A prison might seem like the last place you’d want to live. However, the suffering of the inmates of Coiba Island, a former prison off the coast of Panama, was not shared by the multitude of wildlife species living nearby. Heightened security around the prison’s walls helped create a de facto nature reserve, providing a refuge for species which have declined elsewhere.
Since the prison’s closing in 2004, fishing has been opened up in the region for the first time in more than 80 years. In a preemptive measure, Conservation International (CI) has been working with partner organizations, governments and local stakeholders to safeguard Coiba Island’s marine wealth for the benefit of generations to come.
From Prison to Refuge
An integral part of the Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape, Coiba Island is the largest island off of Central America’s Pacific coast. The island was established as a penal colony in 1919. For years, it was a place of notoriety; fear of the country’s most dangerous criminals (along with strict military control of the area) kept mainland residents away from the island’s coastal waters, which claim some of the highest levels of marine biodiversity in the region.
LEARN MORE: Explore the Oceans and find out what CI is doing to protect them.
In recognition of the area’s unique and rich biodiversity, the park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005. The island is currently uninhabited except for park staff, but non-licensed fishing boats from the mainland (and neighboring Costa Rica) are beginning to appear nearby. Like so many of the world’s biologically rich areas, Coiba’s marine resources are under growing pressure.
An Important Assessment
Although the area has long been protected, it is not immune to destruction—especially without regulations in place. To help manage its resources, CI’s Marine Management Area Science (MMAS) Program has been working in the region since 2005, using scientific research to address relevant issues, advise local stakeholders and improve conservation efforts. MMAS partners with local and international researchers from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), Panama’s National Association for the Conservation of Nature (ANCON), the University of Panama and Panamanian governmental agencies, among others.
Last year, MMAS held a stakeholder’s workshop to discuss what sort of research was needed in the region. The group concluded that the health of commercial fisheries was a priority issue, which led MMAS and partners to conduct a fisheries assessment of the region to learn about species abundance and establish a plan to sustainably manage fish populations in light of new exploitation pressures.
The study focused on red snapper (Lutjanus peru) and spotted rose snapper (Lutjanus guttatus), both popular commercial fish species. The researchers found that bigger fish had larger gonads, revealing their greater reproductive capabilities and indicating their important role in propagating the species.
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Science to Action
MMAS organized a series of workshops discussing the study results with locals. Most of the workshop’s participants were mainland fishermen who regularly take fish to market in Chiriquí province in western Panama.
The workshop attendees agreed to avoid capturing both small immature fish and the largest fish that are the most reproductively successful. Instead, fishermen will try to catch medium-sized individuals, which will allow the mature fish to reproduce and sustain their populations for the benefit of future generations of Panamanians.
The fishermen will also expand their use of medium-sized fishhooks in order to avoid smaller and larger catches.
In addition, a no-fishing area around the island is included in the new management plan, extending one mile in every direction. Researchers are conducting studies on financial strategy and concluding analysis on the economic value of Coiba Island’s marine resources, which will provide insight on the many benefits that marine protection can have for local livelihoods.
MMAS emphasizes the importance of science for making good decisions. In the case of Coiba Island, it appears that its efforts are working.
READ MORE: Turning Science into Sustainable Fishing