Costa Rica Court Rules for Sea Turtles, Jails Captain

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica, February 4, 2002 (ENS) - In a benchmark ruling, the Trial Board of Puntarenas has convicted the captain and owners of a longline vessel of fishing illegally in the marine protected waters of Cocos Island National Park, located 300 miles off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica.

Commander Claudio Pacheco, director of the National Coast Guard Service, said of the ruling Friday, "This is an extraordinary precedent that confirms our commitment towards the protection of our country's marine resources."


Cocos Island (Photo courtesy DX-pedition 2002)
The area lies in the migratory path of the endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtle, and contains critical habitat for unique coral species and a diversity of marine life.

The largest unihabited island in the world, Cocos Island island was declared a World Heritage Site four years ago due to its importance for large deep sea species such as sharks, manta rays and whales. Cocos Island is unique in the world as a habitat for marine species where breeding, birth, growth, and feeding takes place.

"Up to now, there has been very little enforcement of fishing rules in marine protected areas in Costa Rica, a problem common to marine protected areas worldwide," said Randall Arauz, Central American director of the Sea Turtle Restoration Project.

The captain and vessel were first apprehended on August 21, 2001 by a Sea Shepherd Conservation Society ship the "Ocean Warrior," captained by Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson. They captured the mother ship "San Jose I," out of Manta, Ecuador, and seven of its tenders - small boats that were supplying the main vessel. The boats were targeting sharks using long lines, a fishing method known to also hook and drown turtles, rays and sea birds.

Penalties handed down Friday included confiscation of the vessel, a US$300,000 fine against the owners, and a three year jail term against the captain. Because of his Ecuadorian citizenship, he will be allowed to return to Ecuador in lieu of jail time in Costa Rica.


A Cocos Island ranger escorts the crew of the San Jose I into port. (Photo by Ted Tennessen courtesy Sea Shepherd)
The confiscated vessel is being turned over to the Ministry of Public Security to beef up enforcement of the Cocos Island National Park marine protected areas from future illegal fishing activities.

The National Park asked us for help because their boats are too small to go up against the poachers' main ships," said Watson. "They were caught in the act. As we boarded the last boat, the fishermen were throwing hammerheads overboard." Shark fins can sell for more than US$30 a pound at the dock in Asian markets.

Costa Rica declared the island a national park in 1978. Jacques Yves Cousteau visited the Island in 1986 and supported an international campaign that, in 1997, resulted in the island being declared a UNECSO World Heritage Site.

Todd Steiner, executive director of the Turtle Island Restoration Network, based in San Francisco, said, "This is the exact kind of action the international community was looking for from the Costa Rican government. This sends a strong and important message to the world's fishing fleets that the days of illegal fishing without fear of prosecution are over."

Every year, 1,250 visitors come to scuba dive Cocos Island, attracted by the biodiversity of this World Heritage Site. Nicola Ghersinich and Mario Arroyo, scuba dive guides and instructors who work with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society to patrol Cocos Island for illegal fishing vessels, say Cocos is facing "a crisis."

"Just imagine 20 poachers fishing in a small bay," invite Ghersinich and Arroyo. "That is exactly what has occurred every day of the month of October [2001] in Cocos' Chatham Bay, fundamental breeding grounds for pelagic species. Each poacher vessel has six fishermen, who produce a daily average of one garbage bag of waste. Each engine loses one liter of oil daily, due to the precarious condition of their boats."

If each poacher averages 10 sharks per day, that would mean 6,000 sharks were killed in the month of October alone. At this pace, in just a few weeks, the damage will be irreversible. During the month of October, Ghersinich and Arroyo say, "Chatham Bay received 3,600 fishermen, who don't pay for their visit to the island, and leave behind 600 bags of waste and spill 600 liters of oil within the marine reserve. These numbers speak for themselves: the damage has been done, and more is being done daily."

Arauz organized scientists from around the world to petition the government to take action in the case of the San Josť I. Letters from scientists flooded Costa Rican officials, including a letter signed jointly by 120 scientists.

"This is a victory for the ocean," Arauz said happily Friday, "and for the critically endangered leatherback sea turtles, which are often caught and drowned in longline vessels fishing for swordfish, and all marine life. I commend the Costa Rican Courts for taking this important action."


Turtle in the waters of Cocos Island (Photo courtesy DX-pedition 2002)
"The proper care of marine resources is one of the most complicated problems that modern societies are currently facing," said Dr. Jack Frazier, a scientist with the Smithsonian Institution. "The government of Costa Rica had to show its commitment to the world, otherwise illegal fishing activities and their devastating effects would continue."

Dr. Frank Paladino, of Purdue University co-authored a June 2000 article in the journal "Nature," that demonstrates the effect of indiscriminate fishing on marine turtles. "The case we have developed for the leatherback turtles is that longline and net fisheries located in their migratory pathway, to and from the nesting beaches in Costa Rica and elsewhere, kills hundreds of adult turtles and has devastated their breeding populations," Paladino said.

"The extinction of leatherbacks and other marine species can be directly linked to these illegal activities in protected areas," he confirmed.

"We now expect the Costa Rican justice system to rule just as firmly against two other Colombian pirate vessels, the Puri, arrested January 12, and the Luz Marlene arrested January 25," said Arauz. "We also expect the authorities to act accordingly against domestic pirate fishermen, to control illegal activities that are now out of control in all of the Marine Protected Areas of Costa Rica."