Panama’s Guna Yala local fishers become champions for marine resources management


Lionfish have 18 venomous spines that are capable of easily penetrating human skin and delivering a painful sting.
Photo: Rachel Graham

We are scared of lionfish, they will kill us if we eat them!” This local fisherman’s testimony was echoed by his fellow fishers during a knowledge exchange workshop with Mexican and Belizean counterparts organized by MarAlliance in Guna Yala.

MarAlliance’s ongoing lionfish and marine megafauna project in Panama’s indigenous Guna Yala region answers a real need from the local community who called on the organization’s marine expertise to help them manage the invasive yet as they soon discovered, very tasty lionfish (Pterois volitans).

The fishers didn’t know how to best deal with lionfish that are originally from the Indo Pacific and were accidentally introduced to the Caribbean over 30 years ago. These fish are detrimental to the region’s ecosystem as they outcompete other species for space and food resources and have no natural predators. This is putting local marine ecosystems already stressed by rising temperatures and pollution under further pressure.

“Fishers from the region wanted to know how to better manage lionfish,” confirmed MarAlliance Panama Country Coordinator Megan Chevis, “By enabling them to do that, they are simultaneously contributing to a better management of all marine resources.”

The project is being rolled out on several islands in the region, including Aglidub, Uwargandup, Nargana and Caimau Islands. It encompasses a three-pronged approach, the first component entails training of local traditional fishers to safely capture lionfish. MarAlliance then added two more components following further community engagement and interest in understanding the health of their seas: an annual standardized monitoring of marine megafauna and  a program of education and awareness through interactive presentations and activities with students.

“As many traditionally consumed fish species have been overfished in the Guna Yala, lionfish fisheries could bolster the comarca’s food security both directly through removal and consumption, and indirectly, by increasing the survival of juveniles of other species of fish” noted Dr. Rachel Graham, Executive Director of MarAlliance.  

“You have to cut off the spines at their base so you get all the venom,” Mexican fisher Henry Mezquita tells to his audience, “then you fillet it like you would any other fish.” Photo: Rachel Graham

MarAlliance’s work in the Guna Yala region aims to empower its community members, encouraging them to see lionfish as a source of food and convincing them that sharks and other big fish are invaluable to the sea’s wellbeing. For this project, Mexican and Belizean fishers joined workshops and exchanged knowledge with their Guna counterparts on how to catch, handle and consume lionfish in order to create demand for this fish. Additionally, the MarAlliance team also trained eight local fishers and captains on monitoring methods during a two-week period.

“An important part of this project is involving and training local fishers,” said Ms Chevis, “Community engagement from the very start helps ensure our projects are sustainable and locally supported. With communities’ requests, we hope we can expand our work to other islands in the region,” she concluded.  


MarAlliance runs this project in collaboration with the Centro de Desarrollo Ambiental y Humano (CENDAH) and is supported by the Paul M. Angell Family Foundation, Conservation Food & Health Foundation, and the Ron Magill Conservation Endowment Fund. Permission for the project was granted by the Congreso General Kuna.


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