Why Am I Eating Frozen Fish When I’m Surrounded By Reefs?

By Emma Hedley

Personal Observations on Overfishing in Bocas del Toro, Panama

A view of Bocas del Toro's many waterfront restaurants.

A view of Bocas del Toro’s many waterfront restaurants.

Bocas del Toro is my definition of a tropical island paradise and served as the base for my semester-long study abroad program with The School for Field Studies.  The island archipelago on the Caribbean coast of Panama consists of many small, forested islands surrounded by mangroves and beautiful white sand beaches, with luscious seagrass beds and gorgeous coral reefs offshore.  A portion of the archipelago’s seas and islands have even been designated marine protected area status.  With this knowledge under my belt, I departed for my three-month long stay in Bocas del Toro expecting to explore the local beaches, rainforests, and underwater world while enjoying meals of fresh fish and tropical fruits.  Most of my expectations were not just met, but exceeded; however, I was shocked when I discovered that many of the local restaurants, situated directly on the waterfront, were serving frozen fish.  As I was in Bocas del Toro as a student on a study abroad program, I had a large source of knowledge to draw upon when asking the question: Why frozen fish?

The basic answer to my question was quickly supplied – overfishing in the area has become rampant, likely due to the area’s newfound reputation as an exciting tourism destination.  I kept my question in the back of my mind with plans to delve deeper into the issue throughout courses focused on ecology, resource management, and local socioeconomic values and livelihood systems.  Overfishing, I rapidly discovered, is a pertinent issue in all three of these cademic disciplines.  Ecologically speaking, overfishing causes drastic changes to occur within a reef ecosystem.  Every species of fish plays a certain role within that ecosystem: herbivorous fish eat algae, which keeps algal populations in check, and, ultimately, protects corals from being outcompeted for space on the reef; carnivorous fish tend to be larger and eat smaller fish or smaller invertebrates, which helps to keep populations of these smaller organisms in check.  If we force changes in the fish population, the entire reef system can become imbalanced and will begin to shift into a different type of ecosystem, a change that is extremely difficult to reverse.  Management wise, overfishing is hard to control but many experts advocate for the use of Marine Protected Areas (or MPAs as they’re commonly known) to enforce no-take zones or catch limits.  In terms of local livelihood systems, overfishing can create huge difficulties for local businesses, such as those restaurants I visited, and removes a key food source for many local, indigenous populations.  For business owners, lack of fish means having to change their menus or pay to source fish from elsewhere.  For local communities, lack of fish means that a significant quantity of time and energy may be spent on fishing to retrieve barely enough to feed a family, forcing such groups to have to spend money on other food sources such as meat or, if they cannot afford to buy food, they may go hungry.

Using my new-found academic knowledge, I combined my personal observations from time spent around the entire archipelago with information I gleaned during interviews with several different local communities and other local stakeholders, and, ultimately, came up with my own theory on overfishing in Bocas del Toro.  As I mentioned earlier, the government had the foresight to create a local MPA, however, as is common in many marine protected areas, there was scant enforcement.  During my three months in the region, I never saw any patrol boats in or around the designated protected area while I saw people fishing within the MPA.  I began to question whether the MPA was affording any protection to local fish populations, let alone helping fish populations within and around the protected area recover.  Unfortunately, the consequences of a small fish stock has already been felt by local communities, many of whom spoke candidly during interviews about the difficulty of catching fish these days.  While out snorkeling and diving, it was rare to see very large fish and the invasive Indo-Pacific lionfish is present on many reef in the archipelago, both of which are negative indicators of fish stock health.

Despite all the doom and gloom I felt, I also noticed that there are still many healthy looking reefs that have not yet succumbed to an ecological phase shift.  That is, these reefs are still functioning as coral-dominated ecosystems with a variety of organisms living in balance and performing their unique functions that keep the reef operating.  I can now only hope that enforcement in the MPA will become more prevalent, allowing fish stocks to recover to former levels, helping local communities to support themselves, leading to more sustainable practices by restaurants and other stakeholders, and encouraging eco-friendly tourism to these beautiful reef zones, so that people from all over the world can enjoy the same beauty below the water that I was so fortunate to get to know well.