Struggle to Strengthen Sea Turtle Protection in Costa Rica

Summer 1998 Issue Articles:

* Struggle to Strengthen Sea Turtle Protection in Costa Rica
* The Road to Tortuguero — A Two-Way Street

Next Issue
Previous Issue

Struggle to Strengthen Sea Turtle Protection in Costa Rica

By Cindy Taft, Director of International Programs

On May 7, 1998, CCC and 12 co-plaintiffs filed a case with the Constitutional Court of Costa Rica requesting the repeal of a law that permits the legal harvest of Caribbean green turtles (Decree 14524-A). The Center for Environmental and Natural Resource Law (CEDARENA) prepared the court case for the co-plaintiffs, which included five non-profit organizations (CCC, CEDARENA, Neotropica Foundation, the World Society for the Protection of Animals, and the Sea Turtle Restoration Project), the owners of four Tortuguero lodges, several concerned citizens in Costa Rica and the Defensoría de los Habitantes (a government agency that protects Costa Rican citizens against irregular activities of the government).

The traditional hunting of sea turtles for subsistence (shown above) has been replaced by a mass harvest of turtles for commercial profit.

Legal Harvest Camouflages Clandestine Market

Since 1983, Decree 14524-A has authorized the capture of green turtles for commercial purposes in Costa Rica’s jurisdictional waters of the Caribbean. The Costa Rican Fishery Institute—INCOPESCA—has the responsibility of issuing up to 30 permits per year that allow each permit-holder to capture up to 20 green turtles per month from June 1 to August 31. This translates into a maximum annual legal take of 1,800 green turtles. Permit-holders are required by law to fish 5 km or more offshore, outside of the marine protected areas, and all turtles must be butchered in a slaughterhouse approved by the Ministry of Health within 24 hours of capture. All the permits are issued to fishermen from the port city of Limón, some 45 miles southeast of Tortuguero.

Since 1995, many citizens of Tortuguero and CCC have been concerned that the government’s inability to adequately regulate the turtle harvest was resulting in an increase in illegal turtle hunting. CCC researchers and volunteers have witnessed considerable turtle and egg poaching on the beach within Tortuguero National Park. Examinations of turtle products in the Limón market, in the government authorized slaughterhouse and in clandestine slaughterhouses revealed a harvest that may be as much as three times the legal limit.

Alarmed that unregulated hunting could adversely affect nesting turtles that are the basis of the tourism industry in Tortuguero, a local group, the Socio-Environmental Commission of Pococí-Guácimo, brought an appeal before the court in April 1997 against INCOPESCA and the individuals that had been issued permits in 1996. At the request of the Commission, CCC provided a written statement to the judge explaining the scientific reasons why adult green turtles, especially nesting females, should no longer be harvested in Costa Rica. The granting of additional permits in 1996 was suspended until the court could evaluate the case. Unfortunately, when the case came up for review in August 1997, it was thrown out because the issued permits mentioned in the appeal were all from 1996 and had expired. However, as a result of the legal action, the granting of permits in 1997 was suspended, and the court advised INCOPESCA to undertake studies needed to demonstrate the effect of the harvest on the green turtle population. To date, INCOPESCA has neither planned nor carried out any studies to determine if an annual harvest of 1,800 green turtle is sustainable.

CCC has continued to work with INCOPESCA, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Energy (MINAE), the Coast Guard, local police authorities, the Atlantic Port Authority Board and a network of sea turtle specialists in Costa Rica to consider the extent and the impacts of the potential legislative reforms—including enforcement needs, impacts to fishermen, economic alternatives and resource management options. There now exists a multi-sectoral commission headed by MINAE and INCOPESCA to address sea turtle issues.

Sea Turtles are a National Heritage

The new case filed by CCC and others attacks the harvest decree on the grounds that: (1) it violates the fundamental right of Costa Ricans to a healthy and ecologically balanced environment as guaranteed in Article 50 of the Constitution; (2) it is in violation of several international agreements that take precedence over national laws (e.g. the Convention on Flora, Fauna and Natural Scenic Beauty of the American Nations of 1976, the Convention for the Conservation of Biodiversity and the Protection of Priority Central American Wildlands, and the Convention on Biological Diversity); and (3) it has never been adequately enforced by INCOPESCA. CCC provided supporting documents explaining the life history of green turtles and the biological arguments against harvesting reproductively-active, adult animals. The Defensoría de los Habitantes and Edwin Cyrus, Director of the La Amistad-Caribe Conservation Area (which includes the Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge and Cahuita National Park) also provided statements in favor of repealing the harvest law. INCOPESCA responded to the case in June. As of this writing, the Attorney General of Costa Rica has reviewed the materials and provided his written recommendations that the Decree 14524-A be overturned. It is not known when the Constitutional Court will rule on the case.

Slaughter Alarms Costa Rican Legislators—New Laws Protecting Turtles are Promoted

Recently, the green turtle hunt has received considerable press attention in Costa Rica. On July 20, the major daily paper, La Nación, ran a cover story, complete with color photos showing fishermen harpooning green turtles and turtle meat and eggs for sale in the Limón market. A series of articles discussed all aspects of the green turtle industry in Costa Rica—both the legal and the clandestine markets. Several editorials presented opinions from local authorities and fishermen, and they explored the difficulties of ensuring compliance with the legal harvest law and the impacts this may have on the tourism industry of Tortuguero. [Internet users can access La Nacion’s website at to review articles in English or Spanish.]

The press effectively called attention to the plight of green turtles in Costa Rica, and as a result, many Costa Rican legislators are now promoting the strengthening of laws to protect sea turtles. Costa Rica was one of the first nations to sign the recently negotiated Inter-American Convention for the Protection and Conservation of Sea Turtles of the Western Hemisphere. The Costa Rican legislature is currently in the process of ratifying this Convention and will probably be the first nation to have done so by press time. CCC applauds the landmark efforts taken by Costa Rica and the leadership example it is setting to advance sea turtle protection efforts in the hemisphere.