Scrapping the Bottom

Updated: Nov 1, 2019

The boat captain of a small hotel outside of Drake Bay rides into town on the weekly food run. He spots a shrimping boat anchored in the bay and pulls up beside it, avoiding the large dangling nets. “Hey man, toss me a bag!” he shouts. The fisherman on board disappears for a minute and comes back with a full black trash bag. He throws it over the side landing in the small boat with a thud. “Thanks!”

When the captain gets back to the hotel, he brings the heavy bag to the kitchen. “Might have to get creative with some of this,” he says to the chef. The chef opens the bag and pulls out a small white tip reef shark, followed by a variety of small deep-sea fish that you would certainly never find in a grocery store.

According to the WWF analysis, tropical shrimp is one of the world’s most valued seafood and accounts for 20% of internationally traded seafood products. Fleets of trawlers have grown to over 400,000 all over the world, engaging in what is considered to be one of the most damaging and non-selective fishing methods in the world. Tropical shrimp trawling has one of the highest by-catch rates of all fishing techniques while also damaging the sea floor. With every kilo of shrimp caught, ten kilos of other species are caught with it, dying in the process. By-catch can include anything in the sea: dolphins, sea turtles, sea horses, juvenile fish, small whales, corals, sharks, and invertebrates such as sea stars and crabs. PRETOMA reported that Costa Rica trawlers were snagging around 15,000 sea turtles annually. Some of this by-catch is gifted or sold on the side, but most of it is tossed overboard.

“With every kilo of shrimp

caught, 10 kilos of

by-catch are caught with it”

Shrimp boats use a technique called bottom trawling, wherein large, weighted nets are dragged across the sea bottom, scooping up everything in their path. The trawlers destroy important spawning grounds while capturing juvenile fish, hurting fish populations and driving species like the marine porpoise to potential extinction. Not to mention, shrimp stocks are on a strong decline all over the world where fisheries are not regulated. Unfortunately, due to their high popularity as a food item, important tropical shrimp species caught mainly for consumption in North America, the European Union, Japan, the Coral Triangle, and the Indian subcontinent are experiencing a sharp decline in fishery output.

In 2013, the Costa Rican government took the first steps in mitigating this damaging practice by prohibiting the renewal of trawling licenses until studies could find a way to reduce by-catch with by-catch reduction devices. The studies had to prove that new styles of nets could sufficiently reduce by-catch rates that are currently reaching 80-97%. However, no such studies were realized until recently in 2018 when the last existing licenses started to expire. The 2-month study was denounced by the MarViva Foundation as they did not consider important factors like seasonality, damage to the sea floor, or the impact on artisan fisherman who rely on catching a few fish every day to feed their family.

It appears that under former President Luis Guillermo Solís, the government was trying to re-establish trawling without having to go through the whole process of legal reform, as the constitutional chamber demands. The Government argues that trawling is necessary because the shrimp fisherman of the Pacific coast depend on this economic activity. The judicial branch will ultimately have to decide whether the short-term economic gains weight out the long-term environmental effects. It appears thus far that their opinion will not be swayed without scientific evidence that trawlers can in fact reduce by-catch significantly. Of course, they would also have to consider the marine policing that would be needed to assure regulations are being followed.

In May of 2019, INCOPESCA submitted a plan to allocate over three million dollars to shrimp fisherman. The plan proposes to pay fisherman to do scientific studies that would find a more sustainable way to trawl for shrimp. This plan is not viable as shrimping boats do not have capacities or equipment for these kind of studies, nor do the fishermen have the scientific knowledge to carry out such complicated experiments. It is evident that there are many conflicts of interest on the ruling of trawling, and the only way fisherman would truly be deterred is by reduced demand for shrimp.

As consumers, we have a voice in the matter. We can choose to support the demand for shrimp trawling by buying it at a restaurant or super market. Our choice to order shrimp on the menu determines the economic gains of trawling. If it were clear that the profit did not out way the damages, the outlawing of trawling could be widely accepted, not just in Costa Rica, but all over the world. We the public can make an educated decision at the store to buy farmed shrimp or simply phase them out of our diets. These decisions will ultimately be what influences government rulings and environmental regulations.

Sign the petition against the reinstatement of shrimp trawling in Costa Rica HERE.

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