Photo Credit: Pretoma

Hammerhead shark conservation in Costa Rican fishing communities


A day in the life of community leader Doña Miriam Vargas highlights her fishery’s work to protect Costa Rica’s hammerhead sharks – as described by Andy Bystrom, project coordinator with SOS Grantee PRETOMA.

As president of a fishers’ association, Miriam Vargas is pushing back against unsustainable industrialised fishing practices
Credits : Pretoma

It’s 6 a.m. and Miriam Vargas wades through the placid estuary waters from one small fishing boat to the next. She carries a long knife covered in blood, slime, and fish guts. Her ripped t-shirt and faded shorts are stained with the same bloody mess that drips from the knife and into the warm water around her feet. She grabs snapper after snapper with her bare hands, turns them over, slits open their abdomens, removes their intestines and flings them into a flock of floating pelicans that have gathered around the boats.

When the gutting is done she helps carry plastic crates full of fish from the boats to the weighing station, located just out of reach of the rising tide’s waters. From there, she sorts and records the total catch, separating the economically important snappers from the bycatch species with little commercial value. Her data, meticulously recorded and generously given to local scientists for analysis, is contributing to hammerhead shark conservation and the development of a sustainable small-scale snapper fishery.

Doña Miriam is president of the Bejuco Fishers Association (ASOBEJUCO). For the last 30 years, she and her family have fished for snapper with bottom longlines in the coastal waters on Costa Rica’s northern Pacific coast. She remembers a time when ASOBEJUCO’s small fleet of boats would come back to shore riding low in the water, full of snappers. Over the last 5 years, however, she’s witnessed a sharp downturn in the total catch. But rather than accepting the role of passive victim of overfishing and poor coastal resource management, this unlikely political leader has learned about sustainable fisheries, certification systems, MPA development, and new forms of local management strategies.

And thanks to her association’s efforts to fish sustainably and avoid bycatch of threatened hammerhead sharks, the fishery is leading the development of management plans for the area’s two marine protected areas (MPAs), producing Costa Rica’s first snapper stock assessment, lobbying for national fisheries policy improvements, and driving the local initiative for a Fair Trade USA certification.

Beneath Doña Miriam’s weathered exterior is a politically astute individual who has learned to effectively present her community’s economic concerns during national fisher forums and in personal meetings with national fisheries officials and environmental ministers. By doing so, she’s pushing back against a governance system that favors industrialised fisheries and the unsustainable extraction of marine resources.

What is more, in 2009 she aligned her fishery with research groups and permitted biologists to record and analyze ASOBEJUCO catch data. Because of this, her fishery has contributed information used in multiple masters and doctorate theses by national and international students. Her fishery has also used this analysis to mitigate its bycatch rates, including its impacts on hammerhead sharks. One example of this is the way fishers have adopted the results of a hook selectivity study that identified the hook size that would maximize the catch of mature snappers while tending to catch fewer sharks and juvenile snappers.

This use of scientific catch data along with her and her community’s local ecological knowledge of the surrounding coastal ecosystem and the selectivity of bottom-longline use is driving much needed community-based fisheries management strategies in Costa Rica.

And it is these bottom-up approaches that are allowing this community of small-scale snapper fishers, and others like it, to pursue international sustainability certifications that could potentially aid in the socio-economic development of this community based industry. Doña Miriam is a crucial part of everyday life in Bejuco and an influential player in national fishery policy and the development of sustainable development initiatives. It is vocal, educated community leaders like her who drive coastal conservation and sustainable resource management strategies in Costa Rica. 

This blog post is part of a series highlighting frontline conservation work from grantees of SOS – Save Our Species, a global initiative created by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the World Bank and IUCN, since joined by numerous other donors. Managed by IUCN, SOS aggregates and redistributes much-needed funding to high-impact species projects implemented by conservation organisations worldwide.

This is just one of many community oriented conservation projects supported by IUCN’s SOS initiative. With your continued support we can continue to support frontline conservation tackling a number of high-priority issues such as habitat degradation. Please donate now and help SOS save more species.

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