High fishing effort coupled with unsustainable use and destructive practices such as nets, has resulted in the loss of marine biodiversity and in the deterioration of marine ecosystem services since the middle of the 20th century. One of the most important of these services is the provision of food, which implies that the loss of biodiversity and the decline of marine populations engendered by unsustainable fishing practices have the potential to also affect food security. Assessing the impact of net fisheries has been challenging in many countries due to a lack of control sites where more sustainable practice such as hook and line are used.
Panamanian artisanal fisheries, including those of the Azuero Peninsula, follow the same global trends and yet also suffer from a lack of information which hinders adequate management. The Government of Panama’s Department for sustainable fisheries (ARAP), recently urged the need for improved scientific knowledge on the country’s small-scale fisheries which tied in well with our expertise. We were also keen to work with fishers from two communities located on Panama’s Azuero Peninsula who use different fishing gears to assess catch size and composition and highlight any differences due to gear preference.
Some of the most important species for the studied artisanal fisheries include slow growing and long-lived species, such as snappers and groupers. Such characteristics make these species especially vulnerable to fishing pressure. The majority of species that were landed at both ports were assessed by the IUCN as of least-concern in relation to risk of extinction, although it was unknown for most of them whether their population is increasing, stable, or actually decreasing.
Based on conservation status, economic value, and the amount of data collected, 8 focal species were chosen for further analysis. The landings of 7 out of these 8 species were biased towards smaller individuals. In some cases, the great majority of the specimens that were sampled were below the size of sexual maturity. Therefore, specimens may be commonly caught while still immature. Alternatively, these populations may have suffered from miniaturization due to fishing pressure, meaning that their specimens mature earlier (at smaller sizes) and their maximum size is smaller than normal, as a consequence of the selective removal by fishing activities of bigger fish from the population. The most worrisome result concerned landings of the endangered scalloped hammerhead shark (S. lewini), for which newborn specimens were prevalently landed. In other words, scalloped hammerhead sharks are commonly caught before they have reached sexual maturity and hence before they could reproduce. There is also a portion of the fishery specifically targeting adult scalloped hammerheads, of which the fins are worth more than the meat and are sold separately.