Blog | Oceana USA

[editor's note, by Jason]: This journal entry was written by Sandy on Sunday, Feb. 27.

La Isla de Coiba is the largest island in the Central American Pacific - approximately three times the size of Manhattan, or twenty times larger than Coco´s - and only 12 miles off the coast of Panama. It is the site of the Central Pacific´s most extensive coral reef system; a feeding and calving ground for blue whales, humpback whales, orcas and tropical spotted dolphins; and home to sharks, manta rays, billfish and tuna. Four species of threatened sea turtles nest on Coiba´s beaches. Crocodiles patrol its mangrove-lined shores. On the Panamanian mainland the island is famous, but not for its biological richness. For the past century the word "Coiba" has inspired fear.

Until last year Coiba was a federal prison. Panama´s most dangerous convicts were sent here - dangerous either to society or to the prevailing political regime. The jail was dispersed, with prison camps at various points around the island, and further dispersed because, according to legend, the prisoners were given leave to roam the island at night... while prison guards and timid inmates locked themselves in. Violence was a fact, not all of it perpetrated by man; in addition to the crocodiles, 15 species of snake, including lethal fer-de-lance and coral snakes, live on Coiba.

The prison population gradually dwindled as the twentieth century came to a close, but still The Panama Guide (Second Edition, 2001) warned visitors that "due to the continuing presence of the penal colony the safest place to anchor is off the biological station located on Punta Machete on the northeast tip of Coiba... The police are very friendly and if you want to go on any island trails one of them, equipped with weapons, will go as a guide and protector." Of Jicaron, a smaller island in the Coiba archipelago (in addition to Coiba the group includes eight smaller islands and 40 islets), the guide writes: "This island, separated from Coiba by a wide channel has strong currents which make it safe from any lurking fugitives. No one lives here and the beauty of the lush landscape can take your breath away. We rated Jicaron as the most wildly beautiful stop in Pacific Panama."

Others have been drawn to Coiba's beauty, and the history of the island has not all been dark. A Smithsonian scientist, Alicia Ibañez, has been living and working on the island for several years, attended by a guard and assisted by an inmate, Mali Mali, who finished his sentence and stayed to continue work on the project. Today he is a government park ranger and the island´s most knowledgeable guide.

The prison closed for good with the evacuation of the last prisoners in July of 2004. No one knows for sure what crimes led them to Coiba, what in human life has been lost in the island´s past. In any case the inmates, collectively, have repaid a debt: their presence has kept this place almost completely immune from industrial degradation. Coiba and its archipelago were made a national park by decree in 1991, and last year the park status was made law.

Preserved as it is, Coiba´s value is immense - particularly because of the island´s marine life. Coiba is a key link in the Pacific island ring that includes Coco´s and the Galapagos, and, as the member of the group closest to the continent, a protected nursery for juvenile fish that will migrate as adults. Keeping Coiba´s marine ecosystem intact, therefore, is critical to maintaining tuna and billfish populations that are fished and consumed all over the world.

On a more local level, Coiba should continue to provide for coastal Panamanian communities. Small-scale fishing is an ancient activity in Panama; the word "Panama" actually means "abundance of fish" in an indigenous language, and while the moniker no longer applies to nearshore areas invaded by industrial fleets in the 70s and 80s, it still fits Coiba. Under the new park rules small-scale fishing will be allowed here under close regulation. All boats must apply for a permit at the ranger station. Legal gear is one line and three hooks - sufficient to fish for a family or small community but no more. The hope is that Coiba can continue to support local fishing while also providing a marine nursery ground that will help to replenish fish populations along the more heavily-fished coasts.

The transformation of Coiba from prison colony to national park is new and happening now. On Wednesday the first class of Coiba Ecological Police will graduate from their training course and take up a permanent presence on the island. They will collaborate with the park rangers and with MarViva to enforce the new fishing regulations, which went into effect this weekend. Yesterday, for the first time, the park rangers collected miles of longline from two of four boats that had requested permits to fish in the park; the other two decided to leave park territory rather than relinquish their illegal gear. Tonight a MarViva/park ranger/ecological police patrol will head out to circle the island. With the change of the Panamanian government in September there is a new administration in power and Coiba´s rangers are all new, so for this first run Rolando Ruiloba, director of Coiba National Park, will accompany them to supervise. Mar will be there to film and I to write. Needless to say, the Ranger could not have chosen a more important moment to arrive.

[editor's note, by Jason]: This entry was written by Sandy on Friday, February 25.

We're back in Golfito for a few days to restock, shower, and get information about Cocos Island out to the wider world. Today we held a joint Oceana/MarViva press conference at the MarViva base. A bus brought the audience of journalists and cameramen from San Jose.

Xavier told the story of Cocos, which by now is familiar to some of us but no less impressive. It basically runs thus: Until very recently Cocos was a wilderness apart. It was a haven for pirates and the occasional whaler, but otherwise unvisited and unknown. In the 1970s, however, nearshore fisheries were rapidly depleted and fishing fleets began to frequent the island in force. Costa Rica declared Cocos and 12 miles of the surrounding ocean a national park (1978); UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site (1997), but the designations were meaningless in practice, industrial fishing continued on a large scale, and one of the planet´s most extraordinary marine treasures slipped into decline. It was only with the creation of MarViva and collaborative patrols, in 2002, that things began to change. And change they did.

As Xavier said, "The ongoing work around Cocos shows that professional partnership and loyal cooperation between governments, private companies, and NGOs gives results very quickly. In three years MarViva has done a number of important things here, and if we could copy and paste this approach in other parts of the world it would be one very good way to change the situation in the oceans."

There is, of course, still work to be done. Longliners linger at park borders, waiting for a chance to enter and willing to risk arrest - perhaps a further demonstration of continuing fisheries depletion closer to shore, perhaps testament to the success of the Cocos project in restoring the island's remarkable marine abundance, or perhaps some combination of both.

There were four organizations represented at the conference. Xavier Pastor, director of Oceana Europe; Micheal Rothchild, executive director of MarViva in Costa Rica; and Juan Pablo Camblor, director of Zoea, in Spain, all spoke. Mar Mas, founder and president of Kaisut Media and chief videographer of the Ranger expedition, had compiled a video of footage from Cocos, which we watched. It is easy when you are sailing, diving, filming to get lost in the details of the work, but here was its sum - four organizations pursuing a coordinated effort to assess the status of some of the most extraordinary areas of ocean in the world, and to convey to a broader public a vision of what the oceans are and can be. It was good to be in the audience, a thrill to see the pieces falling into place.

[editor's note, by Jason] This journal was written by Sandy on Monday, February 21.

We left Cocos. We sailed northeast with the island behind us, gorgeous, streaming water as if it had just lifted itself from the sea. The clouds pile above it.

On the way out we pass another longliner coming in. This is the second we've seen since we've been at the island. The first had pled engine trouble as an excuse for anchoring in the bay; it's a common story and there is no way to confirm it. Last night the MarViva patrollers pulled in a six-mile longline that had been set in park waters. Still, this is nothing. The park rangers and MarViva staff say that three years ago, before they began their collective patrols, there were thirty to forty fishing boats in park waters at any given time. I can well believe it. It is impressive to see firsthand the continuous enforcement efforts, patrols that stay out all night through darkness and storms, and the continuous pressure -- any gap in the patrolling and the longliners will enter again. The new level of protection around Cocos is both dramatic and tenuous.

But what a difference it makes. Today, before we left, the film crew did a final dive. Juan Pablo reports:

"The site was called 'Dirty Rock'" -- a much-favored target for birds -- "and it is a little rocky island without vegetation of any kind. Underwater, the walls of the rock are fairly vertical and drop 55-60 meters. The form or the rock is a kind of pyramidal pinnacle, very steep at the start but which slopes gently toward the bottom.

The incredible thing about this dive is that it was a perfect representation of the trophic chain, or the food web, of the marine ecosystem of Cocos Island. You have, at the bottom, at a depth of -50 meters, the big predators -- the apex of the pyramid. These are hammerhead sharks, known in the area as "horned" sharks. We saw two or three large ones, patrolling and circling the base of the rock. There was nothing else. The area was stark, just the two or three sharks, circling...

A little bit higher, in the -35-40 meter zone, there were tongues of sand in the rock, almost vertical. Here there was another type of shark -- whitetip reef sharks. They were resting. Hammerheads, and most sharks, must move constantly through the water, but whitetip reef sharks are an exception.

At 30 meters: the jacks. Also a large predator. There were small groups of them, and they were large -- 60 centimeters or so. At this point we also saw a pair of spotted tropical rays.

Closer to the surface the fish are smaller and there are a greater number. The number of species also increases. In the dark, cavernous fissures in the rock there were bigeyes -- soldierfish. Further out were butterflyfish, surgeonfish, parrotfish, and hundreds and hundreds of damselfish.

It was one of the most beautiful dives I have ever done. Both because the conditions were great and because it is so unusual to see this enormous variety of species outside of coral reefs. It's obvious that the work of MarViva, the government, and FAICO to protect the island have had an effect. All sharks -- from hammerheads to rays -- are captured in longline fishing. If there were no fishing regulations and no control over the fishing boats, there wouldn't be this quantity and diversity of species. The entire structure of the system alters when the top predators disappear.

There is a phenomenon that biologists call the "reserve effect," which consists of the fact that in areas where fishing is well regulated there is an increase in the number of species, in the number of individuals and in their size. Thanks to the work of MarViva, it's clear that this phenomenon exists in Cocos Island.

As regards Oceana's work, I am proud -- personally and professionally -- to be part of this team. In the discipline of enviromental protection and education it's not easy to find projects of this type and of this scale. It's a great opportunity, for a marine biologist, to collaborate in an initiative of this size -- on a 22-meter boat, twelve people working, each with his or her mission, in some of the best conserved and least accessible areas of the planet."