Protecting Costa Rica’s waters through research, advocacy, and the courtroom / Randall Arauz

As a scientist, activist, and environmental policy plaintiff, Randall Arauz has seen how doing diligent research in the field is a pathway to enacting change in the courtroom. With his attention now focused on the Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape, he’s looking to once again use data-driven science to preserve this jeopardized ecosystem and the small-scale fishers who depend on it.

Image © Andy Mann

Image © Andy Mann

Randall Arauz is a co-founder of the organization MigraMar, a scientist-led nonprofit working to research and protect migratory marine species in the Eastern Tropical Pacific (ETP) Seascape, a beautiful and biodiverse region off the Pacific coast of Central and South America. In May 2021, our incredible monthly donor community, Only One, is supporting a round-trip MigraMar expedition, following the rich waters from Cocos Island to Galápagos, to help protect crucial migratory species like sharks, rays, sea turtles, tuna, swordfish, billfish, dorado, and whales.

Read on for Randall’s story and become a member of Only One today to support ocean changemakers like Randall and organizations like MigraMar.

Costa Rica’s Cocos Island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with unique geography and biodiversity. It is connected to the Galápagos Islands of Ecuador by a “marine superhighway” · Andy Mann

Randall Arauz first went to Cocos Island, located off the western coast of Costa Rica, in 2004 to figure out how to best track marine animals. He’s since been back 48 times.

This sheer amount of travel, with expeditions sometimes lasting weeks on end, is a testament not only to Randall’s dedication to the natural world, but also to his urgency to protect it.

“From a very young age,” Randall says, “I wanted to be a marine biologist. Like so many people of my generation, I was inspired by The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. When I was eight or nine years old, I would watch that show and get mesmerized. Ever since then, that’s pretty much what I wanted to do.”

Having started his career as a sea turtle biologist, Randall Arauz eventually expanded his focus to many different marine species. Turtles remain at the core of his conservation work · Randall Arauz

From childhood to academic and professional trajectories, this aquatic proclivity held true. Randall became a turtle biologist and studied them most of his career. But it was while he was researching the effects of long-line fishing on sea turtles that he stumbled upon another troubling issue — shark finning — which modified the direction of his career.

“I would come to port and see all these shark fins — 30 tons of shark fins — and I didn’t know how to wrap my head around the issue,” Randall says.

Shark finning is the practice of catching sharks, removing their fins, throwing the rest of the shark back into the sea, and then selling the fins at a high price ($100 per kilo for fins, as opposed to 50¢ per kilo for shark meat) to foreign exporters for distribution throughout Asia for consumption. “What was happening was atrocious. So we were able to get a law passed in Costa Rica, just by talking to the congressmen, that helped regulate the industry by mandating that sharks must come into port with their fins still naturally attached.”

A pivotal moment in Randall’s career was when he stumbled upon the troubling issue of shark finning, causing him to start enacting change in the courtroom to help protect marine species · Shawn Heinrichs

In addition to the shark finning legislation, Randall has other major environmental victories under his belt. The issues and dates and decrees spring from his memory effortlessly, the mark of an afflicted biologist who can’t put his mind at ease, a true indicator of his devotion to the sea.

There was his victory in 1999, having it deemed unconstitutional for Costa Rica to commercialize endangered green turtles. Then there was a mandate Randall obtained in 2013 stating that the practice of shrimp trawling, a commercial fishing method that has detrimental impacts on both endangered species and small-scale fishers who depend on healthy ecosystems, goes against sustainable democratic development. Through this victory and its subsequent phase out, the last Costa Rican shrimp trawler went out of business in 2019.

Since the 1990s, unsustainable and illegal fishing practices have reduced scalloped hammerhead shark numbers by 50 percent · Andy Mann
In 1999, Randall was involved in a key conservation victory when Costa Rica deemed it unconstitutional to commercialize endangered green sea turtles · Cristina Mittermeier
Randall was able to help regulate the shark finning industry in Costa Rica by mandating that sharks must come into port with their fins still naturally attached · Andy Mann
“One of the strongest reasons I was able to phase out the shrimp fishery was because we had the full support of the small-scale fishermen. Once they saw that this was working, they all came behind us.”

“I believe truly that the future of fisheries is in the small-scale guys, the ones who can fish sustainably. We’re already seeing an increase in the snapper catch by 40 percent,” Randall says when reflecting on the absence of trawling, “and when you talk to the fishermen, anecdotally, they say, ‘Man, the fishing is better than it’s been in years.’ So now the small guys are seeing their catch increased and they’re super happy — more snapper! That’s probably one of the biggest impacts so far. One of the lessons that I’ve learned is that most of the time the policy change comes in court. But before we go to court, we have to do our homework. We have to win the public opinion.”

One of the strongest reasons Randall was able to phase out the Costa Rican shrimp fishery was because he had the full support of the small-scale fishers · Lucas Bustamante

Despite his triumphs, Randall is still a self-proclaimed old, frustrated activist. He has seen positive change come slowly to the Eastern Tropical Pacific (ETP) Seascape — a remarkable region of the Pacific Ocean that spans more than 2 million square kilometers within the marine territories of four sovereign nations: Ecuador, Costa Rica, Colombia, and Panama.

It is here that various endangered species follow “marine migratory highways,” such as the Cocos-Galápagos Swimway, which takes them in and out of marine protected areas (MPAs) along the way. The problem is that once they leave an MPA, they become susceptible to major threats — in particular, large-scale commercial fishing.

“A big change during my years of research has been the schools of hammerheads around Cocos Island. They’re not as frequent as they used to be. Before they were uncountable… and now I can count them.”

“And the pattern, these changes, they are very abrupt. These animals, like sea turtles and sharks, are indicator species for this change simply because of their reproductive biology. They take a long time in gestation. They have very few offspring and they’re highly migratory. Other species are being caught just the same, but we’re pushing the turtles and sharks toward extinction first.”

The ETP Seascape faces many threats, from plastic pollution to climate change, but most of all, marine species’ populations are being decimated by industrial fishing · Shawn Heinrichs

It’s this known urgency, based on the necessity of scientific data in the courtroom, that led Randall to co-found the organization MigraMar (a contraction of the words “migratory marine species”). After his first trip to Cocos Island in 2004, when he was figuring out how to track animals, he was contacted by others in the region who were doing similar work. They collectively decided to start utilizing the same acoustic tracking technology, thus ensuring that their research could be easily shared amongst them. More and more scientists started joining their cohort and by 2008, they’d begun calling themselves “MigraMar.” Their network now extends from northern Mexico down to northern Peru.

During his years of research, Randall has noticed a big change in the schools of hammerhead sharks around Cocos Island: once innumerable, they are now easily counted · Andy Mann

Regarding MigraMar’s 2021 Cocos-Galápagos Expedition, Randall says, “Right now we’re mainly interested in consolidating the evidence that suggests there’s actually species migrating back and forth in the ETP Seascape and that there’s a high concentration of them along the Cocos Ridge. So what we’re going to be doing on this expedition is catching the animals — catching sharks — at the different sites and tagging them. This work has never been done with animals tagged in the corridor.

“Having this data will help us to not just protect the hotspots, like Cocos Island and Galápagos, but the entire corridor from point A to point B. These animals know no boundaries, so we need the connectivity. We desperately need to protect these corridors.”
Randall preparing his shark tagging gear aboard MigraMar’s research vessel · Roy Prendas
Tagging is a critical part of analyzing sharks’ migratory patterns for research purposes. Having this data will help protect marine “hotspots” in the ETP Seascape as well as the ocean corridors that connect them · Edwar Herreno
Randall deploying an acoustic receiver at Cocos Island · Andy Mann

The seriousness of the issue is palpable in Randall’s voice, an urgency punctuated by seeing the disappearance of critically endangered leatherback sea turtles and hammerhead sharks in his own lifetime. But it is an urgency buoyed by optimism, as seen in the advice Randall gives to fledgling advocates:

“Keep on going. Don’t give up. Change takes time, but like I said, you have to do all your homework. You gotta do the research. You gotta do the policy work. And you have to work with the politicians and garner support from different society groups — that’s how you get tens of thousands of people mobilized.”
While taking part in the MigraMar Cocos-Galápagos Swimway expedition, which launched on May 3, 2021, Randall was at Darwin’s Arch the day before it collapsed due to natural erosion · Roy Prendas

Looking to the work ahead, Randall is excited about getting out to the ETP Seascape seamounts and tracking marine species.

These are hard places to access, but through MigraMar’s collaborative model, this work can now be done with a core group of scientists who represent the various nations who protect these waters, giving a unique opportunity to strategize and act together. “We need to get our scientific voice in there,” Randall says, “for the fishermen, for the coastal communities, for the turtles and the sharks. That’s got to be our mission here.”

After a career of research, advocacy, and litigation on behalf of marine species, Randall knows the importance of doing your homework and of garnering the support of different groups in society · Roy Prendas

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