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Why you won't see Costa Rican shrimp on US menus

The US bans imports of Costa Rican shrimp over failure to protect endangered turtles

SAN JOSE — The U.S. State Department this month banned imports of Costa Rican shrimp because of this country's failure to enforce laws that prevent shrimpers from catching and drowning endangered sea turtles in their trawl nets.

The news came as a blow to a country thought to be leading a green revolution: There are fears here that the ban will tarnish Costa Rica's eco-friendly reputation. In addition, there are economic concerns. Costa Rica's seafood has slowly crept onto menus at U.S. restaurants in recent years.

"The initial economic impact won't be as bad as the way this will affect our image, which could spread to other sectors of the fishing industry as well. That's a big concern," said Patricia Arce, executive director of the National Chamber of Fishery Product Exporters.

But environmental groups say shrimpers here have had their chance to uphold Costa Rica's green standards.

Four species of marine turtles — the green sea turtle, the olive ridley, hawksbill and leatherback — nest along Costa Rica's Pacific coast. All four species are listed on The World Conservation Union Red List as either endangered or critically endangered: Accidental netting by fishermen is one of the main threats to the turtles' existence, according to the Marine Turtle Restoration Program (PRETOMA), a Costa Rica-based non-governmental organization.

PRETOMA hopes the U.S. trade embargo on Costa Rican shrimp — effective May 1, 2009 through April 2010 — will act as a wake-up call to the country's fishing industry, which includes more than 50 shrimp companies.

The ban came after an assessment of shrimping practices by nations whose marine animals are endangered. U.S. law prohibits imports of shrimp and shrimp products harvested in ways that may threaten the existence of certain sea turtles. The study led U.S. officials to certify the shrimping practices of nearly 40 countries, including Central American nations such as Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador.

Costa Rica is conspicuously absent from the list.

"In meetings with senior Costa Rican fisheries officials during the December 2008 certification visit, the State Department representative stressed that without rapid remedial action Costa Rica's certification might be compromised," according to a State Department statement. "Costa Rican officials were aware of the issue and promised (to) resolve it early in 2009. However, the United States Embassy in San Jose reports that since that December visit Costa Rican authorities have not taken all the action they promised."