March 2, 2023
Featured image by Eduardo Estrada
(PEARL ISLANDS, GULF OF PANAMA) –
El Archipelago de las Perlas, or the Pearl Islands Archipelago, is a collection of more than 200 islands and islets and 3,188 beaches, located in the Gulf of Panama, approximately 48 kilometers off its Pacific Coast. This archipelago holds an impressive marine life richness and diversity that has yet to be fully discovered, studied, and recognized for its importance within the Latin American region and around the globe. It provides, currently or historically, a breeding ground for four sea turtle species: hawksbill sea turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata), green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas), leatherback sea turtles (Dermochleys coriacea), and olive ridley sea turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea), and it is a nursery ground for hammerhead sharks (Sphyrnidae) and humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) to breed and raise their young.
Mission Blue has named Callie Veelenturf, Founder & Executive Director of The Leatherback Project, and Aida Magaña, a nautical engineer with a master’s degree in environmental engineering, as the Hope Spot Champions of the Pearl Islands Hope Spot in recognition of their work to broaden the wealth of research and public support for the protection of the islands’ sea turtles and the marine ecosystem they call home.
Dr. Sylvia Earle, Founder of Mission Blue, says, “I want to thank Callie Veelenturf and Aida Magaña for doing what they’re doing to take a stand for greater protection for the ocean.” She continues, “If they could speak, the sea turtles would say thank you, too.
The boundary of the Hope Spot is the existing Pearl Islands Archipelago Special Management Zone, consisting of 240 islands that were formed through Panamanian law in 2007. Currently, the Special Management Zone does not have an approved management plan, but Veelenturf and Magaña are hoping that can change through Panama’s forward momentum of their commitment to ocean protection.
Aida Magaña, Hope Spot Champion and Panama City native, is an Environmental Engineering PhD candidate at the Technological University of Panama and is involved in a project called Proyecto CONAP (Nature Conservation in the Pearl Islands Archipelago on the island of Saboga, Pearl Islands. She describes her work with the local communities within the islands. “We need to keep and preserve our ecosystems and create awareness among the local people, so I am organizing an eco-environmental committee to educate the Archipelago’s communities on recycling, reusing and reducing waste, and guaranteeing its proper disposal. Our main mission is to protect the environment, marine resources, and the endangered species within. Working on the CONAP project has been my inspiration in developing this committee.”
Magaña and Veelenturf’s goals for the Hope Spot fall under research, conservation, and education. Within Veelenturf’s work with sea turtles, her endeavors include conducting beach surveys to identify and document the presence of sea turtle nesting activity and transects on coral reefs to document the presence and absence of various species of sea turtles in potential foraging grounds. However, a major focus for Veelenturf and Magaña is to be able to describe the connectivity between the Pearl Islands and other marine biodiverse areas in the Eastern Pacific that are part of the Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor such as Cocos Island, Coiba Island, Gorgona Island, the Galapagos Islands, and Malpelo Island – all of which are Mission Blue Hope Spots. They are seeking partners who are prepared to help them satellite tag species of marine megafauna including sea turtles, sharks, and marine mammals to understand their migratory routes, seasonal habitat use, and connectivity within the region.
Callie Veelenturf says, “The Pearl Islands hold so many endangered marine treasures that must be described and protected to prevent the loss of biodiversity and preserve the stability of these vulnerable ecosystems for the sake of both human and marine species generations to come.”
Magaña elaborates, “We are the jewel of the Panamanian Pacific full of so much biodiversity, and we need the world to know us and experience the wonders we have in the Pearl Islands Archipelago.”
Veelenturf and Magaña are seeking to work with Panama’s Ministry of Environment and Panamanian Authority of Aquatic Resources to identify high-use areas of endangered species and high-overlap areas of endangered species and fisheries activities throughout the Archipelago with satellite tracking, sightings, and survey data. Among many other actions, they hope to alter proposed protection measures based on current conservation needs and eventually propose the incorporation of the Pearl Islands Archipelago into the Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor.
Minister Milciades Concepción, Panama’s Minister of Environment, says, “This zone is important for various marine species including migratory species such as sharks, marine mammals, migratory birds, and threatened coral reef species. Panama plans to continue supporting research initiatives in the Gulf of Panama, and to expand conservation data to support greater protection measures in the region.”
The Hope Spot Champions are hopeful that Panama continues its path as a world conservation leader, having successfully protected 30% of its territorial waters in both the Caribbean and Pacific oceans in recent years.
Magaña describes what she imagines on the horizon for her blue backyard. “The Pearl Islands Hope Spot will provide hope for the future by providing a safe haven for many threatened and endangered species across several taxa that are not only ecologically vital to healthy ocean ecosystems, but culturally important as well.” She continues, “By working together with Callie and the research team, I have gained a much greater love for my people and the uniqueness of the entire Pearl Islands Archipelago. I want the world to know us and fall in love with Pearls… my favorite place, forever.”
Veelenturf concludes, “By recovering depleted species populations throughout the Eastern Pacific and decreasing threats to these species in areas where they may be most vulnerable (ie. reproductive and feeding grounds) we will be making progress towards restoring a more natural balance and equilibrium within coastal and oceanic marine ecosystems.”
About The Leatherback Project
The Leatherback Project is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the leatherback sea turtle throughout its global range through research, education, and advocacy initiatives primarily aimed at mitigating fisheries bycatch. We have a goal of working towards restored balance, decreased anthropogenic pressures on overexploited resources and a sustainable future for the world’s ocean ecosystems and coastal habitats, allowing for the recovery of endangered wildlife like the leatherback. We have been working in Ecuador since 2019 to decrease fisheries bycatch through collecting data on endangered species stranding, fisheries interactions, fishermen’s perspectives on conservation, and working with government and community stakeholders to come up with comprehensive solutions to decrease fisheries bycatch. We have been working in Panama since our founding to identify new sea turtle nesting and foraging grounds throughout the Pearl Islands Archipelago, identify key threats to biodiversity, and collaborate with local communities to come up with impactful, long-lasting conservation solutions such as creating a community managed National Wildlife Refuge and proposing a new law recognizing the Rights of Nature (Law 287).