Mariculture project could help overfished areas, restore fishing economies

Biologist resists corporate pressures on a Costa Rican mariculture project to keep focus on local conservation

By Paige Blankenbuehler

CUAJINIQUIL, Costa Rica — A motorized boat thrusts us over the choppy waves of Cuajiniquil Bay as sea mist covers our faces and our clothes become more soaked with each passing second. Our well-being has turned into a comedy: we’re a bunch of journalists about to go snorkeling (some of us for the first time), but the quick splashes of water seem to be aimed directly at us and blasting from a fire hose into our squinting eyes.

There’s no shelter from the elements, so we laugh. Our Costa Rican captain tries to hide his amusement, but it’s just too much to contain. (He, by the way, was shielded from the worst of the sprays by the boat’s Plexiglas windshield.)

Missouri School of Journalism reporters make the most of a soggy situation offshore of Cuanjiniquil, Costa Rica. Pictured top left going clockwise: Paige Blankenbuehler, Bill Allen, Natalie Helms, Mariah Brannan and Chinmay Vaidya | Photo by Paige Blankenbuehler

Missouri School of Journalism reporters make the most of a soggy situation offshore of Cuanjiniquil, Costa Rica. Pictured top left going clockwise: Paige Blankenbuehler, Bill Allen, Natalie Helms, Mariah Brannan and Chinmay Vaidya | Photo by Paige Blankenbuehler

Even the chatty Frank Joyce, a biologist and professor for a University of California Education Abroad program in Costa Rica, has retreated to the floor and is sitting low in the contours of the bow’s triangular point, ready to resume our conversation once we’ve reached calmer waters.

The boat begins to slow as we transcend subtle buoys and white pole-like structures. We get closer, and our driver turns us parallel to the now-visible netting that extends below the surface of the water. I can’t see any fish yet, but Joyce begins talking about the mariculture project he operates.

Three large nets anchored by the white pole structures contain hundreds of spotted rose snapper. They are basically fish tanks inside the vast Pacific Ocean, enclosures that cultivate marine life.

The project is the primary focus of biologist Joyce, a rugged-looking seaman with a surfer vibe punctuated by soft, scholarly undertones.

The project is still in its early years but has shown possibility for mass-production of spotted rose snapper in the bay to sustain healthy populations. The project, Joyce says, attracted the attention of a large American corporation a few years ago. The corporation was interested in investing in the mariculture project to produce snapper (which are normal residents on many high-scale restaurant menus) commercially, turning the modest, pilot-project into a “mega fish farm,” Joyce says.

Joyce doesn’t go deep into the details. The bottom line: after meeting with the corporate officials, the possibilities of expanding the mariculture project never came to fruition. “”We had different goals, ” he says.

Akin to an iceberg, the bulk of the mariculture project exists under water. Despite the hundreds of snapper that are being raised here, Joyce says the project has modest intentions: to show that snappers and oysters can be reared in captivity, that the potential market is large and that the fish are reproducing and helping to repopulate the bay.

In Cuajiniquil, fishing has supported most of the town’s economy, but a culture of resistance to conservation has depleted the area’s marine resources, and fishing there has become less productive.

Joyce and many biologists and conservationists in Guanacaste Province have struggled to educate local communities about the importance and value of conservation. He has employed locals, all previously fisherman, on the mariculture project, hoping to begin shifting the belief system. Protecting native fish will ensure successful spawning of more generations and provide more productive fishing and better economies.

Maria Marta Chavarría, a biologist with the Areá de Conservación Guanacaste who works in Cuajiniquil, has approached the formidable challenge by beginning with children in the community.

Chavarría believes that if she educates children, they will then, hopefully, carry the message of conservation to their parents. One of her favorite anecdotes centers around a young girl who explained to her father that “Maria is not a bad person” for trying to keep him from fishing in the Marine Sector of the national park. “If you protect the mom fish in the park, there will be more fish to catch outside the park,” Chavarriá says, borrowing the child’s words.

Both Joyce and Chavarría say even though the efforts have been slow to shift the paradigm, they will keep trying to change fishing practices and continue to discourage fishermen from using gill nets, which indiscriminately kill a variety of fish that don’t end up eaten or sold, according to Joyce.

Our boat captain, Minor Lara, previously employed by the conservation area and currently a dive-master and owner of his own ecotourism business, says changes in the fishing practices will ensure the sustainability of the small fishing economy in Cuajiniquil.

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