New Carbon Research Could Help Panama Better Understand Its Mangrove Ecosystems

Scientists share lessons from Belize project that offer blueprint for successful climate action

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New Carbon Research Could Help Panama Better Understand Its Mangrove Ecosystems
Thick, brown mangrove roots intertwine along the ground in a lush forest, roots intertwine along the  A person in a green shirt, jeans, and a light-colored hat stands behind a curtain of green leaves.
Mangroves’ ability to store three to five times as much carbon as terrestrial forests is prompting countries such as Belize and Panama to conduct carbon assessment research and use the data to inform the their efforts to protect and restore mangroves.
Shutterstock Damsea

Mangrove forests are highly efficient at capturing and storing carbon from the air; in fact, they can hold three to five times as much carbon as the same area of terrestrial forest can. So, researchers in many countries are working to measure how much carbon is stored in mangrove forests.

Two smiling women take a selfie on a beach. The woman on the right wears a beige shirt and blue bandana and has sunglasses perched on top of her head. She has her arm around the other woman, who is wearing a green shirt, a bandana around her neck, and a tan baseball hat. Behind them are palm trees and a coastline.
Hannah Morrissette (left) and Tania Romero (right).
Hannah Morrissette Smithsonian Environmental Research Center

Researchers from 14 international and local institutions came together in 2021 to measure, for the first time, total mangrove carbon stocks in the central American country of Belize; their findings were published last year. Now, researchers from that assessment are applying their knowledge elsewhere. Hannah Morrissette, Ph.D., a coastal wetland biogeochemist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and one of the field team members of the Belize assessment, is working with Tania Romero, M.S., an aquatic tropical ecologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, and others to assess the mangrove carbon stocks in Panama. 

Morrissette has led field, laboratory, monitoring, and data analysis efforts for blue carbon (carbon that the Earth’s oceans and coastal ecosystems absorb from the atmosphere) in mangrove forests in Central American and the Caribbean. Romero, meanwhile, has collaborated with international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Honduras and El Salvador, and the government of Panama. She also has worked with local and international NGOs to develop for Panama a national blue carbon protocol—a tool used locally to apply international quality standards for carbon measurements—and a manual to help other researchers, as well as government and nongovernmental stakeholders, measure blue carbon in Central America.

This interview with Romero and Morrissette has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q. Mangroves, seagrasses, and salt marshes are all coastal wetland ecosystems. Panama has extensive mangrove and seagrass ecosystems on its Pacific and Atlantic coasts. Why are they important?

Romero: Panama has the most mangrove forests of any country in Central America, and much of the population relies on the ecosystem services that mangroves and seagrasses provide. In Panama, fishing in the mangrove ecosystem is the main source of income in small towns on the Pacific coast as well as in the Caribbean, where residents not only fish but also catch octopuses, blue crabs, and mangrove cockles. These mangroves and seagrasses also serve as water filtration systems; retain excess sediment; prevent costal erosion; and protect towns and coastlines against storm surge and floods. And both systems are carbon sinks—absorbing carbon and, thus, helping to reduce the emission of carbon into the atmosphere.

Q. How can coastal wetland data help inform conservation and climate policy in Panama?

Morrissette: Coastal wetland data—such as the amount and rate of carbon stored, biodiversity metrics, and the monitoring of wetlands’ health and status—can all help to inform a variety of conservation strategies and climate policies. Panama is aiming to understand and protect its mangroves and seagrasses more completely and is among the countries that have specifically added coastal wetlands to its NDC—the “nationally determined contribution” that each country pledges to reduce emissions and help the world adapt to the effects of climate change, as part of the United Nations’ Paris Agreement. The data from the Panama project, in particular, will provide updated mangrove carbon stock baselines for the country, from which researchers can monitor change in the future that results from either restoration efforts or degradation. Researchers studying coastal wetlands also gather additional data to, among other things, validate or improve existing maps of the extent of mangrove and seagrass; provide a sense of whether certain fisheries are doing well; allow researchers to update greenhouse gas inventories; and identify potential priority areas for conservation and restoration.

Romero: As Hannah says, part of Panama’s NDC commitments, which were announced on May 31, 2024, will increase the conservation and restoration of mangrove forests and the mapping of its seagrass. This project specifically will gather years of mangrove data from multiple sources, so that the government and ecosystem managers can begin implementing the commitments with baselines for cover and carbon.

Q. What challenges does Panama face in better understanding these ecosystems?

Romero: Panama needs more capacity in government institutions as well as at the community level. This, along with applying lessons learned from previous projects, should allow for the sustainable implementation of blue carbon measurement and conservation projects. Academia has taken some steps forward by training students how to measure the movement of carbon, but more research is needed to understand the capacity for these ecosystems to capture and store carbon in the long term. Panama’s blue carbon activities also need more local participation in research and better governance structures—such as a regulated carbon market and sustainable use of these ecosystems.

Morrissette: When it comes to a better understanding of coastal wetland systems, many of the challenges that researchers face everywhere relate to accessibility and logistics. The Pacific and Atlantic coastlines of Panama are extremely different in terms of mangrove and seagrass species distributions, hydrology of tidal influence, etc., and therefore, they need different management strategies. So national policy and research need to have guidance from a local level, with project and implementation involvement in at least the province level. That sort of collaboration between different types of organizations, across the nation and coasts, will be difficult but necessary.

Q. Hannah, you’ve conducted mangrove carbon assessment research in Belize. Is that work influencing the research in Panama?

Morrissette: The Belize Blue Carbon Project, which was supported by The Pew Charitable Trusts, was a comprehensive effort to establish the country’s first complete mangrove carbon stock assessment. The project emphasized not just data collection but also other aspects, such as knowledge sharing and capacity building—making sure that the right people from Belize were involved in planning and leading this effort. The project in Panama is structured the same way: having an ultimate scientific goal in mind, but doing so through extensive collaboration, training, and applied science.

A man holding a boring tool bends down to extract a sediment sample beneath a huge mangrove root. Six other people stand in the foreground watching, their backs to the viewer. Everyone is dressed in long sleeves and long pants, and most wear hats.
Francisco Pitti, a fisherman from the Cooperativa de Pescadores Artesanales de El Salado, an artisanal fishers cooperative, practices taking a mangrove sediment core in Veracruz, Panama.
Hannah Morrissette Smithsonian Environmental Research Center

Q. What role does the Smithsonian Institution play in coastal wetland research and conservation in Panama?

Morrissette: The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI)—Smithsonian’s unit in Panama—has more than 10 different facilities across the country and is currently working alongside us at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) on coastal wetlands research.

Romero: The Smithsonian Institution has more than 100 years of presence in Panama, and coastal areas have been one of the main focuses as researchers look to understand the role of the fauna and flora of these systems and the evolution of the tropics. Examples include studies about how the emergence of the Isthmus of Panama transformed weather conditions around the world; the relationship between tropical dead zones and mass mortalities on coral reefs; and, more recently, defining nested mangrove-coral assemblages as “coexisting mangrove-coral.”

Q. How did each of you end up working at the Smithsonian and in marine and coastal wetlands science?

Romero: I started 16 years ago, while I was working on my bachelor’s degree, as a volunteer studying the impact of an oil spill off of Galeta, an island on Panama’s Caribbean’s coast that’s dominated by mangroves. Later as a junior professional, I got the opportunity to take a formal job at STRI’s soils biogeochemistry laboratory, where I was able to understand the importance of natural cycles, such as the carbon cycle, and how different plants and their composition in a forest can impact these cycles. My experience in different laboratories at STRI gave me the tools and knowledge to be able to collaborate with some international institutions and the government of Panama to develop the first blue carbon assessment for the country, between 2015 to 2017. I fell in love with the fascinating world of chemistry, biology, and geology of blue carbon science in mangrove ecosystems.

Morrissette: I followed a fairly circuitous path to marine/coastal wetland science throughout my undergrad and early career experiences. It was not until I moved to the Dominican Republic from the U.S. after graduating that I realized coastal research was of interest to me. My mentors at the time guided me to start a graduate degree so I could continue working in this space, and during my Ph.D. studies I spent a lot of time gaining field, lab, and data skills that would bring me back to a career in international marine conservation. Two of the principal investigators on my project were based at SERC, and I was fortunate to learn from them during my research. When the posting for my current role came through, I knew that it would be a dream come true to continue developing my early career at the Smithsonian.

Q. How do you see the Smithsonian’s research supporting ongoing conservation efforts?

Romero: Smithsonian’s work provides technical ecological knowledge to help researchers develop a more comprehensive understanding of the different dynamics of catchment and storage capacity in the various mangrove systems in Panama’s Pacific and Atlantic coasts. This is all done through the efforts of the Smithsonian’s local and international teams.

Morrissette: The individual labs of both Smithsonian units involved in this project, SERC and STRI, are focusing on providing immediately useful data to policymakers, local community groups, managers of protected areas, and other researchers in the region. My group—SERC’s Marine Conservation Lab—is making sure that the science in our coastal conservation plans is aligned with local needs and requests. This is done in tangible ways, such as field and lab methodology trainings in-country; building broad networks across organizations at the national and community level; and working with decision-makers on how to incorporate data into policy.

Two men in blue long-sleeved shirts and jeans, one wearing a baseball hat, squat above mangrove roots and mud to match a color guide against a soil sample.
Francisco Pitti and Iker Castilla analyze a mangrove sediment core in Veracruz, Panama.
Hannah Morrissette Smithsonian Environmental Research Center

Q. You mentioned including and training Panama’s scientific community, as well as local stakeholders, in the data collection and analysis portion of this research. Why is that important?

Morrissette: It’s critical for individuals and organizations alike to have ownership of their work. This concept has gotten lost in international science but is absolutely essential for sustainable coastal wetland conservation efforts. Panama is creating many ambitious plans for coastal policy and management updates, which will take a lot of collaboration and hard work to achieve, so it only makes sense that scientists, academics, resource managers, and community leaders throughout Panama are on the same page about implementation strategies and goals. Now, with 20 individuals from 10 organizations on this project familiar with this type of research, different areas of the country can focus on building upon the project to ask new questions; capacity building can ripple out to others with in-country experts; and Panama blue carbon data can be used regionally as other countries adopt the same methods.

Romero: Local training is relevant to the local scientific and academic communities as a way to spread these new techniques to reduce the emission of carbon dioxide and the effects of climate change. In addition, the training will help prepare the next generation of professionals to use the best local science to improve Panama’s reports to international organizations such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Q. Any final thoughts to share about Panama’s ambition for better understanding and conserving of its coastal wetland ecosystems?

Romero: Even though Panama is one of the few countries in the world considered “carbon negative”—in the sense that it stores and absorbs more carbon than it emits into the atmosphere—the country still plans to continue to reduce its emissions and enhance its sequestration capabilities. That’s setting a high standard in the region for a country’s commitments to combat climate change. Achieving these national ambitions will require rigorous long-term planning to maintain efforts for coastal conservation, climate change mitigation, and coastal communities’ adaptation to climate change while protecting local livelihoods. Only the will of the communities and the transparency of government will allow Panama to reach this high goal.

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