Friday, January 25, 2013

Atitlan at Last

A view of Panajachel, Guatemala.
So here it is: my first blog.  Sort of.  I have also created a blog on Explorers Journal on the National Geographic website-once my first blog is edited and published by NGS media I will be sure to link it to this one.  The inspiration for this blog came to me after spending the better part of a day writing and re-writing a 500-word blog for National Geographic; I realized I needed a less intimidating medium to share my adventures in Panajachel, Guatemala.  I hope that 'adventures' is the right word to use, I am in fact here to work.  For those of you that may only be interested in the science and the behind-the-scenes interviews, you would be best to follow my Explorers Journal and stray from this one (although I hope both blogs will be entertaining, intelligent, and somewhat insightful).

Some background:
About a year ago, I decided to apply for the prestigious Fulbright fellowship-nine months I spent on the application!  I am sad to say I was not awarded the Fulbright, nominated YES by the International Institute of Education, accepted NO due to political issues on Guatemala's side.  The integrity of my research proposal was eventually recognized and the hard work paid off.  I am proud to say I am now a National Geographic Young Explorer.  I arrived in Panajachel, Guatemala four days ago and will be spending the next three months immersing myslef in the Maya fishing community of Lake Atitlan.  

So please, join me on this 'exploration', send me your thoughts, your concerns, and your love.

My first friend encountered in the Maya highlands.

My proposal (Not interested?  Scroll down):

Encouraging environmental stewardship of Lake Atitlán through community-based research while establishing baseline knowledge of the Guatemalan fishery:
I propose to establish foundations for monitoring of the Lake Atitlán fishery and to improve the ability to monitor potential toxins produced in surface water cyanobacterial blooms.  Extensive surveys of the Lake Atitlán area will be conducted to understand the social and economic dimensions of the local fishery. Community-based techniques will include efforts to monitor and restore lake ecosystem health while contributing to the preservation of traditional ecological knowledge. 
History of Lake & Scientific Collaboration
Lake Atitlan holds economic, social, sentimental, and even spiritual importance for many Guatemalans, especially the major Mayan ethnic groups inhabiting lakeside villages.  These rural communities rely on the lake for drinking water, bathing, recreation, textiles and fisheries.  In 2008, 2009, and 2011, thick green cyanobacterial blooms coated 40% of the lake's 137 km2surface area, visible from NASA satellites.  Understandably, following these visually stunning blooms, the local communities panicked, fearing the lake was sick.  In April 2010, a group of international and local scientists and organizations came together to conduct a snapshot assessment of the lake's status and to capacity build an integrated framework for ongoing monitoring.  Although the 350 meter deep lake remains healthy, the eutrophication process has accelerated in the last few years; measures must be taken to reduce the nutrient loading, otherwise the lake may become irreversibly altered.
Public Health Risk of Cyanotoxins
Produced by a wide range of cyanobacteria species in surface waters worldwide, cyanotoxins exhibit diverse effects on organisms depending on the specific toxins.  As public understanding of these blooms increases, alarm over potential adverse health effects of these toxins also emerges.  Following the 2009 blooms, the Guatemalan government declared the water and fish unsafe for consumption, resulting in widespread panic and almost complete loss of income for local fishermen.  Luckily, to date, no appreciable concentrations of cyanotoxins have been found in Atitlán waters.  Yet, because of potential drastic shifts in nutrient dynamics of the lake in coming years, a toxin-producing cyanobacterial species could become dominant.  Cyanotoxins have been shown to accumulate in fish and shellfish tissues, creating a large public health concern for local villages and populations.

Methodology and Rational
Understanding aquatic species presence, distribution, and risks of accumulation will allow for more focused research to be conducted on critical species, identified in this study, in the event of future toxin detection.  The results of this project will enhance ability to abate human health risks caused by potential cyanotoxin exposure.  

Goal #1: Establish baseline scientific data of the local fisheries through fish surveys around the lake for long-term monitoring of lake health. I will build on existing fish surveys conducted in April 2010 and by undergraduate student Hugo Villavicencio at UVG.  To be completed with the use of snorkel surveys, minnow traps, and scuba surveys in collaboration with La Iguana Perdida, the local dive center, these surveys will determine numbers, types, and rough health estimates of fish.
Goal #2: Provide natural history knowledge of lake fisheries from interviews with fishermen.  Local fishermen hold the most knowledge about fish, fish community composition and food web changes over time; their day-to-day work keeps them embedded in the lake’s ecology.
I intend survey development to be a dynamic process in which to engage local fishing communities and extend an avenue for their voices in local conservations efforts. 
Goal #3: Review literature for potential human health risk from fish consumption.
A scientific literature review will be conducted to answer the following questions in order to better inform future risk assessment efforts: 1) Are locally-consumed fish known to accumulate major cyanotoxins?  2) Which species are the most sensitive and might be used as bio-indicators in the event that toxins are detected?  
WOW, that was a lot to read, did you get through it?  If not, that's okay, this blog is not intended to be used to regurgitate scientific jargon-it is here to expose my project, my successes and my tribulations, and to tell you a story of Lake Atitlan culture through the eyes of a student discovering her own educational passions(but know, it will involve fish, lots of FISH).
Martin, a Panajachel fisherman shows his only catch of the day

A female large mouth bass was caught by the president of the harpoon fishermen, Felipe.  He was sad to kill a female because it meant she would be unable to lay her eggs and provide more fish for the community.  Unfortunately, during the month of January, the fishermen have no choice due to limited quantities of fish.

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