Zompopas and fishes

Written by Marco Quesada, Director of Conservation International Costa Rica

It has always surprised me the great ability we have to adapt and get used to what surrounds us. I remember when I was a child, to see ants in my neighborhood and to think it was normal. Among the various species of ants inhabiting my neighborhood, we had the zompopas (leaf-cutters). I got used to see them walking in long lines, carrying huge pieces of leafs and to watch the plants disappear overnight. Many years later, working as a tour guide, I was surprised to see a group of tourists stop for 10 minutes to see a line of zompopas marching through the woods. I had ignored it because I forgot that what is normal for me may be, actually, something special.

It’s something I’ve continued to witness through my life. We stop noticing things, both good and bad behaviours that are around us everyday. We are accustomed to the beauty of our mountains and our beaches, for example. To swimming in a clean sea and to eat seafood from time to time.

Out of sight…

¡Ceviche! Pero... ¿de qué?

¡Ceviche! But… made out of what?

Most trade in our country sells “casado with fish” or “ceviche” but does not specify what kind of fish those dishes are made with. And we do not care. Most of us can not even distinguish between golden croaker, snapper or shark. That is a problem.

We need to pay more attention to what we eat. Often we are sold and charge for one thing but receive another. That’s wrong because we are cheated. Other times, we are sold what we asked for, but do not know where the fish was caught, when or by whom. If you went to the supermarket to buy corvina and the sign said it was fished 8 months ago, would you buy it? If you see flounder in a freezer and it says that it was caught unintentionally by a shrimping boat a month ago and that to do so the boat destroyed the seabed and killed 38 species of animals that were simply discarded, would it taste the same to you? If the restaurant menu read “Ceviche of illegal cambute” Would you eat at that restaurant?

These are common problems of Costa Rican fisheries and for us it is normal to not see them.

Seeing the invisible

No todos esos pargos están dentro del tamaño legal. Foto por Marco Quesada

Not all of those snapper are within legal landing size.
Photo by Marco Quesada

A few months ago we visited the coast to look for those things that have become normal to us. Not ants but illegal fishing, fishing that is not reported to the authorities (or reported wrongly) and fishing that our authorities do not regulate. Everything that arrives to our tables looks like legal fishing to us. But it should not. The problem is that it is common to see very small fish being sold and to even find products like cambute, which is absolutely prohibited, in restaurants. We cannot continue to see this as normal or to wait for someone else to fix the problem for us.

There are thousands of fishers who fish responsibly and legally in our country. With their effort they feed their families and nurture their communities. But there are also fishermen who fish illegally. And our system does not distinguish one fish from the other. Everything enters the same market and it is worth the same amount of money. Our institutions can not even guarantee that those fishes’ populations are in good conditions or to close to disappearing.

What to do?!

We can do a lot and if you love the beach or seafood, you can start today. First, do not consume products that are illegal. I don’t eat tepezcuintle and just the same I don’t eat cambute. Never. Reject what’s illegal is the first step. Second, you can choose what to eat. There are legal products that I chose not to consume. I do not eat turtle eggs. Indeed, turtle eggs that come from Ostional are legal, but one is never sure whether they actually come from there. Also, I do not eat shark (also called cazón, cornuda, bolillo). Sharks are predators in our oceans and keep it healthy. They reproduce very seldom and grow very slowly. For me, eating them is not worth it, so I do not buy it and do not consume it. Nor do I buy shrimp. They are delicious, but a lot of damage is done to the ocean while catching them. I don’t buy parrotfish either. These fish inhabit coral reefs and play an important role in coral health. In our country it is legal to sell them, but there is no proper management around this species. Not any. So I don’t buy it. These are just a few examples. Do your own list. Learn today, it is very easy.

What to eat? There are many options: squid are a healthy choice and usually sustainable. I like to eat snapper and I choose to make sure that it measures at least 35 centimeters (because it is an animal that will already have reproduced). You do not always walk with a rule when eating out, but you can always use your hands. Learn how long your hand is, and you can get an idea.

I also like sardines. Not everyone likes them, but I do. Sardines grow and reproduce quickly and eat plankton. In Costa Rica, sardines are not particularly sustainable because fishing is mishandled, but they are a better choice than parrotfish. In addition, I always ask what kind of fish was used to make that ceviche or casado. And I have learned, slowly, to distinguish the taste and texture of different fishes. It is not so difficult! Finally, consume local products. Just ask if they have something local and choose snapper instead of salmon.

The other thing I do is I try not to pollute rivers or beaches, I try to leave them in better shape that when I arrived. Fifty years ago our parents and grandparents would vacation mainly in Puntarenas. Since we have polluted so many beaches, we have to look further and further to find clean places instead of cleaning and changing habits now. So do not pollute. Moreover, it help clean the beaches and environment.

Let’s be an example, let’s contribute to a more sustainable sea.

© Piotr Naskrecki

© Piotr Naskrecki


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