It's been a productive and happy first week in Panama. Amanda and I have had security briefings at the American Embassy, submitted our research permits to our respective host institutions, seen the historic district of Panama City, and shopped for our new place out in Guna Yala, on the Caribbean coast of Panama. We are indescribably lucky to have such great friends here that have done everything from drive us around the city, take us into their home and feed us, help us navigate the foreign bureaucracies with grace, and even wake us up with a 6:45AM phone call to invite us to a lionfish-fry on the other side of the country.
My research advisor had not returned my calls until the crack of dawn saturday morning, at which time he demanded I leap from bed and book it to the highway towards Colon, where he was there waiting with a bus full of employees from the ARAP (Panamanian Authority on Aquatic Resources), the equivalent of our Fish and Wildlife Service. The bus sped past huge freighters loaded with shipping containers chugging their way through the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal into the Pacific Ocean. When we had reached the Atlantic an hour later, we unloaded coolers of drinks out onto a gazebo on a dock, where around 25 locals were gearing up with scuba tanks, wetsuits, harpoons, and home-made fish traps to participate in ARAP's First Annual Lionfish Tournament. Lionfish are voracious predators native to the West Pacific that were introduced into the Caribbean, supposedly when a hurricane in Florida caused a handful of display specimens to escape from an aquarium into the ocean. They've since spread as far south as Brazil, outcompeting native reef-life at all life stages. They reproduce so quickly and outcompete so effectively that they'res been a big push by governments, NGO's, and local communities all across the Caribbean to start commercializing lionfish.
While we waited for the fishermen to come back, I met with regional and national directors for ARAP, and told them about Amanda's and my proposed work. After a conversation with the secretary to the national director, we decided that it would be a good idea to collaborate on declaring Armila a national protected area, which would allocate state funding for Armila's conservation efforts. Before establishing a protected area, they need to conduct both biological surveys and socio-economic analyses, projects to which both Amanda and I are respectively positioned to complete and which would mesh nicely with our current research goals.
After a couple hours of chatting some of the first lionfishermen returned. Each group of 2 fishermen had at least 10 lionfish, from 3 inches to nearly 15. Gift cards were awarded to those who caught the largest, the smallest, and the greatest number of lionfish. A lionfishing advocate from Colombia taught top Panamanian chefs how to clean and filet the fish, and the chefs proceeded to cook up an orgasmic lionfish curry, fried lionfish fingers, and lionfish ceviche (all of which were promptly devoured by the crowd). A couple fishermen stood on the sidelines watching the fervor, soaking their hands in scalding water to ease the pain and swelling caused by the lionfish stings (apparently it hurts like a strong bee-sting, but subsides quickly in hot water). After taking a couple hundred photos of the festivities, we drove back to Panama City in the afternoon to prep for a day out on a friend's ship in the Pacific tomorrow to go whale watching, kicking off our last week in cushy luxury before diving headfirst into living in Guna Yala.