Guardacostas. Se permitirá a las embarcaciones permanecer en las áreas protegidas con porción marina o sin ella, en los supuestos de caso fortuito y fuerza mayor, mientras duren tales situaciones.
Fishing with commercial purposes and sport fishing activity in national parks, natural monuments and biological reserves is prohibited. Fishing activity in continental and insular areas, in forest reserves, protective zones, wildlife and wetlands national refuges, will be restricted according to the management plans that The Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE) (by its initials in Spanish) determines for each zone. In order to create or extend protected zones that cover marine areas, except for which it approves the Legislative Assembly according to the current laws, the Ministry will have to consult INCOPESCA criterion about the sustainable use of the biological resources in these zones The opinion of INCOPESCA will be based on technical, social and economic, scientific and ecological criteria, and should be emitted within a thirty days term, starting from consultation’s reception date. The fishing activity in the indicated protected wild areas will be monitored by MINAE and coordinated with the National Service of Coastguard. The vessels will be allowed to remain in protected areas due to Force Majure cases, while such situations last. MINAE and INCOPESCA will be able to jointly authorize, the transit or anchorage of boats in protected areas, when natural conditions strictly require it.
Rather dry, but there are a couple of important pieces to this article: 1) It establishes that any form of fishing in national parks is illegal. 2) It gives the funcionarios (MINAE employees) the authority to monitor protected waters, while accompanied by the Costa Rican Coast Guard.
I kept flipping through the book, and on page 94, I found Title X: Crimes, Offences, Penalties, and Remedies. Chapter I: Offenses and Penalties. Article 131 gives INCOPESCA (Costa Rican Institute of Fishing and Aquaculture) the power to implement and enforce fines and penalties. Article 132 gives the Coast Guard the authority “arrest and confiscate property, equipment, gear, or fishery equipment used to commit crimes and offenses against the fishery legislation.” And then Articles 136-153 delineate in detail the penalties for various offenses (type of fish caught with, type of equipment, un-licensed fishermen, etc.).
So to summarize:
Fact 1: Fishing in national parks is illegal.
Fact 2: The park rangers and the Coast Guard have the authority to make arrests and confiscate equipment.
Fact 3: There are penalties for every violation imaginable involving “fishing activities”.
Despite Article 9, the presence of fishing boats within the park limits is continuous
But the Cocos Island patrol finds boats within the park on a daily basis, and nothing happens. It’s as if the law doesn’t apply out here on Cocos Island, and the fishermen are somehow immune. But talking with, Pablo, our resident Guardacosta, after dinner tonight, the pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place.
Unless patrol catches fishermen in the act of hauling or setting lines, Pablo explained, the park officials can do nothing. “Fishing activity” is prohibited, but the presence of fishing boats in national parks is not. And when patrol hauls long lines out of the water? There is no identifying marker on the lines, no name or number associated with it. And since there’s no physical link between the boats Patrol chases away and the lines it hauls out of the water, the fisherman, technically speaking, are not violating the law. The park authorities are powerless to impose any sort of fine or punishment on the fishermen simply for being in the park.
Furthermore, Pablo explained, the park is severely understaffed. Even if the law did allow the seizure of the boats and the arrest of the fisherman on board, nothing could be done with the current number of funcionarios and Guardacostas on the island. Regulations dictate that five Guardacostas must be present before an offending boat can be boarded (a necessary action to arrest the fishermen and seize the boat), but the Costa Rican Coastguard only sends out one or two members at a time.
On top of the anemic numbers, the park also suffers from a lack of equipment. There is no patrol boat that can hold five people, let alone the six or seven that would realistically take part in a boarding operation. As of this moment, there’s only one patrol boat in service right now, Cocos Patrol, and four is a tight fit. Cocos Patrol 1, the other “patrol boat” in the water, has been waiting for its registration papers from the mainland for 30 months. And now, because it has been sitting in Wafer Bay for so long, inactive, it has engine problems.
For 6-8 hour patrols, four people aboard Cocos Patrol is a tight fit
An ineffective law. An understaffed ranger station. And the wrong equipment. The illegal fishing will continue for as long as this trio continues to plague Cocos Island National Park.
But the winds of change are blowing. I can feel a sense of urgency, an infusion of fresh energy among the funcionarios; they’re sick of the system, and they’re “stirring the pot”. But they need help. They need their message pushed out into the world. They need help pressuring the government to change the law, to make it stronger and more effective. They need better equipment. And this is where those of us “outside the system” – outside of the government and outside Costa Rica can help. Make a donation. Spread the word.
As Margaret Mead said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
By William Henriques