Current Project: 2020-2023

RLA 7/025 – Strengthening Capacities in Marine and Coastal Environments Using Nuclear and Isotopic Techniques.

Previous Projects:

RLA 7/022 – Strengthening Regional Monitoring and Response for Sustainable Marine and Coastal Environments (ARCAL CXLV) (2018-2019).

RLA 7/020 - Establishing the Caribbean Observing Network for Ocean Acidification and its Impact on Harmful Algal Blooms, using Nuclear and Isotopic Techniques. (2014-2017)

RLA 7/014 – Designing and Implementing Systems for Early Warning and Evaluation of the Toxicity of Harmful Algal Blooms in the Caribbean Region, Applying Advanced Nuclear Techniques, Radioecotoxicological Evaluations and Bioassays (2009-2012).

RLA 7/012 – Use of Nuclear Techniques to Address the Management Problems of Coastal Zones in the Caribbean Region. (2007-2012)

Participating Institutions:

Centro de Estudios del Mar y Acuicultura (CEMA) -Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala

Research Areas:

  • Ocean Acidification.
  • Chemical Contamination.
  • Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) and Marine Biotoxins.
  • Microplastic contamination.


The marine area of Guatemala is approximately 120,229 km2. It represents about 53% of the total extension of the country. It has two marine zones and its strategic geographical position gives the country a great opportunity for its economic development. There are undoubtedly advantages in having two of the main ports of regional importance, including Puerto Quetzal (Pacific) and Santo Tomás de Castilla (Caribbean). Among other advantages, it is also evident that the estimated economic valuation of the goods and services provided by the marine-coastal areas of Guatemala is between USD 344 million and USD 454 million of average income per year. But, on the other hand, it is one of the most vulnerable countries to the adverse effects of climate change.

During the last two decades, the negative effects of climate change have been registered in the country, mainly in coastal areas. Likewise, the territory has experienced great impacts derived from hydrometeorological events of great intensity. Such as Hurricane Mitch (1998) and several droughts (2001, 2005) as well as other events: harmful algal blooms and coral bleaching (2015, 2016, 2017) that have been evidenced for decades in the region of the Mesoamerican Reef System (SAM) of which Guatemala forms part in its Caribbean coastal marine zone.

These environmental changes associated with climate change are expected to affect the demography, geographic distribution and phenology of species, as well as productivity, nutrient cycling, structure and functioning of ecosystems. Effects on species demography will show up as changes in recruitment, growth, and survival. On the other hand, due to phenological changes, temporal variations in algal blooms and fish migrations can occur, which can cause imbalances between populations of prey and predators.

Since 1987, in both marine-coastal areas, red tide phenomena have been observed, as harmful algal blooms or HABs are commonly known, caused by excess nutrients, being very frequent from southern Mexico to Panama in coastal communities of the Peaceful. The collection, consumption and commercialization of marine organisms represent an important part of the country's food security. However, the consumption of marine organisms affected by harmful microalgae can cause poisoning complications that occur from the ingestion of bivalve molluscs contaminated with paralytic toxins caused by dinoflagellates. The species that has caused the most damage is Pyrodinium bahamense, which is a dinoflagellate widely distributed along the coasts of North, Central and South America.

In Guatemala, blooms of P. bahamense var. compressum have been recorded in August 1987, on the Pacific coast, where 193 intoxications of people due to shellfish consumption were reported, of which 22 cases were fatal. Having also been reported in 1989, 1990, 1995, 2001, 2005, 2007 and 2009 (Carrillo-Ovalle, 2009), where fortunately no human losses were reported. In December 2019, García-Pérez, et al., registered high values never before reported for Guatemala and Latin America of blooms ofP. bahamense, a species that can be a potential risk to public and environmental health, since its presence is related to the sea pollution.

Regarding ocean acidification, the absorption of carbon dioxide (CO2) by the oceans will help regulate future climate change, the hydrolysis of carbon dioxide will cause changes in water chemistry. The increase in the concentrations of carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere generates an increase in the concentration of hydrogen ions in the oceans, which in turn lowers the pH values, which can cause problems in the calcification of some organisms marine such as corals, molluscs, foraminifera and others.

The increase in surface temperature and the acidification of the oceans is impacting coral reefs, turning them into less diverse communities with weaker carbonate structures that are impossible to maintain in the long term, causing ecosystems to lose their functionality, which This in turn will reduce the ability of ecosystems to support reef-associated fisheries, tourism, coastal protection, and surrounding communities.

In Guatemala, ocean acidification is one of the symptoms caused by climate change, for which there is no prior information; although ecosystems of great importance, such as the Mesoamerican Reef System (SAM), may be at risk.

In recent years, the effects of climate change have been increasingly evident, such as the increase in temperature and the acidification of the water in Guatemala's seas. Likewise, anthropogenic activities, mainly the waste produced, negatively influence the survival, growth, behavior and reproduction of organisms, also alter their immune response and increase diseases.

Such is the case of microplastics no larger than 5 mm or 1/5 inch in size, which come from the degradation of bulky plastics made of polyethylene (plastic bags, bottles), polystyrene (food containers), nylon , polypropylene (fabrics) or polyvinyl chloride (plastic pipes), also as small plastic spheres, which are used for the manufacture of toys and soft pillows. And microspheres, which are added to personal care products such as toothpaste, to give it color, shine or as a filler. The sources of microplastics in the environment include the primary (original) plastic products and/or secondary products (derived from the degradation of the primary sources).

Until 2020, Guatemala had not reported information on contamination with microplastics, which shows the need to generate scientific information that allows us to understand how plastic is reaching different parts of the territory, and what the impacts may be on food webs and that allow defining management actions and policies for the reduction of plastic in ecosystems.

One of the first steps was to evaluate the intake of microplastics (MPS) in fish from the Monterrico Multiple Use Natural Reserve (RNUMM), and its relationship with eating habits and habitat. Although MPS are emerging contaminants reported in several aquatic species, to date this is the first record that addresses the presence of MPS in fish from protected areas in Guatemala. After analyzing the digestive tract of more than 500 fish, 644 MPS were found in 47% of the individuals of 15 species, the dominant forms of microplastics were fibers followed by fragments and sheets. The highest amounts of MPS were recorded in omnivorous species and in benthic and pelagic habitats. These results provide the first evidence of MPS intake in fish in the Pacific coast of Guatemala.

That same year, another study revealed contamination by microplastics on the El Quetzalito sandy beach on the Guatemalan Caribbean coast. Plastic debris was found to negatively impact the Caribbean coast and is released by stormwater and river transport from the Motagua River. With a high abundance of mainly polystyrene foam beads and polypropylene fragments, the sources of microplastics are the deterioration of large plastics. As these plastics are commonly used in industrial, commercial, fishing and domestic activities.


Since 1991, there has been a National Commission for Surveillance and Control of the Toxic Red Tide (government decree 412-91). This technical commission made up of various institutions with competence in the matter evaluates the criteria and variables that influence these events. The functions and powers of the commission lie in carrying out permanent monitoring to detect natural toxins in marine species for local consumption, with emphasis on saxitoxins. This in addition to determining and establishing alert states, dictating and executing all necessary preventive measures during HABs and coordinating with national and international institutions the necessary actions for the management and approach of red tide events.

The HABs have been monitored on both coasts of Guatemala, on the Pacific coast as of 2015 by the CEMA-USAC technical team in collaboration with the Pacific naval base, and on the Caribbean coast as of 2016 in collaboration with the Foundation for Ecodevelopment and Conservation (FUNDAECO), carrying out evaluations of the blooms of planktonic dinoflagellates and other physical aspects and the quality of seawater.

For the monitoring of HABs, during the months of January to March 2021, the CEMA research team has been collecting information on the Pacific coast of Guatemala, for the analysis of microalgae, foraminifera and measuring parameters physicochemicals of seawater. The collection of information is carried out with the logistical and technical support of the Operations Management of the Department of Marine Observation and Research (OBIMAR) of the Quetzal Port Company and the Pacific Naval Command (CONAPAC). With which it is expected to contribute to the knowledge of the diversity, abundance and distribution of the phytoplankton community associated with algal blooms in the Pacific of Guatemala.

The findings on contamination by microplastics on both coasts of Guatemala, carried out by researchers from CEMA-USAC, show the worrying reality of a threat that is difficult to address and that endangers both the species and the habitats present in protected areas susceptible to the lack of waste management and the human consumption of plastics. Therefore, they are considered an environmental stressor due to their effect on ecosystems and biota.

Regarding the monitoring of the ocean acidification stressor, the CEMA-USAC team will collect information for the analysis of this stress, which will be carried out with the support of the Pacific Naval Command (CONAPAC), Universidad del Valle de Guatemala (UVG ), Climate Change Institute (ICC) and Marine Conservation Center (CCM).

In Guatemala, the work priorities are directed to the study of coastal marine stressors, among them, contamination by microplastics, ocean acidification (OA) and harmful algal blooms (HAB) in both coasts, which explains the situation of these in the country, as well as its dissemination and communication, so that the scientific information generated is used to make the best decisions regarding coastal marine conservation and restoration, within the framework of the Sustainable Development Goals.

The participation of the Guatemalan team in the regional project RLA7025 "Strengthening capacities in marine and coastal management through the application of nuclear and isotopic techniques" is strategic, where a fundamental part of the project has been the strengthening of the water quality laboratory of CEMA-USAC through, and the donation of equipment and materials and support in the development of capacities in researchers by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Country Members:

Juana Lorena Boix Morán. Degree in General Psychology, MSc. in Regional Rural Development Science. PhD. in Natural Sciences for Development with an emphasis on Natural Resource Management.

Centro de Estudios del Mar y Acuicultura (CEMA) -Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala (USAC).

Role in the Project:  Country Focal Point.

Contact info:, móvil (502) 42204541

Director and Professor of the Centro de Estudios del Mar y Acuicultura CEMA, of the Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala.

She was the coordinator of the Hydrobiological Research Institute of CEMA USAC and creator of the Postgraduate Course of the Center for the Study of the Sea and Aquaculture CEMA. She has dedicated herself to the elaboration and management of development projects with the National Federation of Artisanal Fishermen FENAPESCA, on both coasts of Guatemala. Coordinating various projects on renewable energy to be implemented in artisanal fishing collection centers, determination of the impact of solid waste in artisanal fishing areas in the Pacific of Guatemala and socioeconomic studies of priority areas for conservation and management in both coastal areas of Guatemala. She is president of the technical table of the Socio-environmental Fund for the conservation of sailfish and the development of artisanal fishing -FOPESCA-.

Celia Vanesa Dávila Pérez. Bachelor of Biology, MSc. in Marine and Coastal Sciences.

Centro de Estudios del Mar y Acuicultura (CEMA) -Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala (USAC).

Role in the Project:  Responsible for the Communication Component.

Contact info: , móvil (502) 40876186

Biologist, Master's degree in Marine and Coastal Sciences, graduated from the Centro de Estudios del Mar y Acuicultura de la Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala (CEMA/USAC), since 2009 she has been dedicated to scientific research on wetlands, waterfowl, marine megafauna, and mangroves, developing in work spaces on management of protected areas and marine-coastal ecosystems. Her contributions and her specialty lie in the study of marine megafauna and indicators based on biodiversity in coastal areas and the study of the connectivity of the coastal seascape. She currently teaches the undergraduate course Integrated Management of Coastal Zones and the postgraduate course Sustainable Coastal Zones at CEMA and is a regional consultant specializing in marine and coastal systems.

Rebeca Magali Martínez Dubón de Arrué. Degree in Hydrobiological Resources and Aquaculture, MSc. in Marine and Coastal Sciences.

Centro de Estudios del Mar y Acuicultura (CEMA) -Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala (USAC).

Role in the Project:  Responsible for the Marine Pollution Component.

Contact info:, móvil (502) 45595507

Degree in hydrobiological resources and aquaculture. Master's degree in Marine and Coastal Sciences graduated from the Centro de Estudios del Mar y Acuicultura de la Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala (CEMA/USAC). Her experience has been developed in the field of analytical research. Professor of the Water Quality, Water Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, General Chemistry courses and coordinator of the Water Quality Laboratory, she supports the analysis of heavy metals, nutrients and phytoplankton organisms for projects of the Research Institute of the Centro de Estudios del Mar y Acuicultura de la Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala.

Carlos Humberto Mazariegos. Bachelor of Biology, MSc. in Applied Statistics.

Centro de Estudios del Mar y Acuicultura (CEMA) –Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala (USAC).

Role in the Project: Researcher in the area of microplastics in coastal marine areas.

Contact info:

Professor of Applied Statistics at the Centro de Estudios del Mar y Acuicultura de la Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala (USAC) and administrator of the Campus del Mar (Monterrico Experimental Station). Bachelor of Aquaculture from the Center for Sea and Aquaculture Studies, Master's Degree in Applied Statistics from the Faculty of Engineering, both at USAC. His area of specialty is microplastic contamination and aquaculture of native species. He has published scientific articles in both specialties. Coordinator of two projects of the General Directorate of Research DIGI-USAC. He currently coordinates a project on marine litter in the Central American Integration System (SICA) and is part of a plastic inventory and regulation project supported by the Rotterdam, Basel and Stockholm Conventions. He has advised undergraduate students in Aquaculture and currently in Hydrobiological Resources and Aquaculture.

José Roberto Ortíz. Bachelor of Aquaculture. MSc. in Marine and Coastal Sciences.

Centro de Estudios del Mar y Acuicultura (CEMA) –Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala (USAC).

Role in the Project:  Research associate and collaborator of the algal blooms component (HABs)        

Contact info: / (502) 4708 4536

Bachelor of Aquaculture with six years of experience in scientific research and university teaching in the fields of oceanography and fisheries. Master in Marine and Coastal Sciences with emphasis in Monitoring and Evaluation. With scientific publications and research projects related to marine biology, reef fish, sea cucumber, molluscs and marine invasive species. Professor at the Centro de Estudios del Mar y Acuicultura (CEMA) of the Oceanography, Fisheries Technology, Fisheries Biology and Fisheries Management courses. Coordinator of the Laboratory of Biological and Oceanographic Sciences. Specialist consultant in fisheries and marine life executing consultancies with funds from the United Nations Development Program -UNDP- and the United States Agency for International Development -USAID-. President and legal representative of the non-profit organization Semillas del Ocean that has been dedicated to the implementation of education, science and community development programs for the conservation and sustainable use of the oceans and marine life in Guatemala.

Karla Evelyn Paz Cordón. Bachelor of Aquaculture. MSc. in Animal Science and Veterinary Epidemiology.

Centro de Estudios del Mar y Acuicultura (CEMA) -Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala (USAC).

Role in the Project:  In charge of the plankton component, algal blooms and phycotoxins.

Contact info: / (502) 57858669

Professor of aquatic ecology, general biology, botany and aquatic zoology. In charge of the Plankton Project of the IIH Hydrobiological Research Institute of CEMA. Curator of the reference biological collection. She has a master's degree in animal science and a specialty in veterinary epidemiology, currently she is a Doctorate in Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Universidad de Santiago de Compostela, Spain. She has a degree in aquaculture from CEMA. She has conducted research on Tricoptera, dinoflagellates, marine plankton, harmful algal blooms, and Periphyton. Member of the Association of Scientific Women of Guatemala, Mexican Society of Plantology, Guatemalan Association of Limnology and Lake Management (AGUALIMNO). Association for the Science of Laboratory Animals of Guatemala. Member of the International Society for the Study of Harmful Algae. Active member of the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD). Representative of Guatemala before REMARCO, Latin American Network for Marine-Coastal research on Algal blooms. CEMA liaison with the National Commission for Surveillance and Control of the Toxic Red Tide of Guatemala.

Progress and Challenges

The actions and scientific information that are generated through the monitoring of coastal marine stressors in Guatemala contribute mainly to the search for compliance with Sustainable Development Goals 14. This refers to: "the conservation and sustainable use of oceans, seas and marine resources”.