SEVENSEAS Marine Conservation & Travel Issue 14, July 2016 - Page 78

Marine Conservation in

Bocas del Toro

Panama

by Alexandra Yingst

Conservation and Research Organizations in Bocas del Toro

Dedicated to understanding biological diversity in the tropics, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) has research institutions scattered throughout Panama. They accomplish their goal of studying biodiversity through research, but STRI also conducts specific conservation-related programs. Public education is a particularly important strategy that STRI uses to conserve biodiversity in Panama. And although this occurs at many different STRI stations in Panama, it is particularly apparent at the Bocas del Toro research station.

Located near the town of Bocas del Toro on Isla Colón, the STRI research station in Bocas del Toro is ideally positioned in a place where thousands of people live and visit each year. Surrounded by humid tropical forests and swamplands, this location is perfect for studying the natural terrestrial environment. However, Bocas del Toro is also an ideal location for studying the marine environment, which is why STRI built the Bocas del Toro marine laboratory. The mangrove forests, seagrass beds, and coral reefs that line the coast are perfect research laboratories for any marine scientist.

Conservation is undoubtedly necessary in Bocas del Toro due to the damages that human impact has caused on the marine ecosystems

surrounding the islands. The negative impact of humans can be seen everywhere. Through overfishing, pollution, and coastal degradation, the marine environments show extreme damage. For example, in the past 14 years, the fish around Bocas del Toro have shown a 30% species loss and a 60% biomass loss. In comparing the present status of coral reefs in Bocas del Toro to what existed in the late 1990s, Janina Seemann, a marine biologist at STRI, saw the complete disappearance of some reefs and severe bleaching in others. Pollution, sedimentation, and oxygen depletion, all from human activities, likely caused this occurrence. A recovery of these coral reefs is nearly impossible, unless humans reduce their impact. In places where humans have reduced their impact, such as popular scuba diving sites that dive shops fight to conserve, recovery in both coral health and fish diversity and biomass has been seen.

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