Panama Coral Reef Monitoring Network

Hector M. Guzman and Aldo Croquer

Why Study Corel Reefs?
Red gorgonian,  Pacifigorgia, from Pacific Panama.
Coral reefs are an important resource for tropical islands and coastal areas. In addition to their economic and recreational value, coral reefs are sensitive indicators of the quality of coastal waters in tropical areas. If coral reef resources are to be developed, managed or protected, scientific information about the impact of natural and man-made disturbances must be monitored. Consequently, looking at the long-term trends in the condition of reefs is vitally important.

Long-term monitoring is the repeated surveying of organisms or environmental parameters over time to help scientists and managers understand a variety of natural processes.
A monitoring program provides information on the abundance of the biota, the diversity of the reef site, the conservation condition of particular habitats, and changes in the environment. It may enable scientists to predict the effects of human activities on ecological processes.

Panama Reefs

Coral reef monitoring sites. (click to enlarge)
Panama's reefs occupy two oceans with substantially different hydrographic regimes within the same latitude. Most of the reefs have only been lightly affected by local human activities but are coming under increasing pressure from deforestation, tourism, mining and fishing. They are all subject to oceanwide factors such as increasing temperature and pollution. Observing and contrasting the changes in the Pacific and Caribbean reefs over extended periods of time can provide a unique insight into environmental changes of global importance.

STRI Long-term Reef Monitoring Program
 Coral reef monitoring sites. (click to enlarge)
STRI’s monitoring program presently has 33 reefs, including 17 in the Pacific (13 inside marine protected areas), and 16 in the Caribbean (6 inside marine protected areas) - see map. Coral reef monitoring on permanent transects started in 1985 in Bahia Las Minas  and the Portobelo-Isla Grande region  in support of a project to monitor an oil spill. Bahia las Minas is near the Caribbean entrance to the Panama Canal and has suffered from human interference since Spanish colonial times. The  Portobelo-Isla Grande region has had episodes of damage from high temperatures and diseases at the end of the 1980's and has recently been exposed to increasing sediment loads from local deforestation.

  In 1987/88, monitoring was extended to 18 reef sites in San Blas, an archipelago on Panama's eastern Caribbean coast that is home to a large Kuna Indian population, and is subject to over-fishing and some light deforestation. Otherwise, these reefs are in very good condition. In 1997 the monitoring program in San Blas was discontinued. In 1999, monitoring was started at Bocas del Toro, a lightly populated and nearly pristine archipelago at that time, on the western end of the Caribbean coast that has a wide variety of coral habitats. It is currently being developed as a tourist area. In 2000, monitoring stations were started at six Pacific side locations.  Isla Saboga  in the Gulf of Panama has an annual upwelling because of the trade winds and the low mountains. This is in contrast to the  site Isla Coiba in the Gulf of Chiriqui,  which is protected from trade wind induced upwelling by high mountains. Another site, Isla Iguana, is close to the edge of the continental slope and is exposed to oceanic waters and upwelling. None of these are near population centers and are relatively lightly used. In 2004 two more reef sites were added in the Las Perlas archipelago.

The number of reef marine monitoring sites increased from 19 reefs in 2005 to 25 in 2007 with support from The Nature Conservancy. We intend to build on previous experience to achieve appropriate spatial scale to provide reliable and comprehensive data to detect short-term to long-term changes in reef community structure associated with natural and anthropogenic disturbances, at local and regional levels with the aim of providing information for improved resource management in key marine coastal areas. By 2008 with support from The Nature Conservancy the PCRMN’s reached 33 monitoring sites nation wide to better capture changes that might be a result of new or intensified threats to the reefs at the local level and provide information for improved management.