Panama Tells Chinese Seiners: Help Yourselves to Our Tuna

The Panamian government has made a deal with Chinese purse seiners to harvest tons of skipjack tuna, taking for granted the immense value of its recreational fisheries.

Skipjack are useful for recreational fishermen as live bait but are critical to the pelagic ecosystem of the Eastern Pacific.Doug Olander / Sport Fishing

One of the world’s greatest and most popular sport-fishing destinations is at risk of becoming a minor player in the future, thanks to a myopic, ill-considered deal with Chinese purse seiners allowing these vessels to harvest tons of skipjack tuna in Panama’s Pacific waters. The Billfish Foundation reports that the skipjack will be transshipped to Chinese commercial factory trawlers in international waters for processing. While most anglers don’t specifically target skipjack, removing huge numbers of this vital forage species is certain to affect the pelagic ecosystem, particularly the marlin — blacks, blues and stripes — as well as large yellowfin tuna, among the species that draw anglers from around the world to Panama. The economic importance of Panama’s recreational fisheries can’t be overstated and shouldn’t be underestimated. A TBF report in 2013 showed that in 2011 nearly $100,00 million was spent in Panama by anglers on charter boats, fuel, food, lodging and related expenses. That amount is surely even higher today. Why would Panamanian government officials so freely throw away this “gold mine,” as the 2013 report termed it? Ursula Marais, who manages famed Tropic Star Lodge in Piňas Bay, worries about an impact down the road that will affect not only Tropic Star and not just Panama but the quality of fishing in adjacent countries as well. Marais says Tropic Star has set up an emergency meeting with the Minister of Tourism for just after the holidays, in hopes of reasoning with that official, presenting both the economic and environmental setback the country would suffer by opening its waters to Chinese purse seiners. For the many anglers who recognize Panama’s great fishing, let’s hope that Marais succeeds her mission. If not, it will be tragic to risk foolishly giving that up in years to come for a short-term gain right now.