Black tips. Silver tips. Hammerheads. Tiger sharks. With so many ferocious predators lurking beneath the depths of the Pacific, it’s hard to imagine that human beings actually pose the greatest threat to life in the protected waters of Isla del Coco National Park.
The preserve, located 340 miles off Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, is a veritable magnet for pelagic sea creatures – and the scuba divers that come from all corners of the globe to observe them. Its underwater landscape is like going back to the age of the dinosaurs, when everything came jumbo sized and in mass quantity. Eight species of sharks, four types of rays and four kinds of sea turtles don’t begin to scratch the surface of the island’s incredible biodiversity. UNESCO named the park a World Heritage Site in 1997 in recognition of its tremendous value.
The landmass and surrounding 12 nautical miles of ocean are safeguarded by law, and absolutely no fishing or destructive activities are permitted within park jurisdiction. In spite of stringent legislation, the marine inhabitants are constantly under attack by long line fishermen and poachers. Illegal hunters enter the park surreptitiously with the tides, most often at night. They drop lines hundreds of miles long that are rigged with thousands of baited hooks and wait for the ebb and flow of the water to drag them toward shore. The lines snare anything in their wake, mangling and murdering unwitting sea creatures.
Between 2004 and 2009, authorities collected over 1,100 miles of fishing line and 50,000 hooks. Thanks to the diligence of rangers and volunteers, 1,431 snared yellowfin tuna, 459 sharks, 12 turtles and 10 dolphins were rescued and released – though hundreds of others weren’t so lucky.
Sadly, Cocos Island is difficult if not impossible to defend. Offenders are tough to apprehend because, legally, they must be caught in the act – in this case, with fishing poles in hand. Even then, they are extremely arduous to prosecute. Poachers wait just outside the 12-mile limit until the coast is clear. The moment they see a patrol boat appear on the radar, they cut their lines and hightail it out of there.
Illegal fishing in Costa Rica is anything but black and white. Countless local inhabitants depend on the ocean to make a living, and at Isla del Coco, lucrative catches are pretty much guaranteed. So many miles offshore, a single tuna can grow to the size of a full grown man, raking in as much as $2,000 USD (about four times the average monthly salary in Costa Rica). When legitimate fishing areas are scare and there is no food on the table, it is easy to imagine an angler’s temptation to cheat in rich national park waters.
What many locals don’t acknowledge is, even though the ocean’s bounty seems endless, this kind of fishing is not sustainable. Once marine life is gone, it is gone for good. Sharks and others on top of the food chain have an evolutionary responsibility to keep the ecosystem in balance. Without predators to control fish populations by eating weak and wounded animals, the sea would fall into complete chaos.
Tragically, it is estimated that every three seconds a shark is slaughtered somewhere in the world for “finning”, the practice of sawing off their fins while the creatures are still alive. The animals are then dumped back into the depths where they writhe in agony until finally drowning (sharks must swim to breathe, which they cannot do without fins). The Undersea Hunter Group estimates that scalloped hammerhead populations alone dropped 70% from 1992 to 2004.
This deplorable practice is driven by the demand for shark fin soup in Asia, which is considered a delicacy and often served at prestigious weddings. Despite pressure from conservation groups to make finning illegal, Costa Rican lawmakers skirted the issue by passing a bogus law. The new legislation requires fishermen to keep fins attached to sharks’ bodies until reaching the coast – theoretically reducing how many creatures can be killed on a single boat. In reality, this mandate is impossible to enforce, and ineffective in reducing the number of animals slaughtered.
Despite Isla del Coco’s important role in patrolling the waters in this area, a large portion of state funding must be spent on boat maintenance and the gas required to reach the park. Three tiny patrol boats are expected to police a vast domain of 2,000 square kilometers – which can be breached by as many as 30 prohibited boats per day.
To help front the budget constraints, a steady flow of volunteers is welcomed to Isla del Coco to clear brush, give tours, cook and more. The park’s month-long volunteer program includes marine transport from Puntarenas, food and lodging – all free of charge. Additionally, the Friends of Cocos Island Foundation encourages private contributions through events and their website at www.acmic.sinac.go.cr