Marine conservation organisation, Earthrace, has just returned from a successful three-month operation, ‘Mission Pirata’, in Costa Rica targeting a number of issues including illegal fishing.

As a result of the team’s activities, a number of prosecutions of persons engaged in illegal fishing activities are pending. Earthrace was also able to obtain proof on film from on board several other fishing vessels believed to be acting beyond the law, including a 70 foot (21 metres) long line trawler.

Earthrace were hosted by the Ministry of Environment, Energy and Oceans of Costa Rica (MINAE), and also worked closely with Pretoma, an NGO based in Costa Rica.

The team of ex-services personnel, headed up by Pete Bethune, took to the high seas on board the Earthrace amphibian, Sealegs, which was shipped from its base in New Zealand for the campaign, as well as working on board Costa Rican patrol vessels.

Pete Bethune, who led the team, said, “Illegal fishing may not be as much on the public’s radar as some other issues. However, I believe it is the most dangerous and damaging practice going on around the world today in terms of our oceans.

“The pressure on populations of fish and other marine animals from illegal fishing fleets that don’t give a damn about what they catch, how much, and how they catch it means there is no longer plenty more in the sea.”

Costa Rica, a country that in many respects, has an enviable environmental record compared with neighbouring countries, has a number of marine protected zones around the coastline, and much of the work of Earthrace over the three month period focused on these areas.

The offense of being caught illegally fishing around Costa Rica can mean anything from a small fine to imprisonment. Generally a first offence does not see substantial penalties imposed, but subsequent infringements usually see offenders spending time behind bars.

Bethune said, “These penalties do act as a deterrent to some, especially those that have been caught once and do not want to risk jail so will leave the area and not return, but there seems to be a non-stop flow of more pirates entering the region and current levels of protection and enforcement are not able to cope. Added to which, it is not unusual for individuals working in marine and fisheries protection to receive death threats from the gangs responsible for illegal fishing.

“It’s worth noting also that illegal fishing is not just carried out by local vessels. There are an increasing number of foreign flagged vessels engaged in illegal fishing. Sadly, it seems plenty of people are willing to take chances in exchange for the huge profits that can be made illegally in their own and in other countries’ waters.”

Randall Arauz, Director of Pretoma, said: “The environment authorities and coastguards lack the equipment and resources to be able to care for these marine protected areas. The commercial fishermen know this, and take advantage by invading these areas because the chances of them being caught are slim”.

The quantity of seafood caught illegally has been estimated to total 11 million to 25 million metric tons – the equivalent of around 20% of all seafood traded around the world. 260 million jobs are dependent on legal marine fisheries1.

Whilst the widespread introduction of quotas, International agreements and an increase in marine protected zones around the world seeks to curb over-fishing by legitimate fleets, the effects of these are still almost impossible to accurately measure, and nor are there enough infrastructures available to monitor what exactly is caught and sold and in what quantities.

Bethune said, “Illegal fishing impacts on the livelihoods of artisanal fishermen trying to earn an honest living and feed their families, as well as national commercial interests. It has a devastating effect on marine life in terms of the deliberate targeting threatened species like tuna, swordfish and rays for which the pirates can get well rewarded on the black market. Other species are simply are not being allowed to mature enough to keep populations growing and healthy.

“Pirates perpetuate the reprehensible practice of shark finning. In addition, do you think that a poacher who is stealing millions of fish is going to be concerned with the whales, dolphins, porpoises, sea turtles, seals, sea lions, manta rays, sharks, sea birds or any other creatures that are unlucky enough to be entangled in a driftnet, hooked on a long line, swept up in a purse seine, caught by a trawler, or blown up by explosives?”

At the start of 2013, 280 Kemp’s, Ridley and Black sea turtles were washed up dead in the Golfo Dulce off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. The Ministry of the Environment have reported it believes they were the victims of illegal long line fishing.

The fruit of the sea
Shrimp trawling was big business in Costa Rica, but because of dwindling supplies and excessive by-catch, it is being phased out over five years. As permits expire, they will not be renewed.

Globally, shrimp trawl fisheries catch 2% of the world total catch of all fish by weight, but produce more than one-third of the world total by catch. It’s estimated that for every kg shrimp caught (legally or illegally), there are 5.7kg of by catch.

In addition, in July this year, all shrimp boats operating in Central America and the Dominican Republic, including Costa Rica, must use turtle excluder devices, or TEDs, which allow by caught sea turtles to escape from nets.

During one sortie, the team on board Sealegs spotted a 70foot (21 metre) Costa Rican shrimp trawler idling outside the marine protected area in the Guanacaste province in the early evening while it was light.

Once it was dark, the trawler was observed travelling at 8 knots into the marine protected area, where it turned off its lights, stopped and spent 40 minutes preparing its trawl gear.

For the next seven hours, the trawler traversed in the same area at around 2-3 knots. It was deliberately operating within the protected area and at daybreak, he pulled in the trawl nets at which point the Earthrace team boarded the vessel.

The GPS was observed and filmed. It showed a history of fishing in both the north and south marine protected areas on a regular basis. There was in fact more data with him fishing inside the marine protected area than outside it.

The Captain of the vessel maintained there was only a marine protected area in the South of the region, not in the North where he was; that he was not inside the North marine protected area at all; and that there was no way of proving that the GPS was working correctly.

This particular trawler did have a turtle exclusion device fitted, although many do not.

The Earthrace team spent many days and nights observing and filming fishing activities around the Marine Protected Areas. Footage obtained by Earthrace from Sealegs and from on board suspected illegal fishing vessels boarded by the team is being passed to the relevant authorities. Bethune will return to Costa Rica soon to meet with them and present further evidence that will allow more arrests and prosecutions.

Earthrace also donated some of their valuable equipment which will be used to help MINAE and others continue their fight against the 21st century pirates that have become the scourge of the Costa Rican seas. This included radar equipment, VHF radios, binoculars, night vision goggles and an outboard engine.