The verdict may be more symbolic than substantial
BOGOTA, Columbia––Did the Colombian Supreme Court really ban sport fishing on May 2, 2022, or is that just the biggest fish story coming out of Colombia this fishing season?
Word of the Colombian Supreme Court ruling percolated north three days later with the headline “Colombia bans sports fishing citing animal cruelty,” above a detailed account by Taylor Lennox of The City Paper, the major English-language news medium serving Bogota.
But a much longer description and analysis of the Colombian Supreme Court verdict published the preceding day by NewsBeezer, which presents Colombian news in translation, calls into question whether the ruling is anything more than symbolic, can be enforced, and has any chance of actually being implemented in any way before it is overturned.
Ruling will not take effect before 2023
Since the Colombian Supreme Court decreed that the prohibition of sport fishing is not to take effect until 2023, there is time for it to be overturned either by legislation or by an appeal.
Even if the prohibition of sport fishing is not overturned by the present Colombian Supreme Court, moreover, it may be overturned by their successors.
The membership of the Colombian Supreme Court, unlike the membership of the U.S. Supreme Court, turns over relatively often.
As recently as August 2021, the Colombian Supreme Court had 23 members, who were limited to serving one eight-year term.
None of those members are still on the Colombian Supreme Court. There are now just nine members, whose terms are designated on the Colombian Supreme Court web page as being for the years 2022-2023 only.
The nine current members of the Colombian Supreme Court include five women, among them court president Cristina Pardo Schlesinger and vice president Diana Fajardo Rivera. This gives the court a female majority for apparently the first time.
Among their first actions, Lennox pointed out, “The same nine magistrates voted to decriminalize abortion up to 24 weeks in a pregnancy, a decision that has angered pro-life activists.”
In that context, the Colombian Supreme Court ruling on fishing might be read as a directive to the Colombian legislature to clarify the constitutional provisions that produced partially contradictory rulings on both sport fishing and abortion.
The contradictions were particularly troubling to Supreme Court president Cristina Pardo Schlesinger, who abstained from voting in the sport fishing case..
Head judge abstained
The verdict on fishing, said Cristina Pardo Schlesinger, “ultimately bestows greater protection on animal life than on the life of unborn human beings.”
This, she declared, “contradicts the constitutional principle of human dignity, understood as the recognition of the special meaning of being human and its radical difference from other beings and the world of things.
“One cannot dispose of animal life in vain or cause needless bodily harm,” Judge Cristina Pardo Schlesinger continued. “On the other hand, in the case of the unborn child, the obvious physical abuse that an abortion entails becomes irrelevant and human life may be taken without reason until the 24th week of pregnancy.”
Judges Jorge Enrique Ibáñez Najar and Gloria Stella Ortiz Delgado expressed similar concerns.
At issue is consistent application of the “precautionary principle” as currently recognized in Colombian law. The “precautionary principle” states, both the court verdict and the Newsbeezer and City Paper coverage explained, “that in the absence of scientific certainty about damage or its extent, decision-making should be directed towards protecting the environment,” including living beings, “when there are elements that indicate or show that there is a real risk of affecting it.”
The lawsuit leading to the ruling on sport fishing was brought by Gabriel Andrés Suárez Gómez, a lawyer whose career has focused on indigenous water rights. His concern appeared to be that government policy in some regions of Colombia favors trophy fishing tourism ahead of indigenous subsistence fishing.
“Sport fishing is an activity that violates both the precautionary principle and the prohibition of cruelty to animals,” the Colombian Supreme Court found, in a verdict somewhat parallel to a 2019 ruling by the previous Colombian Supreme Court that prohibited trophy hunting.
“While it is not possible to define with absolute certainty the harmful consequences of recreational fishing in terms of conservation and animal welfare principles, or the degradation and degradation of hydrobiological resources, “ the Colombian Supreme Court ruled, “there is relevant scientific information that must be recognized to avoid harmful effects on fish and habitat.”
Sport is not exempted from animal abuse statutes
Authoring the decision, Justice Diana Fajardo Rivera wrote that though there is no “consensus as to whether fish are sentient beings,” the court and Colombian law have recognized other animals as sentient beings, and therefore the precautionary principle favors recognizing fish as sentient beings too.
Recreational fishing therefore “contradicts the prohibition on animal abuse arising from the [Colombian] environmental protection mandates,” Fajardo Rivera reasoned.
Because sport fishing is done for recreation, Fajardo Rivera continued, it is not exempted from the animal abuse statutes under the exemptions in the law for practices undertaken “for religious, nutritional, cultural or scientific reasons.”
“Define what is meant by sport fishing”
Judge José Fernando Reyes Cuartas argued that the verdict should have gone further than it did.
“It is imperative to define what is meant by sport fishing, i.e. where, under what conditions and by whom,” Reyes wrote. “Fish are sentient beings, so they should not be mistreated and protective measures for them should be taken.“
Judge Antonio José Lizarazo Ocampo “clarified his vote,” said NewsBeezer, “explaining that he was joining in the judgment, but that the legal analysis should not have been made analogous to the 2019 ruling against trophy hunting, based on the prohibition of cruelty to animals,” since hunting and fishing in his view are “not comparable.”
His opinion was supported by Camilo Prieto Valderrama, physician, climate science professor, and founder of the Movimiento Ambientalista Colombiano, a nonprofit organization whose name translates “Colombian Environmental Movement.”
Camilo Prieto Valderrama asserted that sport fishing differs from trophy hunting in that trophy hunters “kill animals who are not even fit for consumption.”
“Today sport fishing is allowed”
A National Agency for Aquaculture & Fisheries spokesperson told NewsBeezer that the May 2, 2022 Colombian Supreme Court judgment “has no immediate implications,” since “today sport fishing is allowed in the country.”
The Colombian ministry for the environment, testifying opposite to the Colombian Supreme Court ruling, argued that sport fishing should be exempted from the legal definition of cruelty because it is “of great importance in Colombia in terms of its contribution to the socio-economic development of the areas where it is practiced, generating income and jobs, both directly and indirectly.
“Recreational fisheries could be considered biologically sustainable if irreversible alteration of exploited fish stocks is avoided, and the ecological structure and function of aquatic habitats are preserved,” the environment ministry said, “which can be achieved through regulation.”
Attorney General asked court not to rule
The Colombian Attorney General’s Office “had asked the court not to make any findings, since the complaint did not meet the necessary requirements,” NewsBeezer reported, and asserted that a code of practice adopted in 2012 by the National Agency for Aquaculture and Fisheries had included provisions to prevent cruelty to fish.
“Sport fishing is a discipline with rules set by specialized organizations, regulated by a public authority in Colombia, to ensure the sustainable use of natural resources and a livelihood for hundreds of residents,” the spokesperson for the Colombian attorney general said.
The Colombian sport fishing industry has rapidly grown in recent years, encouraged by reports such as this from Sport Fishing magazine writer Doug Olander, published on March 11, 2020:
“Central and South America’s often-fabulous Pacific coast fishing is no secret. Proof of that lies in the proliferation of marinas, charters and fishing resorts from southern Mexico through Panama.
“Precious few other boats”
“While few areas are yet truly crowded with anglers, in many stretches, you can expect company on the water. Not so off Colombia,” Olander said. “In three days of fishing during a springtime visit to that country’s Pacific coast, out of Bahia Solano, I saw precious few other boats, and those were being used for local transportation or artisanal fishing,” meaning subsistence fishing by local people with low-tech equipment.
“About a decade ago,” Olander continued, “Colombia declared a large chunk of its waters (including Bahia Solano) from the pristine coastline to 20 miles offshore as a ‘zona exclusiva de pesca artesanal’—a zone designated exclusively for artisanal fishing, encompassing more than 240 square miles of ocean and, I was told, the country does enforce it.
“That might explain why in three days I saw no sign of any large seiners or longliners,” Olander said, “and perhaps why, on the mornings we ran offshore, we had no trouble finding schools of yellowfin tuna.”
Fishing in former war zones
“Applying the precautionary principle to add fish to the list of species protected from cruelty,” wrote Taylor Lennox of The City Paper, “affects many communities that depend on sport fishing as a source of revenue, especially in regions that have opened up to ecotourism since the signing of the 2016 peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia,” which ended 42 years of guerrilla warfare.
“Many of the regions that attract sport fishers were once under control of the guerrillas,” Lennox observed, “including Vichada, Guaviare, Meta and Caquetá.
Lamented fishing tour guide Sergio Torres of La Uribe, Meta, to Lennox, “We were beginning to recover from the pandemic,” with fishers “flying in from Bogotá in chartered aircraft,” to “spend good money to catch large fish.”
“Will the law be extended to chickens?”
“Closer to Bogotá,” Lennox continued, “the court ruling affects sailing clubs and boat rental companies that depend on weekend fishing outings to Laguna de Tota (Boyacá), Neusa, Sisga reservoir and El Prado (Tolima).
“Several fishing associations,” Lennox said, “including the Association of Sport Fishermen of Colombia,” are stunned by the court’s decision and say they may appeal the decision.”
Complained Caldense Fishing League president Albeiro González, “The chickens we consume in a restaurant are also sentient beings, so does this mean that the law will be extended to prohibit eating chicken or beef?”
Right now, though, the big question is whether the Colombian Supreme Court ruling against trophy fishing will actually ever take effect.