The Toll of Tourism on Marine Ecosystems in Bocas del Toro, Panamá

Latest update May 22, 2019 Started on April 7, 2019

We will investigate the environmental impacts of tourism on the marine ecosystems of Bocas del Toro, Panamá where information on anthropogenic disturbance at over visited sites such as reefs and beaches and surrounding areas is lacking.

April 7, 2019
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This expedition was created to provide more information on the status of marine ecosystems in the greater Bocas del Toro archipelago to key stakeholders such as government officials, business owners and concerned citizens. I have lived and worked in Boas del Toro for the past 5 years and my team and I work with visiting students and local community members to tackle some of the most challenging issues facing the region; environmental degradation, unregulated development, tourism impacts and socio-economic disparities. As a marine biologist trained in molecular evolutionary genomics of fish, I have had to learn how to work at the intersection of marine and social science to promote conservation and environmental and scientific initiatives in the region. The Open Explorer program is the perfect way to involve a wide range of people and provides a wonderful opportunity to combine social and natural sciences.

Currently, I am attending the 39th Association of Marine Laboratories of the Caribbean (AMLC) Scientific Meeting in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. During this meeting, scientists from all over the Caribbean region have commented on the need for scientists to learn how to communicate science effectively in order to make change. What we all know is that we can not afford to be in a situation where we suddenly realize that we have done too little too late. The Caribbean region is in serious trouble with regard to disease and loss of biodiversity in marine ecosystems.

We are looking forward to utilizing the Trident drone technology to help us understand, for example, the spread of Stony Tissue Coral Loss Disease (STCLD). At the AMLC meeting, we have just learned that STCLD has been reported in the US (first reported in 2014), Jamaica (2017), México (2018), St. Thomas (2018), St. Maarten (2018) and the Dominican Republic (2019). The disease is aggressive and based on data shared by scientists at the AMLC meeting, it can spread through touching or water and responds positively to antibiotics suggesting that the etiologic agent is a bacteria.

Though the disease has not been reported in Panamá, we are looking forward to receiving the Trident to record images of reefs in their current state such that in the event that STCLD arrives to Bocas, we can have historical footage to compare levels of healthy and diseased coral.

Our expedition is set to begin in mid to late August with preliminary studies in June and July. Importantly, we look forward to collecting footage to use as a baseline for myriad of studies we wish to pursue surrounding the impacts of tourism on marine ecosystems in Bocas del Toro. Stay tuned!!

Expedition Background

Bocas del Toro is a small island archipelago located on the western Caribbean coast of Panamá. Tourism has grown rapidly here since the early 2000s and the region has experienced an estimated 100,000 tourists visiting the archipelago in 2008 and 225,000 in 2012, representing a 225% increase in visitation in just four years. The cultural impacts of large numbers of tourists in the region continue to be studied, however, information on the toll of this increased tourism on natural ecosystems is not as readily observed or documented. Little information is known about the impacts of marine-based tourism on coral reefs, mangroves, seagrass beds and beaches in the region. Specifically, we wish to understand how certain species are coping with repeated visitation at overused sites throughout the archipelago.

For the past five years, the School for Field Studies, Center for Tropical Island Biodiversity Studies has investigated the interdependency of the people of Bocas del Toro on the natural environment. The economy of Bocas del Toro is based in tourism (95%), an industry that relies on pristine images of seascapes, mangroves, charismatic megafauna and coral reefs, to attract tourists to the region. Over and over we witness tour operators along the same route taking tourists to observe resident dolphins in Dolphin Bay, snorkeling at Cayo Coral and at Zapatilla Island, swimming at Playa Estrella (Starfish Beach) to see sea stars and stopping in motor boats to look at sloths on a mangrove island commonly referred to as, 'Sloth Island'. The route of these tours has remained the same for almost an entire decade. What are the impacts of repeated visitation to coral reefs? Why are starfish at Playa Estrella no longer found in the same quantities as they were just a few years ago? Is the repeated use of marine ecosystems detrimental and if so, what changes can be observed between the current states of these ecosystems and historical information?

This expedition will greatly aid our ability to better understand marine management as the Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park encompasses many of the highly visited locations along various tour routes. Additionally, the use of an underwater drone will assist in the documentation of damage to reefs in areas that are inaccessible; depths greater than 20m. We can also use the Trident drone to traverse large areas of highly visited reefs and we can use it to monitor the slope at Playa Estrella where starfish seem to move in order to avoid human activity during day. The drone will be a useful tool to observe where particular species of reef building coral are found as well. Has there been a shift in where reef builders are found due to overuse in certain regions? For example, at Cayo Coral, a heavily visited reef, soft corals appear to be the predominant coral type. What kinds of shifts have occurred as a result of tourism and are they positive shifts for the species, including humans, that depend on them for survival? How can we distinguish between climate change impacts and direct impacts due to tourism?

We intend to use the drone to perform exploratory analyses of highly visited marine tourism sites throughout the archipelago and to then compare information and data with historical and published information and current research being conducted at our sister school in the Turks and Caicos in the upper Caribbean.

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