Panama Trip 2007
IUCN Redlist Workshop and Atlantic R/V Urraca Cruise

by Luke Tornabene

I often read scientific journals, newspaper articles, editorials, and other various forms of print regarding conservation of biodiversity, and wonder exactly how biologists determine which species are endangered and in need of protection, and which species are not. In May 2007, I was fortunate enough to not only witness exactly how this process is done, but also to participate. Kent Carpenter and the people from GMSA and IUCN were kind enough to allow me to accompany Jim Van Tassell at the workshop for Tropical Eastern Pacific Shore Fishes in Panama. I went into the workshop not knowing what expect. Being an undergraduate biologist at the earliest stages of my scientific career, the thought of being surrounded by the fields most respected and accomplished experts was intimidating, but exciting.

Panama Canal

Panama Canal
We arrived at the hotel late Sunday night, and soon enough found myself eating dinner across the table from the well respected ichthyologists Gerry Allen, Phil Hastings, Bob Lea and Bruce Collette, to name a few. The next morning after an introductory meeting, facilitators divided the biologists into groups, where teams of biologists would focus on taxonomic groups in their area of expertise. To no surprise, Jim and I were in a group which included roughly 100 species from the families Gobiidae, Microdesmidae, and Eleotridae. Also assigned to our group were ichthyologists Lloyd Findley and Albert van der Heiden. Ross Robertson and Arturo Acero also helped each group with the assessing process. Although my area of expertise is limited to a few genera within Gobiidae, I was able to offer information on a handful of species, and subsequently I will be listed as an assessor when the list is published in 2008. However, for most of the species assessments, my job was primarily to acquire references, check distributions, and corroborate information from researchers in other groups at the workshop.

Final dinner of the Red-list meetings

Assessing the gobioid fauna of the eastern tropical Pacific

Participating in these assessments turned out to be a tremendous learning experience for me. Not only was I inundated with information about species of fishes from a myriad of taxonomic groups, but perhaps even more importantly, I learned about the intricacies of the red-listing process. In summary, species are assessed on a number of criteria based on population data, geographic distribution, habitat range, and major threats, to name a few. These criteria must be broad enough to be applicable to all different types of species, from apes to zooplankton, but specific enough to make accurate assessments based on hard quantitative and qualitative data. As I observed the assessment process, it became clear that reliable published data regarding the population sizes, distribution ranges, and threats to these species, is simply nonexistent for the vast majority of fishes. Thus, many of the assessments were based largely on personal observations, anecdotal information, and inferences. This is precisely why the IUCN relies on true experts for their assessments. Often, the lack of ample data leads to the categorization of species into the two ambiguous groups titled Data Deficient, or Least Concern.

The aspect of the workshop that will perhaps wind up being the most important with regards to my scientific career was meeting the experts themselves. Throughout my life my parents have always told me that if you work hard and keep your goals in sight, anything is possible. Although this has always been my mantra, it is no secret that who you know can often get you farther than what you know. In biology it is no different. The contacts you make in the field can often be as useful as your level of scientific expertise. Getting the opportunity to spend a week working, dining, and chatting with such great minds will benefit me greatly in the long term.

Red-Listing meeting - assessing fish populations

Heading out to sea
The second week of the Panama trip was planned before I knew about the invitation to the workshop, and is a perfect example of how connections work in the field of biology. The week from May 26-June 3 was to be spent aboard the RV Urraca, the research vessel of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. I received the invitation from Ross Robertson, co-author of Shore Fishes the Eastern Tropical Pacific, and well published and respected fish biologist from STRI. I had met Dr. Robertson on a collecting trip with James Van Tassell, and spent 4 days with him sampling the gulf coast of Florida and Mississippi. He asked if I could accompany him, Jim, and fellow ichthyologist Benjamin Victor on their collecting trip to the Atlantic Coast of Panama, and the San Blas Islands. The answer was obvious.

The first day of the collecting trip in beautiful Panama was a trip through the Panama Canal. If anyone ever has the chance to go through the canal, and witness large cargo ships passing through the Miraflores, Pedro Miguel, and Gaton locks, I would highly recommend it. Once through the canal, the crew anchored the Urraca off the coast of Isla Grande in the Atlantic. The next morning, we woke up at 5 a.m. to prepare for our morning dive at Farallones, a number of tall rocks that project upwards from the ocean floor. The water was a comfortable 81 degrees, and the diversity of fishes was impressive. After eating lunch and photographing the specimen collected from the first dive, we sampled again in a mangrove stream near Isla Grande. A good variety of Gobies, Eels, Guppies and other cryptic fishes were collected and photographed just before dinner. As I sat on the deck and watched the sunset, I couldn't wait to eat, sleep, wake up, and do it all again for the next 5 days.

Going through the Panama Canal

Dinner aboard the R/V Urraca

Panama Atlantic coast

Sunset off Atlantic coast of Panama

Bridge of the Americas

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