A Sustainable Fishing Blueprint

When conservationists first approached members of the artisan fishing community in San Francisco de Coyote (Aspecoy) with an idea to create a marine protected area – an area that would encompass most of Aspecoy’s sacred fishing grounds, and require them to adopt more sustainable fishing methods – they were kindly asked to leave town and not mingle on their way out. It seemed change was not what this humble community was fishing for.


Aspecoy fishermen set out in the evening to sustainably fish for snapper, using long bottom lines (picture: Eric Lopez)

But there was a growing problem in these waters. Fishing yields (more specifically the spotted rose snapper) were falling. The worse the situation got, the harder Aspecoy members fished; and the more they fished, the worse things got.  Quite simply, the community was draining its fishing resources dry, and it didn’t know how to stop.

Researchers, along with Environmental Ministry officials from the Costa Rican government continued to gather data on the tenuous state of the area’s marine natural resources. Aspecoy, still leery of the endeavor, was willing to lend a hand in this process and agreed to have researchers board their small boats and participate in its nightly fishing activities. Day after day, after the fleet slowly returned to the muddy river bank in front of its small processing plant, investigators observed and recorded the fleet’s catch. By studying the different fishing techniques that Aspecoy used, researchers were able to compare the number of snappers actually brought back to shore with the amount of by-catch caught (marine life with little market value that gets swept up in nets and hooks). They soon learned that Ascecoy’s sporadic use of long bottom lines (baited hooks laid out along the ocean floor) actually caught more snappers without killing kilogram after kilogram of by-catch like their seine nets indiscriminately did.

Researchers also observed the interminable work of commercial shrimp trawlers that swept the coastal floor in front of San Francisco de Coyote from one end to the next. Like marine bulldozers, the trawlers amassed an incredible amount of by-catch – often in the form of small juvenile fish – in their nets for every few handfuls of shrimp they caught.


Bycatch, or the accidental capture of unwanted marine animals, has led to the destruction of some species of sea turtles including the magnificent leatherback sea turtle (not pictured)

It wasn’t difficult to see how shrimp trawlers and Aspecoy’s use of seine nets were causing the slow death of the area’s artisanal fishing industry.

In a monumental undertaking, Aspecoy members agreed to dramatically reduce their use of seine nets and agreed to the establishment of a wildlife refuge in its backyard, as long as it would keep the shrimpers away. In August 2006 the Caletas-Arío National Wildlife Refuge was created. Its 12 square kilometers of marine protected area are off limits to shrimp trawlers and seine netters but allow Aspecoy to fish with bottom long lines.

The refuge is now well known for its good fishing but is threatened by shrimp trawl poachers and seine netters from other ports of call. Fed up with this, Aspecoy looks to better protect its fishing area by taking legal action against these poachers. The association is also interested in environmental certifications. Where there was once adamant opposition to change, there is now a growing stewardship for the reserve and a long term vision towards a sustainably fished future.

For more information on how you can tour the Caletas-Arío Wildlife Refuge with an Aspecoy fisherman, contact Andy Bystrom at andy@pretoma.org.


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