Costa Rica Is Making Big Moves to Protect Its Waters. Is It Working?

In 2021, Costa Rica made headlines when it committed to increasing protection for the waters surrounding Cocos Island National Park. In reality, things are far more complicated.

Fish swim in a blue and purple ocean as a scuba diver's bubbles rise.

Costa Rica has around 800 miles of coastline. The oceans surrounding the country are so vibrant that they once charmed Jacques Cousteau.

Photo by Katie Orlinsky

In the aquamarine seas some 330 miles off Costa Rica’s Pacific coast lies one of the most pristine islands on Earth. Spanning nine square miles, the rectangular landmass is called Isla del Coco, or Cocos Island. A cloud forest breathes there. Waterfalls pour from jagged cliffs into rushing rivers, and rain-soaked jungles shelter some 400 insect species and 156 species of birds, including the endemic Cocos finch. In 1978, Costa Rica declared Cocos Island and its surrounding waters a national park. Today, it is uninhabited except for the park rangers, paramedics, and volunteers who live there. It is so remote that, aside from the pigs, deer, cats, and rats that humans brought to the island starting in the 16th century, it has no native mammals.

Costa Rica's forest meets its coastline.

In December 2021, Costa Rica committed to expanding Cocos Island National Park to 27 times its original size.

Photo by Katie Orlinsky

Cocos is even more revered for its spectacular marine life. Within its cold, nutrient-rich underwater corridors, where two currents collide, hundreds of species such as manta rays and sea turtles float and flit. The biggest stars of Cocos Island, however, are its sharks. Sometimes called “Shark Island,” it sits amid seas containing some of the largest schooling populations of critically endangered scalloped hammerhead sharks; its waters also support the gigantic whale shark, and tiger, thresher, and silky sharks. The legendary French ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau, who made countless dives into the turbulent currents surrounding Cocos starting in 1976, reportedly called it the “most beautiful island in the world.” UNESCO, which named Cocos Island National Park a World Heritage site in 1997, states it has “irreplaceable global conservation value, reminding us what parts of tropical oceans historically looked like.” Renowned marine biologist Sylvia Earle, founder of the nonprofit Mission Blue, declared Cocos Island one of her Hope Spots for ocean conservation.

In December 2021, the island made environmental news: Costa Rica would expand Cocos Island National Park to 27 times its original size. With that, Costa Rica’s endangered sharks—one of the most important creatures in the ocean’s wild web of life—could flourish, their migratory paths to the Galápagos and other areas protected from poaching, overfishing, and pollution. Combined with the Bicentennial Marine Management Area (BMMA), the expansion would protect more than 62,000 square miles.

Scientific researchers in a boat.

Researchers deploy acoustic receivers to monitor shark migration at the West Cocos seamount.

Photo by Katie Orlinsky

Ocean activists everywhere rejoiced. Costa Rica would be one of the first countries to contribute to the United Nations’ goal of safeguarding 30 percent of the planet’s seas by 2030. (To achieve this, the U.N. proposes that each ocean-adjacent country reserve 30 percent of its waters for conservation; less than 8 percent of the world’s oceans are currently protected.) Just the month before, at the U.N. Climate Change Conference, four countries—Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, and Ecuador—made headlines, vowing to jointly preserve at least 125,000 square miles in the Eastern Tropical Pacific, a biodiversity hot spot. As someone who loves the water, I, too, was excited by the news.

But the vast undertaking of marine protection surrounding Cocos Island was far more nuanced and turbulent than it initially appeared. It involved not only environmental leaders, several scientists, and Costa Rican NGOs but also the private sector, tourism officials, the Costa Rican Institute of Fisheries and Aquaculture (INCOPESCA), and three presidential administrations. And, above all, it curtailed a critical swimway corridor, failing to connect Cocos to Ecuador, leaving some of the ocean’s most endangered species vulnerable. Trying to untangle the complications, I was left wondering, was the expansion of protection a genuine beacon of hope and good intent? In 2022, I traveled to Costa Rica to find out.

Here’s the thing: I did not get to Cocos Island. I tried to, desperately, but the island’s splendid isolation also makes it difficult to visit. Traveling there entails a 36-hour journey by boat, which departs from the port city of Puntarenas. A permit is required, and tourism other than hiking is limited. There are no lodges, no campgrounds. In 2021, the park had 2,572 visitors. By comparison, Manuel Antonio National Park, a lowland forest teeming with howler and white-faced capuchin monkeys on the country’s Pacific coast, drew more than 300,000.

Instead, one morning in the beach enclave of Santa Teresa, I meet Carolina Ramírez, a scuba diving instructor and the founder of Unidos Por Los Tiburones (United for Sharks), a four-year-old educational campaign focused on Costa Rica’s sharks. Ramírez, whose love for one of Earth’s oldest creatures was born in the rolling surf of the Pacific coast, has plunged into the seas surrounding Cocos Island countless times. As we sit at an outdoor café discussing Costa Rica and conservation, a parade of ATVs and motorcycles ferrying dogs, surfboards, and small kids bumps by.

Smaller than West Virginia, Costa Rica accounts for 0.03 percent of the planet’s land surface but 5 percent of the world’s biodiversity. Its policies are lauded as a global model for responsible tourism, partly due to the Costa Rican government’s long vision, and also because of myriad environmental and scientific NGOs and startups that saw ecotourism as vital to the country’s economic future.

More than five decades ago, Costa Rica was ravaging its tropical rain forests, inflicting one of the highest rates of deforestation on Earth, nearly 50 percent. The news brought an influx of international researchers and environmentalists to the country, helping to raise awareness of its beauty and wildlife to the wider world. Álvaro Ugalde, a biologist and the father of Costa Rica’s fabled national park system, was instrumental in the country’s shift to preserve nature: In 1970, along with scientist Mario Boza, Ugalde convinced the government to create the nation’s first national park, Poás Volcano, which is located in central Costa Rica.

Left: A rocky Costa Rican coastline. Right: A map of where Cocos Island is located.

The Cocos Island shoreline. From Panama to Palau, nations are creating marine protected areas to preserve oceans—but they are complicated to manage in practice.

Photo by Katie Orlinsky; Map by Leo Jung

Soon, small tourism outfits began providing lodging and wilderness tours, drawing travelers and creating jobs. As ecotourism flourished, so did Costa Rica’s economy. In 1997, the government also began paying farmers to preserve trees. As a result, in 2011, Costa Rica became the first tropical nation in the world to have reversed deforestation. Twelve years later, more than 25 percent of the country’s land comprises protected parks and nature reserves.

Slowly, Costa Rica began turning its conservation focus to its waters, which are 10 times greater than its land, and where 85 of its reported 6,778 marine species are endemic. By 2012, the nation had 166 marine protected areas, which covered 50 percent of its coastlines. Yet in Costa Rica, where more than half of the 99 shark and ray species are threatened by extinction, sharks have long been a hot button issue, emblematic of the challenges between balancing conservation and developing a sustainable fishing sector. (Though current president Rodrigo Chaves Robles signed an executive decree in February 2023 banning the fishing of hammerhead sharks, even today, most sharks remain threatened and may still be caught by longline fishing vessels under the legal loophole of “accompanying fauna.”) Says Ramírez: “Everybody sees sharks as the enemy, as the monster of the ocean. People don’t realize how important they are. We need to talk about sharks as the most magical, curious, amazing creatures on the planet.”

Ramírez tells me that if sharks are fished out, other catch that fishers rely on—like tuna and snapper—dwindle, too. Science supports this: As apex predators, sharks help manage other species and ensure robust population growth. They are critical to healthy oceans. There is also a financial incentive to protect sharks. During one season at Cocos Island, activities such as diving, snorkeling, and boat tours generate enough money that one hammerhead shark is worth about $86,000. Over 20 years, the sum reaches $1.6 million, according to nonprofit Mission Blue.

People don’t realize how important they are. We need to talk about sharks as the most magical, curious, amazing creatures on the planet.
Carolina Ramírez
Left: Environmentalist Randall Arauz on the shore. Right: Arauz and a colleague scuba diving.

Left: Randall Arauz was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2010 for his work in shark conservation. Right: Arauz has made more than 1,000 dives off Cocos Island, where visibility is best during the winter months.

Photos by Katie Orlinsky

Conservationist Randall Arauz has the weathered look of a man who lives on the ocean. One of Costa Rica’s best-known scientists, Arauz is a founding member of MigraMar, a nonprofit organization studying threatened marine migratory species in the Eastern Pacific; he is also the international marine conservation policy advisor for Marine Watch International, a nonprofit devoted to ocean conservation. Arauz has been to Cocos Island 55 times and made more than 1,000 dives in the waters off the island, tagging hundreds of sea turtles, mantas, and sharks.

On a humid Monday morning, after a two-hour drive from San José, Arauz and I arrive in Tárcoles, a small fishing village in the Gulf of Nicoya on the Pacific coast. A dozen or more people occupy the shore, their small, brightly colored boats scattered across the sand. Thousands of Costa Ricans squeeze out a living as fishers, their livelihood dependent on seasonal fish populations, mainly mahi-mahi, tuna, and red snapper. As their country moves to protect its seas, they too are facing challenges adapting to more sustainable fishing practices.

Most wearing T-shirts, sandals, and shorts, the fishers have already been out to sea. Now they’re cleaning up. One young man with a dark beard stands shirtless, tattoos swimming down his arms and chest, winding a long nylon fishing line. Another is posted at a stained wooden table, machete in hand, carving large tuna into even slabs of cherry-colored steaks. An older man we chat with in Spanish, José, says he used to sell hammerheads when other fish species were scarce. But when he discovered the sharks were endangered, he quit. We ask others about their livelihood: How is overfishing affecting them? Some men admit they’re worried; others are reticent to say.

During the process to create the enlarged national park, Arauz was secretary of the official Cocos Island Marine Management Council. But before the park outlines were finalized, in 2015, Arauz and a team of scientists made a discovery: Instead of swimming along the marine corridor to the Galápagos, some critically endangered sharks were migrating between Cocos Island and the seamounts (underwater mountains) of Las Gemelas and West Cocos, likely moving from one place to the next to forage. This suggested that seamounts where the sharks were known to aggregate should be folded into the new marine sanctuary. Other studies, including one from the University of Costa Rica, buoyed their results. Despite this, when he asked government officials to include the seamounts, Arauz says, he was ignored. He was so upset that the corridor was left out that he quit the council. “While we walked out with a bigger national park, there was no swimway,” he says. “How are we going to protect these animals if we don’t protect the swimway?”

Left: A person scuba diving. Right: Scuba diving gear.

Cocos Island’s distance from the mainland makes it difficult for many travelers to access—but a draw for divers.

Photo by Katie Orlinsky

Former Costa Rican president Carlos Alvarado Quesada, who expanded the size of Cocos Island National Park and the BMMA, agrees that negotiations over the reserve had been intense. “This was not an easy path,” says Alvarado, who is currently a professor at Tufts University. “But you need to choose where to invest. My approach was that the largest contribution we can do was Cocos Island. The boundaries were defined by the best science available at the time.” Before, less than 3 percent of Costa Rica’s ocean was off-limits to fishing. Now, 30 percent of its seas are protected. “And that guarantees a future for many, many species,” he says.

One afternoon in San José, I visit Iria Chacón,a biologist and conservation manager for Friends of Cocos Island (FAICO), which was founded in 1994. A small Costa Rican organization dedicated to marine conservation, FAICO was a central player in creating the Cocos Island and BMMA reserves. For two decades it has devotedly provided resources to Cocos Island—rain gear, educational videos, conservation plans. We sit around a blond wood table in a conference room. Three color photographs of Cocos adorn the sapphire walls.

Chacón helped draft the plan to configure the Cocos Island National Park expansion, trying to satisfy various interest groups, from park rangers to fishers to environmentalists. While Chacón was happy with the expanded national park, she was candid about the compromises in the BMMA. To support local fishing communities, sustainable fishing of species like tuna would be allowed, putting endangered sharks at risk of getting caught. It was, she concedes, a trade-off. “You need a balance,” she says. “You need no-take areas in the ocean without fisheries, but you also have to be realistic. There are a lot of communities leaning on that resource.”

A woman holding buoys.

The fishing village of Tárcoles sits south of the port city of Puntarenas.

Photo by Katie Orlinsky

Studies have shown that no-take marine protected areas actually increase fish populations and biodiversity. After then-president Barack Obama more than quadrupled the size of Hawai‘i’s Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in 2016, catches of yellow-fin tuna jumped by 54 percent outside of the reserve, and bigeye tuna catches rose by 12 percent. There is similar hope that by limiting fishing to the BMMA, and not allowing it in the national park, that sector of Costa Rica’s economy will benefit. A greater shift is underway, although more slowly: Since 2019, with support from the World Bank, the country’s fisheries agency, INCOPESCA, has been implementing a $90 million project to grow sustainable fishing across the country.

A Costa Rican waterfall.

There are more than 200 waterfalls on Cocos Island.

Photo by Katie Orlinsky

In September 2021, Costa Rica committed to collaborating with the nonprofit MarViva to strengthen research and monitoring on Cocos Island; the country also signed a five-year agreement with U.S.-based WildAid, a conservation group that will help implement better surveillance in marine areas. Now, it is faced with creating a management plan for the reserves.

The size of Cocos Island’s marine protected area alone is formidable. To control illegal fishing, the government will need to pour millions into technology, surveillance, and law enforcement and hire more park rangers to patrol the seas. (Currently, the park has roughly 20.) To complicate matters, rangers also lack such basics as a consistent supply of fuel for their patrol boats, so even though they might spot some poachers, they usually can’t catch them—much less pursue industrial fishing vessels. (This is also because of speed.) Warming and rising seas due to climate change, oil spills, plastic pollution, and habitat destruction—all caused by humans—are additional threats. Costa Rica must also, Chacón says, do significantly more research in the marine reserves and collect more data on its abundant sea creatures, so it can determine how to effectively protect their habitats.

Clouds covering Costa Rica's coastline.

There are no accommodations on Cocos Island, but there is a park ranger station and information center for visitors.

Photo by Katie Orlinsky

In June 2022, Costa Rica got some good news about financing those needs: The Bezos Earth Fund would give $30 million in grants to be divided among Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador, and Colombia—countries bordering the Eastern Tropical Pacific—to connect and shelter marine reserves, protecting life in the corridor.

Tiny as it is, Costa Rica still serves as a model and beacon for other countries on the importance of preserving the environment. But everyone I speak with makes clear that its work to protect the seas surrounding Cocos Island and in the BMMA is just beginning. Chacón emphasizes that fishing needs to be made more sustainable, that regulations need to be toughened.“The implementation of the marine protected areas is going to take a lot of surveillance,” she says. “And at some point, you need to demonstrate that these marine protected areas are working, so we can tell Costa Ricans. So we can tell other countries.”

Mona Gable is the author of Searching for Savanna: The Murder of One Native American Woman and the Violence Against the Many (Atria Books).
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