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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

It's not the first time that the United States, Costa Rica's chief shrimp buyer (shrimp exports to the U.S. grossed $2.8 million in 2007), has put a trade embargo on Tico shrimp. The ban has been imposed four times since 1999, in an attempt to penalize this country's shrimping habits.

Fishers are netting shrimp illegally near river heads and protected marine areas in the Pacific, and aren't using technology designed to prevent turtles from drowing in trawl nets, according to PRETOMA.

The NGO, a sister organization of the California-based Turtle Island Restoration Network, informed the U.S. government of Costa Rica's failure to crack down on such shrimping practices, which are illegal under Costan Rican law.

"The problem is that INCOPESCA (the fisheries authority) is negligent and does not enforce any of these laws," said PRETOMA spokesman Andy Bystrom.

Fishing companies are supposed to use a turtle excluder device (TED), a grid of bars placed in the shrimp net which has an opening through which larger animals such as turtles — which are accidentally caught — are ejected, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a U.S. federal agency (Click here for a more detailed description and images).

But according to Arce, the executive director of the fisheries chamber, shrimp companies here complain that TEDs are not designed for use along Costa Rica's ocean floors — they say the devices get clogged with debris and end up limiting the number of shrimp they can catch. Arce said the shrimp supply has already grown scarce over the years, though Bystrom said this is due to over-harvesting by the commercial fishing industry.

Bystrom disputes complaints about the TEDs, citing studies showing that shrimp harvests can actually increase with the device in place. Without TEDs, larger animals tend to stretch out the trawl nets, allowing shrimp to pass through the holes, he said. Regardless, he added, the law should be enforced.

Arce wants new regulations. Current Costa Rican legislation is flawed because it lacks concrete guidelines on how to penalize shrimping companies, some of which possess TEDs but aren't using them correctly, she said. "The law only punishes the non-use of TEDs," according to Arce. "We're proposing a reform."

Tico fishery officials say they are working to strengthen the laws so that Costa Rica gets re-certified by the U.S.

"In the course of this year, this country will demonstrate that it has implemented regulatory improvements directed toward achieving efficient guidelines to sanction potential noncompliance, which would be equal to United States legislation," Luis Dobles, executive president of INCOPESCA, said in a statement soon after the ban was announced.

Bystrom is skeptical. "Costa Rica has a lot of very good laws in place on the books, so to speak," he said — but authorities lack the ability to enforce them. Until they do, Americans should not expect to find Tico shrimp on the menu.

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