Every morning, just after dawn, small-scale fishers Ettel Lattouche and Rafael Hernández head to the beach with their fishing gear to eke out a living. Together, the couple venture deep into the ocean off Punta Uva, a small town on Costa Rica’s southern Caribbean coast, and hope to return with some catch.

“Fishing is a lifestyle, a way of life,” said Hernández, a father of two.

Yet the couple operates in the shadow of the law. In 2005, the Costa Rican government introduced fishing regulations that ordered the Costa Rican Institute of Fisheries and Aquaculture (INCOPESCA) to stop issuing small-scale fishing licenses until a technical study had been carried out to prove that the country’s fisheries were being harvested sustainably.

This order was in response to commercial fishing in the Pacific, where industrial-scale vessels, including bottom trawlers, were widespread. By contrast, fishing in the southern Caribbean is largely artisanal and fishers use wooden traps, fishing rods and free diving.

“We’re not going to give licenses if we don’t know how much resources we have,” said Greymer Ramos, INCOPESCA’s representative in Limón province, which covers Punta Uva.

Local nonprofits say INCOPESCA lacks the funding and boats it needs to conduct the studies.

Lionfish consume more than 50 species of fish and crustaceans, including ecologically important species that artisanal fishers in the Caribbean depend on to survive. As the population of lionfish snowballed, native commercial fish species, such as snapper, lobster and shrimp, declined.

In 2011, the fishers came together to start Asociación de Pescadores Artesanales del Caribe Sur (Southern Caribbean Artisanal Fishers’ Association, or APACS) to teach other locals to hunt lionfish. They also collected data on their work in the hope they could use it to show the authorities they deserved licenses.

Soon, researchers from the University of Costa Rica and the National University of Costa Rica joined forces with APACS to conduct further studies on lionfish, lobsters and the local fishery: where fishing happens and with what gear.