The Bocas Del Toro landscape is characterized by its many mangrove–ringed islands and clear coral reefs. This part of Panama was the first part of the isthmus to emerge from the ocean in the volcanic uplift. It is the oldest ecosystem of Panama and has had a long timespan in which to slowly and specifically evolve. It is a vast genetic bank. There is a particularity to the area with its combination of mangrove, volcanic mountain range, and coral reef ecologies.
The resulting intertwined systems have specific needs for survival and a fragile interdependence. The interconnectedness of all aspects of the larger Bocas ecosystem implies that disruption in one system will have unintended consequences in others, with a geometric increase of effect of those consequences. Bocas del Toro is changing rapidly as it is developed. The potential for ecosystem disruption is very great. It is critical that its inhabitants understand and appreciate the particular ecosystem of Bocas del Toro. It is primarily a mangrove ecosystem with beaches on the outer coasts. It is not a beach ecosystem. Understanding mangrove ecology is necessary to understand the particular maintenance, potential, and challenges of the Bocas area.
The mangrove wetlands are perhaps the most misunderstood part of the Bocas del Toro ecosystem. In the past the elimination of mangroves was seem as evidence of progress. But the vital importance of the mangroves within the larger natural system is now proven and well established. All mangrove wetlands are considered the property of the republic of Panama and, as part of the tidal coastline, are protected. It is illegal to remove mangroves other than to attain specific access to one’s property. The management of mangroves is part of the authority of the Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente (ANAM), which has oversight for any cutting or removal of mangrove.
The beauty of the coral reef and sandy turtle grass depends directly on the filtering systems of the mangroves. Mangroves trap sediment along the shores and help maintain the clarity of the water. Corals will die without clear water. The coral reef in return provides some barrier to quiet the wave action in the lagoon.
By trapping sediment, the mangrove fringe gradually creates land mass and stabilizes the land. Much of the land itself is the result of the accumulation of soil created by the silting up process that is provided by the filtration of the mangrove’s extensive root system. Mangrove islands are composed of layers and layers of mangrove roots with soil on top. These islands are spongy because they have not been geologically compacted. The soil, aerated and nutrient rich, is perfect for plant growth but may not be stable enough for structures
The ability of the land to provide lush vegetation is dependant first on the unique capacity of mangroves’ roots to extract salt from the seawater as the water moves into the land and thus creates a neutral soil that will support plant life. The nutrient rich soil is partially a result of rotting mangrove leaves and the resulting detritus.
Once established, the outer fringe of mangrove wetland protects the land from major erosion, storm damage and tidal loss. Ebb and flow of land and water are inevitable but the mangroves allow land to become stable within the natural cycles of the sea bay.
A wide diversity of life, often including endangered species, is found in mangrove wetlands. Some birds have adapted to nest only in mangroves. The shelter of mangrove thickets is specifically required for many, many species of migrating birds as well. And the tangled mass of roots provides the nursery for most fish species, lobster, and shellfish. Many mammals, amphibians, and reptiles rely on the mangrove habitat. Fresh water run-off and the ebb and flow of the tides support a bursting population of bacteria, decomposers, and filter feeders which sustain billions of worms, protozoa, barnacles, oysters, and other invertebrates.
The red mangrove (Rhizophera mangle) is the familiar tangle of arching roots. It provides the initial salt extraction and silt filtration and accumulation. Land stabilization and continued desalinization proceed with an inner belt of white mangrove (Laguncularia racemosa) which do not have a visible root system. The interplay of both mangroves comes together in a belt that is necessary for a viable ecosystem. Less common in Bocas del Toro is the black mangrove (Avicennia sp) which has root projections that help provide air in the water soaked soils.
The mangrove wetland is a fragile ecosystem, easily disturbed by excessive and unnecessary interference. These impenetrable tangles, -a nursery, a desalinization plant and soil factory - exist to create a barrier that will resist the action of waves and storms and allow for a fertile mass of land to exist against the sea. The destruction of mangrove will lead to major erosion, land loss, and increased salt build-up in the soil. The increasing water cloudiness will cause coral die-off, silting up and loss of turtle grass. As nesting sites and habitats are lost, fewer birds and animals will visit and some will vanish altogether. Without a marine nursery, fish , shellfish, shrimp, and lobster will decline precipitously in number. Any of these consequences would be damaging to Bocas del Toro. Potentially, poor management of the mangrove resource will result in all of these destructive consequences.
Soluciones Biotecnologicas Tropicales
www.solareef.com. Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente (ANAM) www.anam.gob.pa/
Source:World Wildlife Fund/ National Geographic Society wwwworldwildlife.org, The Nature Conservancy www.nature.org