Costa Rica seafood exporter taking cues from coffee industry in leveraging nation’s ecology

Published on
January 5, 2022
Costa Rican fishing boats.

Costa Rica has cultivated a reputation for natural beauty, and chances are its name calls to mind lush mountains, beautiful beaches, and sustainably grown coffee.  

That image is partially the result of an environmental protection program the country implemented to ensure its natural resources are sustainably developed; protection efforts that have borne fruit. After years of work to reverse decades of deforestation, more than half the country is covered in forest and over 98 percent of its energy is renewable.

According to Martec – one of Costa Rica’s largest exporters of wild-caught fish, selling 3,500 metric tons (MT) a year – the time has come to leverage that environmental legacy on the seas.

“We need to improve the fishery component in Latin America. Costa Rica did a good job in conserving land, thanks to the efforts of our forefathers. The oceans now need help, and we want to be the trailblazers in how to set up a restorative model, and how to become net positive in our business,” Martec Sustainability and Innovation Manager Alvaro Teran told SeafoodSource.

Lessons, Teran said, can be learned from the country’s coffee industry, which helped differentiate itself from other producers by leveraging the country’s sustainability efforts.

“We’re learning from the coffee sector, where we have close contacts,” Teran said. “In a program begun about 20 years ago, Costa Rica did really well in differentiating their coffee, and that’s one of the approaches – not just traceability and sustainability but also in improving social conditions.”

As such, Martec launched its own fishery improvement project (FIP) in November 2020 in Costa Rica and Panama, where it sources yellowfin tuna and mahi mahi. The scope was later extended to include swordfish – the three species most sold by Martec and those with the highest commercial value – and in November 2021 another extension was submitted to include Ecuador.

Strategically, the FIP allows Martec to increase the leverage it has over developing action plans that have real impact on the water, with a team dedicated to guiding the company’s suppliers, involving some 400 boats, to reach Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification. It also provides the necessary structure and support for Martec to learn strategic ways to move forward in the challenging circumstances many fisheries find themselves in, Teran said.

Many fisheries lack the reliable, detailed data about fishing activities needed to implement science-based management and reach sustainability. Electronic monitoring (EM) – the use of onboard video cameras and other equipment to verify fishing vessel catch – can fill these gaps and enable supply chain actors to collect high-quality data and verify that seafood products have been harvested legally, sustainably and with transparency. The biggest technological component with the fishers is in EM, for which Martec has a relationship with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) as its main FIP partner for design, implementation and data analysis.

“It’s really easy to put a camera on a boat, but it’s very hard to collect data in a cost-effective, impactful way that can be accepted by all the organizations involved. That’s where we are putting all the work and we’re piloting some new technologies with local fishers, based on their global findings. EM is not just for the FIP; we want to make it more accessible for the region overall,” Teran noted. “Based on that data, with quality and sustainable practices, we can define tiers of suppliers to set up a price premium model to continually improve sustainability practices on the water. Without that, it would be difficult to implement changes on the water.”

TNC is also working with Martec in defining the price premium model in order to benefit the fishers and boat owners that comply with company standards, calculating and compensating the cost of opportunity for a fisher to become more sustainable and returning by-catch rather than selling to the local market, for example.

In addition to the FIP, some nine months ago Martec launched a program called “Pesca +” for its suppliers. In joining, fishers get a price premium for products delivered and are automatically included in the company’s FIP, in whichever country they operate.

“We help them on issues including financing and quality control improvements. If you properly sacrifice and bleed a fresh-caught tuna, it decreases the adrenaline in the fish’s tissue and increases the grading. As such, your income per fish increases significantly and that’s a great economic impact for them and for us. If you train the fishers on this, it’s taking advantage of low-hanging fruit, just by implementing these small behavior changes,” Teran said.

The program will help both the sustainability of fishing fleets and the profitability of the fishers, he added.

“The program is about sustainability, fleet certification, improving quality conditions, financial conditions and profitability – really teaching them the financials and administration skills for them to better manage their business. And if they need to replace their boats, we can help them with that at very low credit,” Teran said. “The platform makes them better and more sustainable fishers, via a well-structured platform. That’s where we want to scale.”

Martec’s goal is to have the first group of vessels certified for yellowfin tuna by the end of 2022, which Teran said “will mark a milestone in the fisheries involved and will be the tipping point we need to scale and expand the reach of our impact.”

Other areas of focus on sustainability include a sourcing policy where the company commits to not deal in endangered, threatened or protected (ETP) listed species, and to only source fish caught in legally authorized zones from artisanal fishing boats that use hand lines or long lines; a shark and sea turtle conservation policy; and measuring the boats’ CO2 emissions and controlling for that under the Footprint Martec project.

Quepos, Costa Rica-based Martec was founded in 1984 as a processor and exporter of wild-catch fish. In 2008, it expanded into off-shore cage aquaculture focused on the spotted rose snapper (Lutjanus guttatus). Between farmed snapper and wild catch fish, current production per year reaches 4,500 MT. The company plans to expand total production to 15,000 MT in the next five years.  

Photo courtesy of Fredy Estuardo Maldonado/Shutterstock

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