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Marine Conservation on Cocos Island

Destination: Puntarenas

"It is forbidden to look for buried treasure," said the voice over on the video. Two park rangers visiting the Sea Hunter were giving an informative presentation about Cocos Island's policies, and it wasn't meant to be funny -- but I couldn't help but giggle at the fact that a national park would need an official stance on treasure hunting.

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The second half of the movie was not so amusing. Graphic footage flashed across the screen: mangled dolphins, sharks and rays with their entrails spilling onto illicit fishing boats.

While I hate to demonize illegal fishermen for trying to make a living, the destruction that they leave in their wake is enough to bring me to tears. Their long lines and fishing hooks pollute the waters, snagging unintended -- and often endangered -- marine life. Because a jumbo-sized tuna can be sold at market for up to $2,000 -- four times the average monthly wage in Costa Rica -- it is all too tempting for poachers to venture into the park when waters close to the mainland are scarce with fish.

Regrettably, sharks have an even grimmer threat to worry about: shark fin soup. Somewhere in the world, three sharks are slaughtered every second for the sake of this Asian delicacy, which sells for up to $150 a bowl.

To procure the main ingredient, poachers practice "finning," shearing fins from sharks' bodies while they are still alive. The helpless creatures are then thrown back in the ocean, where they die slow and agonizing deaths. The Undersea Hunter Group estimates that hammerhead populations at Cocos Island decreased 70% between 1992 and 2004.

The national park and the waters surrounding it are protected from this type of illegal activity by the Costa Rica government and the Friends of Cocos Island Foundation. But in reality, the quest to safeguard the island is an uphill battle.

The first problem is money. Despite exceptionally high maintenance costs, Costa Rica gives Cocos Island no more funding than any other national reserve on the mainland. A whopping three patrol boats are expected to police 12 nautical miles -- not nearly enough to chase up to 30 illegal fishing vessels a day during high season. Park fees and private donations are barely sufficient to cover the park's basic necessities.

Secondly, Costa Rican law mandates that perpetrators be caught in the act of illegal fishing in order to be penalized. Because of sonar technology, as soon as offenders see a patrol boat on their computer screen, they cut their lines and make a run for it. This makes capturing them practically impossible.

After the film, every single diver on our vessel was appalled. The underwater paradise that we had come to know and love was being violated, and our newfound friends -- particularly the big sharks -- were in grave trouble. But what could we do about it?

"First of all, you can start small," said one ranger. "Before eating sushi ask, where is this tuna coming from? You can also make a donation to the Friends of Cocos Island Foundation, or return to the island as a volunteer."

In exchange for completing tasks from clearing brush to making necklaces out of fishhooks (donor appreciation gifts), volunteers can live at Cocos Island for free. This last option seemed particularly attractive -- we hadn't even left yet and most of us were already scheming ways to return.

After pledging our donations, the park rangers departed for Chatham Bay. Their reminder to "take only photographs and leave only bubbles" echoed in my mind for the rest of the day. If only everyone could treat the ocean with such reverence.

Marine Conservation on Cocos Island in Pictures

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