Smithsonian researchers study Coiba reefs

The scientists seek to collect data to study the changes to the ecosystems.

 Matthieu Leray is happy to not see  humpback whales, whale sharks or, huge American crocodiles in nearby mangroves while collecting bags of water from the reef to bring back to the laboratory.

Thanks to new techniques  the researcher hopes to revolutionize the concept of a healthy coral reef, and perhaps develop an early warning system to track changes in the ecosystems.  The Cohiba reefs, until now, have been faced with far fewer human impacts than others around the world.

"The information that you can get from a water sample is extraordinary," Leray.  Coiba National Park in Panama is the home to the newest marine station at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.  ’(You) can obtain the footprint of invasive species, characterize the microbial communities involved in coral bleaching or detect any pathogen that may damage the reef.  The area could be used as  an indicator of the potential risks to biodiversity, "says the researcher.

The expedition included 14 field studies, mainly on coral reefs and mangroves. The scientists collected water for environmental DNA samples, conducted fish surveys and took sediment samples. They also analyzed the physicochemical properties of water.

Maggie Johnson of MarineGEO, scientist, studies reefs.  She photographed coral patches to track the changes they have undergone over time and establish artificial surfaces for marine organisms to colonize.

These studies will create reference data to build future expeditions. The results will be compared with others collected by scientists at the Bocas Del Toro research station, where massive amounts of scientific information have been collected in recent years. "The bacteria and microalgae that are in the environment have the potential to affect the distribution and growth of larger organisms that we see all the time," he added.

Coiba, the largest Pacific island in Central America, belongs to a protected archipelago that is, to some extent a portal to a time in which tropical ecosystems had not been radically altered by human activity where the reefs show few signs of whitening and loss of biomass, unlike those of many other places in the world.

The relatively pristine state of Coiba is due to centuries of minimal human occupation; The island was a small penal colony for most of its modern history and has remained a protected park since the last prisoners were shipped out in 2004.

The current management plans allow for some fishing and ecotourism. Environmentalists and researchers regularly reject the news referring to the ’green development’ plans for the area, which the famous conservation photographer Christian Ziegler called ’the jewel in the crown of the national parks system of Panama’.  Smithsonian scientists say the reserve is a relevant global laboratory to understand how healthy ecosystems should work in an era in which many reefs have already suffered rapid deterioration. It is essential to reduce the human impact in Coiba, they say, to obtain the knowledge that could help change the fate of the world’s reef systems, which hold up to 25% of all known marine species.

"There is a large number of species in Coiba that are not found anywhere else on the planet, both terrestrial and marine. There is an important potential to do science that helps conservation and management of a World Heritage site, "says Juan Maté, manager of scientific affairs and operations at STRI, who has studied the reserve’s marine ecosystems for some 30 years. "This system continues to operate at a healthy level and maintains a resistance that is not seen in many other areas," he added.

’Here we have an extraordinary opportunity.  Coiba is unique from a biological perspective considering that the Eastern Pacific is one of the most unexplored regions in the world. Coiba is right in the center, in a marine corridor that starts in Mexico, crosses Costa Rica and ends in the Galapagos Islands,  says Owen McMillan, a scientist