Central America Humpback Whale Corridor IMMA

Size in Square Kilometres

205 564 km2

Qualifying Species and Criteria

Humpback whale – Megaptera novaeangliae

[North Pacific – M. n. kuzira]

Criterion A; C (2, 3)

Marine Mammal Diversity 

Balaenoptera edeni, Delphinus delphis, Grampus griseus, Kogia sima, Mesoplodon peruvianus, Orcinus orca, Pseudorca crassidens, Stenella attenuata, Stenella coeruleoalba, Stenella longirostris, Tursiops truncatus, Steno bredanensis

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This IMMA encompasses coastal waters of Central America and the adjacent waters of Southern Mexico, which host multiple sites important for the reproduction and migration of North Pacific humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae kuzira). The population using this area is the Central America Distinct Population Segment, which is designated as Endangered under the United States Endangered Species Act due to its low numbers, genetic discreteness, and exposure to human influences. Boat-based surveys, acoustic monitoring, satellite telemetry and photo-identification show that whales exhibit high site fidelity to this area and that they move between multiple sites within the wider area during the breeding season. Observations indicate that whales mate, calve, nurse, and travel in this large IMMA, and that opportunistic feeding occurs regularly off the coasts of Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

Description of Qualifying Criteria

Criterion A – Species or Population Vulnerability

North Pacific humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae kuzira) that use the IMMA are part of the Central America Distinct Population Segment (DPS) which is classified as ‘Endangered’ by the United States Endangered Species Act (81 FR 62260, September 8, 2016). The Central America DPS is one of 14 DPS of humpback whales around the world, and one of only four DPS listed as endangered (Bettridge et al., 2015). A DPS is made up of whales that share the same latitude breeding area but migrate seasonally to specific mid-to high latitude feeding grounds that may differ among individuals (Bettridge, 2019). The Central America DPS is composed of whales that breed along the Pacific coast of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama (Bettridge et al., 2015; Curtis et al., 2022; Taylor et al., 2021). This DPS wintering area is understood to extend into southern Mexico (Wade, 2016; Curtis et al., 2022). The population estimate for the Central America DPS varies between 500-700 individuals depending on the mark-recapture method used (Calambokidis et al., 2008; Barlow et al., 2011; Wade, 2016). The population estimate of this IMMA, which includes the Southern Mexico-Central America region, is approximately 1,500 whales (Curtis et al., 2022). In comparison, the abundance of humpback whales off the United States West Coast, which includes some of the Central America DPS whales, is estimated to be approximately 5,000 individuals (Calambokidis & Barlow, 2020).

Criterion C: Key Life Cycle Activities

Sub-criterion C1: Reproductive Areas

There are critical calving and reproductive habitats for the North Pacific humpback whales all along the Pacific coast of southern Mexico (Martínez-Loustalot et al., in review), Guatemala (Quintana-Rizzo, 2019), El Salvador, Nicaragua (De Weerdt et al., 2022), Costa Rica, and Panama. In each of these areas, visual and acoustic monitoring have identified group compositions and behavior associated with reproductive areas. Singing males have been observed and recorded in Guatemala (Quintana-Rizzo, 2011, 2019), Nicaragua (De Weerdt et al., 2022), Costa Rica (Chereskin et al., 2019), and Panama (Rasmussen et al., 2011). Competitive groups, in which males presumably compete for access to receptive females, have been identified in multiple sites throughout the area, although sightings of such groups are not as common in Guatemala as of the 2022 breeding season (Rasmussen et al., 2011; Vazquez-Cuevas et al., 2021; De Weerdt et al., 2022). Females with calves of different sizes have also been documented in every study area in the region and represent between 18% and 28% of the local sightings in different sites (Rasmussen et al., 2011; Rasmussen et al., 2017; Quintana-Rizzo, 2019; Vazquez-Cuevas et al., 2021; De Weerdt et al., 2022). As has been documented on other humpback whale reproductive grounds, females with calves appear to prefer inshore areas and protected bays all along the IMMA (De Weerdt et al., 2022; Quintana Rizzo, 2011, 2019). A few sightings (<10 individuals) of humpback whales, including adults and calves, have been reported between February and April  off the coast of Colombia (Avila et al., 2013; Palacios et al., 2012), which coincides with the breeding season of M. n. kuzira. No photo-identification records exist to confirm whether these individuals are part of the Northern Hemisphere population. Future research will help understand if the extent of the IMMA for the Central America humpback whale corridor should be expanded further to the south.

Sub-criterion C3: Migration Routes

Humpback whales undertake extensive seasonal migrations between high latitude summer feeding grounds and low latitude wintering grounds. Winters are spent mating and calving in warm sub-tropical waters, with an annual migration back to colder waters to feed. In the north Pacific, their breeding and migratory corridor includes the Pacific continental shelf from the southern portion of Mexico and Central America. During their migration to/from Central America, these whales use the coastal waters of Southern Mexico (Martínez-Loustalot et al., in review). Within a breeding season, resightings between study areas encompassed by this IMMA suggest that individual whales can visit multiple areas within Central America (Quintana-Rizzo & Calambokidis, 2017; Curtis et al., 2022). This highlights the interconnectivity of the different sites (Mate et al., 2018) and that this IMMA also serves as a migratory corridor for the species.

Supporting Information

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