Panama accused of undermining marine preserve


Four years after banning commercial fishing in species-rich Coiba National Park, Panama’s National Assembly revoked a critical article of the law prohibiting the use of purse-seine nets for tuna fishing in the 1,040-square-mile (2,700-sq-km) marine preserve.

Environmentalists say the June 30 repeal of the ban on purse-seine tuna fishing in Coiba, reportedly influenced by Spanish tuna companies, could pose added risks to endangered marine turtles and dozens of species of sharks, whales and dolphins, which can become trapped in the purse seines as bycatch.

They also say it undermines Panama’s commitments under a 2004 treaty that the country signed with Colombia, Costa Rica and Ecuador to protect migratory marine species in a vast swath of ocean since named the Marine Conservation Corridor of the Eastern Tropical Pacific. (See “Four countries to create a marine-protection corridor”—EcoAméricas, June ’04.)

“Panama lacks the money, personnel and resources to prevent illegal fishing by small-scale fishermen,” says Raisa Banfield, executive director of the nonprofit Environmental Advocacy Center in Panama City. “How is it going to control [the much larger-scale] industrial tuna fishing, which harvests so much bycatch?”

The repeal of the purse-seine ban, tucked into a larger maritime-commerce law in the final hours of the National Assembly’s legislative session ending last June 30, went undiscovered for weeks by environmental and sport-fishing groups.

But those groups have since reacted with outrage, saying they fear the measure will lead to the massive killing of many species—including dolphins that swim with tuna. They also say it could stimulate overfishing of tuna in Coiba and the surrounding Gulf of Chiriquí by Spanish fleets exporting to Japanese and U.S. sushi markets.

Since 1975, the population of bluefin tuna has fallen by some 85% in the western Atlantic Ocean and virtually collapsed in the Mediterranean, according to the international environmental group WWF.

In the Mediterranean, much of the damage has been caused by Spanish fleets capturing tuna in purse seines for fattening on tuna farms—exactly the type of fishing proposed for Panamanian waters.

“Though tuna boats in Coiba would be fishing for yellowfin tuna, which is in decline but not yet threatened with extinction, we see what happened in the Mediterranean and worry that that could happen here,” says Gabriela Etchelecu, executive director of the Mar Viva Foundation, a marine-preservation group in Panama City. “We also know that you cannot remove a crucial predator like that without causing a chain reaction that would impact other, smaller species and throw the whole ecosystem out of balance.”

Tuna-farm plans

The tuna-farming controversy dates from at least 2005, when the government began reviewing proposals by Granjas Atuneras de Panama and other Spanish companies to establish three tuna farms off Panama’s Pacific coast in the Gulf of Chiriquí, the Gulf of Panama and near the Azuero Peninsula.

The Spanish firms intend to catch adolescent tuna in purse seines and tow them to the fattening farms. The companies say banning them from Coiba’s waters, as envisioned under the provision removed from the maritime-commerce law, would make the towing distances too long, consuming excessive amounts of time and money—and causing significantly more deaths among the tuna.

The tuna companies have support among officials in Panama’s Aquatic Resources Authority (Arap), who argue tuna fishing that is regulated using licenses is preferable to the illegal tuna fishing that occurs under prohibitions. They also say that tuna farms will generate hundreds of jobs in areas where unemployment is as high as 40%.

“These companies need to obtain their tuna ‘seeds’ near the farms to avoid [tuna] mortality,” George Novey, Arap’s deputy administrator, told the press in 2007. “An exception for boats working for the tuna farms must be created within the law.”

But opponents argue that apart from the issue of over-fishing, tuna farms themselves are impractical. Such farms are used widely in the Mediterranean and in Mexico, where a 10-year-old tuna industry along the Baja Pacific coast now accounts for up to 35,000 tons annually, or 10% of global tuna production.

Among the biggest bones of contention is tuna feed. Raising tuna requires immense quantities of baitfish such as sardines and anchovies—often 20 kilos of baitfish for each kilo of tuna produced. Tuna farming could precipitate a shortage of sardines, a key staple for the poor. And if Panama were to respond by importing sardines, it would run the risk of introducing exotic diseases such as those that have threatened Mexican sardine populations in the past, critics say.

Environmental risks cited

Another issue is the excrement produced by tuna farms, which contaminates surrounding waters. That concern—along with lawsuits filed by green groups—has held up implementation of a large tuna farm near the mouth of Golfo Dulce, a tropical fjord in Costa Rica. (See “Costa Rican tuna-farm project challenged”—EcoAméricas, June ’07.)

Environmental groups say the risks are too great. They argue that if lawmakers do not reinstate the tuna-fishing ban, they will take the matter to court. Their efforts yielded some results on Dec. 22, when a proposal to reinstate the ban was approved in an initial vote in the National Assembly.

A decision on the measure is not expected until the Assembly holds subsequent debate and two further rounds of voting, a process not slated to be completed before March.

“Costa Rica’s Supreme Court stopped a tuna farm there, and we will try that here if we have to,” says Marcos Ostrander, president of the nonprofit Foundation for Conservation of the Sea, Nature and Marine Species (Conamar) in Panama City. “We will go anywhere and everywhere because we have to take our stand now. The oceans don’t just belong to purse seiners and long-liners, they belong to everyone. And unfortunately, the oceans are falling into bankruptcy.”

- Steve Ambrus

Raisa Banfield
Executive Director
Environmental Advocacy Center
Panama City, Panama
Tel: +(507) 264-8510
Gabriela Etchelecu
Executive Director
Mar Viva Foundation
Panama City, Panama
Tel: +(507) 208-9434
Marcos Ostrander
Foundation for the Conservancy of the Sea, Nature and Marine Species (Conamar)
Panama City, Panama
Tel: +(507) 232-0143