Earlier this year, Costa Rica’s President Carlos Alvarado signed a decree that gutted vital protections for sharks, even those officially protected by international agreements. The President removed the ability of the Ministry of Environment to protect sharks and shifted management responsibilities to the Institute of Fisheries and Aquaculture (INCOPESCA), which lacks the capacity to effectively monitor population trends and stands to benefit from their commercialisation. Thus, Costa Rica’s Wildlife Conservation Law no longer protects sharks.
Urgent need of protection
Worldwide, hundreds of species of sharks are facing extinction, largely due to overfishing and human exploitation. Costa Rica, a country that prides itself of protecting its rich wildlife, is not an exception. With almost half of the more than 40 species of shark inhabiting its waters in serious danger of extinction, Costa Rica is doing an abysmal job of stemming the alarming decline of endangered shark species.
In Costa Rica, sharks are particularly at risk due to the intensification of longline fishery. This technique, consisting of baited hooks attached at intervals to miles-long lines, aims to catch targeted fish, usually mahi mahi. However, this hooks also attract and kill hundreds of sharks as they are regularly entangled in nets and caught as bycatch. In fact, a study published in 2013 showed that the second-most-common catch on Costa Rica’s longline fisheries was not a commercial fish. It was olive ridley sea turtles. These lines also caught more green turtles and sharks than most species of fish.
One of the most at-risk species affected from this management shift is the critically endangered hammerhead shark, ironically, a national symbol of Costa Rica’s marine conservation efforts. According to multiple scientific studies, this iconic species could become extinct globally within the next 20 years if authorities do not take urgent actions.
We are not going to accept the imminent extinction of sharks on behalf of an institution that is sold out to uncontrolled extractive activities and which has led to an irrefutable state of overfishing that threatens our society as a whole.
Sharks’ vital role for healthy ocean ecosystems
As apex predators, sharks play a key role in the stability of ecosystems by maintaining the species below them in the food chain. They help remove the weak and the sick fish as well as keeping the balance with competitors helping ensure species diversity. Further, sharks shift their prey’s spatial habitat, which at the same time alters the feeding strategy and diets of other species. Thus, through their movement, sharks control fish distribution and abundance, indirectly maintaining seagrass and corals reef habitats. Finally, sharks also develop an important role in the cycle of nutrients across large swaths of the ocean, working as mobile carbon stores. At the end of their life cycle, the carcasses of these big fish sink and absorb huge amounts of CO2.
The removal and alarming decline of sharks today is therefore, threatening to destabilise the entire system, a cause for great concern.