High hopes for a radar crash against the reality of illegal fishing in Costa Rica

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The installation of a radar tower on Costa Rica’s Cocos Island has ushered in a new era in the fight against illegal fishing in one of the most biodiverse ocean regions in the world.

Rich in reef fish, sharks, tuna and other lucrative species, the island’s waters had been plundered by poachers for years.

The “radar was a way of saying that so far is the control and protection of the country,” Haydee Rodríguez, an environmental lawyer and former vice minister of waters and oceans of Costa Rica, told InSight. Crime.

The radar tower was supposed to be the first of 11, forming an unprecedented surveillance net in Latin America. Today it stands alone, a beacon of the difficulties small countries face in using new technologies to monitor their vast waters.

The Rise and Fall of Costa Rica’s Radar System

The radar system was first proposed in a 2012 report on control strategies to protect Costa Rica’s ocean territory, which is 11 times larger than the country itself. Cocos Island, about 550 kilometers off the country’s Pacific coast, provided the perfect place to showcase the first radar project, costing about $3.4 million.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Cocos Island National Park is home to tropical rainforest, coral reefs, waterfalls and verdant mountains. Its waters – with an abundance of fish, rays, turtles and sharks, including tiger sharks and giant hammerhead sharks – have been compared to a Jurassic Park Underwater.

SEE ALSO: Costa Rica strengthens its plan to monitor vessels and fight against illegal fishing

Construction of the tower began in 2015. A promotional video shows the rigors of building the 100ft tower atop the island. Supplies and workers are transported the. Pulleys and winches transport materials through the forest.

A hydroelectric system and control room – replete with solar panels and satellite communications – are built to keep the radar running and provide round-the-clock surveillance capabilities.

“It was the Ferrari of speed cameras back then,” Mónica Gamboa, of conservation organization Forever Costa Rica (Costa Rica por Siempre), told InSight Crime.

Shortly after the deployment of the radar in 2017, Oswaldo Rosero, a maritime control and vigilance specialist, noted a drastic reduction in illegal fishing.

“It was like magic. Immediately the boats started respecting the boundaries of the area because they knew we were going to see them,” Rosero told InSight Crime.

But when oceanographer Sylvia Earle visited the Cocos Island ranger station in May 2017, she heard the first concerns.

“We see a lot of illegal fishing boats,” a ranger told him, according to a travel diary from his organization Mission Blue. published of his trip. But without patrol boats and gasoline, “we see them and can’t do anything,” he said.

The radar was also difficult to maintain and repair. Institutions involved in its operation lacked the logistical capacity to monitor the high-tech system, Gamboa said.

Once a Debt crisis hit the country in 2017, the other planned rounds remained in limbo.

“It was a very useful tool,” Gamboa said. “But at the end of the day, it was a tool without everything needed, and it wasn’t going to deliver the results that it could potentially deliver.”

Challenges facing Costa Rica

Illegal fishing remains a significant and growing threat to marine life on Cocos Island. A report published by the non-governmental organization Friends of Cocos Island (Amigos Isla del Coco – Faico) found that seizures of illegal catch, boat interceptions and prosecutions are minimal.

Damián Martínez, director of conservation at the Costa Rican Fisheries Federation (Federación Costarricense de Pesca – Fecop), said judicial institutions lack the capacity and knowledge to investigate and prosecute rogue boats.

“There is a lot of impunity,” he told InSight Crime.

SEE ALSO: Costa Rica is sabotaging its own efforts to protect vulnerable sharks

At the end of last year, a Global Marine Products The report denounced the government’s inaction in protecting sharks, tuna, swordfish and other deep-sea fish, despite presenting a plan to do so.

Shark finning always happens in Costa Rica, thanks to the non-enforcement of laws, according to the report. In 2021, the Central American nation accounted for 4% of global shark fin exports, according to Abrams World Trade Wiki, a platform for tracking global trade data.

Speed ​​cameras get a second chance

We don’t know if the radar is still working. Meanwhile, the marine sanctuary around the island grew up 61,500 square miles of ocean, about three times the size of mainland Costa Rica.

After hard-learned lessons, radar is being looked at again to monitor the country’s marine reserves, Gamboa said. But it must be part of a comprehensive and profitable strategy.

Gamboa said Costa Rica was considered a world leader in conservation efforts. This must also be true for the oceans, she said.

* Michelle Soto conducted research and interviews for this article.

This report is part of a two-part investigation into IUU fishing with the Center for Latin American and Latin American Studies at American University. The second installment, “Plundered Oceans: IUU Fishing in SouthAmerican Seas,” is set to be released on August 3.

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