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."

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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