Gulf of Panama IMMA

Size in Square Kilometres

28 371 km2

Qualifying Species and Criteria

Humpback whale – Megaptera novaeangliae 

Criterion C (1)

Pantropical spotted dolphin – Stenella attenuata 

Criterion C (2)

Common bottlenose dolphin – Tursiops truncatus 

Criterion C (2)

Marine Mammal Diversity 

Pseudorca crassidens, Balaenoptera edeni

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The Gulf of Panama IMMA is located off the Pacific coast of Panama, and encompasses an area 250 km wide with a maximum depth of 220m. The Gulf contains some protected areas such as the Las Perlas Archipelago Special Marine Management Zone, the Iguana Island Wildlife Refuge, and the Punta Patiño Private Natural Reserve, each of which host populations of marine mammals. The Gulf is one of the core breeding areas for the Southern Hemisphere humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae australis) population designated as Breeding Stock G by the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Coastal common bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) can be observed year-round at the entrance of the Panama Canal. Surveys also report the pantropical spotted dolphin (Stenella attenuata) as one of the most common species distributed in the Gulf of Panama. The presence of commercial shipping at the entrance of the Panama Canal, and the associated noise, are considered significant threats to cetacean species in the area.

Description of Qualifying Criteria

Criterion C: Key Life Cycle Activities

Sub-criterion C1: Reproductive Areas

Las Perlas Archipelago is considered the main habitat within the IMMA for Southern Hemisphere humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae australis) nursing, calving, and mating, with 20% of 295 individuals observed between 2003-2009 identified as calves (Guzman et al., 2014). Between 2003-2009, the population size of Southern Hemisphere humpback whales using Las Perlas Archipelago was estimated at over 200 whales per season and over 900 whales between all seasons (Guzman et al., 2014). Iguana island is also considered an important habitat for mothers and calves, which comprised 52% of all observed groups in the area (n=48; Ng, 2022). The northwest of the island contains the highest population density of humpback whales, with most documented sightings in waters less than 100 m deep (Ng, 2022). Humpback whale song, which is considered an important behaviour within the mating system of the species (Herman, 2017) was reported during the breeding season in both Las Perlas and Iguana Island (Oviedo et al., 2008; Ponce, 2015). Satellite tracking also shows that humpback whales move inside the entire Gulf but with Las Perlas Archipelago as a core area (Guzman et al., 2013, 2014). Northern Hemisphere humpback whales have been reported to use the Gulf of Chiriquí (Curtis et al., 2022), and in the coast of Colombia (Avila et al., 2020). Although the Gulf of Panama is in the middle of these two sites, there is little evidence that this IMMA is significant for the Central America distinct population segment (DPS). An opportunistic sighting (supported by a photograph) of humpback whales in the month of March 2020 in Las Perlas Archipelago, suggest that some individual humpback whales from the Northern Hemisphere may also use the archipelago as a breeding ground. However, further investigation will be necessary to confirm the use of the Gulf of Panama as a breeding ground for the Central America humpback whales.

Sub-criterion C2: Feeding Areas

The Gulf of Panama is the most productive area of the entire Pacific coast of Panama due to upwelling events, that create conditions to support large populations of fish (D’Croz and O’Dea, 2007). Modelling data suggests that prey is an important factor influencing the distribution of bottlenose dolphins in the areas close to the Panama Canal entrance (Campbell et al., 2014). Iguana Island is also considered and important feeding area for bottlenose dolphins, for which 25% of documented encounters (n=32) involved feeding. Pantropical spotted dolphins also feed in the area with 15% of documented sightings (n=60) involving feeding behaviour (Urriola, 2017; García, 2018; Casas and Trejos-Lasso, unpublished).

Supporting Information

Amrein, A.M., Guzman, H.M., Surrey, K.C., Polidoro, B., and Gerber, L.R. 2020. ‘Impacts of Whale Watching on the Behavior of Humpback Whales (Megaptera Novaeangliae) in the Coast of Panama.’ Frontiers in Marine Science, 7:1105. doi: 10.3389/fmars.2020.601277.

Campbell I. 2014. ‘The effects of physical, biological and anthropogenic noise on the occurrence of dolphins in the pacific region of the Panama Canal’ [PhD dissertation]. [Saint Andrews (UK)]: University of St Andrews.

Casas, J.J. and Trejos-Lasso, L. Forthcoming. Proyecto Monitoreo de  cetáceos en el Pacífico de Panamá UMIP-MiAMBIENTE, 2016-2021.

D’Croz, L., and O’Dea, A. 2007. ‘Variability in Upwelling along the Pacific Shelf of Panama and Implications for the Distribution of Nutrients and Chlorophyll.’ Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science, 73:325–40. doi: 10.1016/j.ecss.2007.01.013.

García, G. 2018. ‘Frecuencia de Avistamiento del delfín Stenella attenuata (Gray,1846) en los refugios marinos de Pedasí, Los Santos, Panamá’. [Tesis de licenciatura]. [Panamá]: Universidad de Panamá.

Guzman, H.M., and Félix, F. 2017. ‘Movements and Habitat Use by Southeast Pacific Humpback Whales (Megaptera Novaeangliae) Satellite Tracked at Two Breeding Sites.’ Aquatic Mammals, 43(2):139–55. doi: 10.1578/AM.43.2.2017.139.

Guzman, H.M., Gomez, C.G., Guevara, C.A. and Kleivane, L. 2013. ‘Potential Vessel Collisions with Southern Hemisphere Humpback Whales Wintering off Pacific Panama.’ Marine Mammal Science, 29 (4):629-642.

Guzman, H.M., Condit, R., Pérez-Ortega, B., Capella, J.J., and Stevick, P.T. 2014. ‘Population Size and Migratory Connectivity of Humpback Whales Wintering in Las Perlas Archipelago, Panama.’ Marine Mammal Science, 31(1):90–105. doi: 10.1111/mms.12136.

Herman, L.M. 2017. ‘The Multiple Functions of Male Song within the Humpback Whale (Megaptera Novaeangliae) Mating System: Review, Evaluation, and Synthesis.’ Biological Reviews of the Cambridge Philosophical Society 92(3):1795–1818. doi: 10.1111/brv.12309.

Ley No.18 . 2007. Ley No.18 de 31 de mayo de 2007 ‘Por al cual se declara Zona Especial de Manejo Marino-Costera al Archipiélago de Las Perlas y dicta otras disposiciones’. Gaceta Oficial Digital. Panamá, República de Panamá.

Ng, A. 2022. ‘Distribución y zonas de importancia reproductiva para Ballenas Jorobadas, en los Refugios de Vida Silvestre Isla Iguana y Pablo Arturo Barrios, Distrito de Pedasí, Provincia de Los Santos, República de Panamá’. [Tesis de Licenciatura]. [Panama]: Universidad Marítima Internacional de Panamá.

Oviedo, L., Guzman, H.M., Flórez-González. L., Capella A., J., and Mair, J.M. 2008. ‘The Song of the Southeast Pacific Humpback Whale ( Megaptera Novaeangliae ) off Las Perlas Archipelago, Panama: Preliminary Characterization.’ Aquatic Mammals, 34:458–63. doi: 10.1578/AM.34.4.2008.458.

Ponce, J. 2015. Efecto de las embarcaciones de turismo de avistamiento de cetáceos y pesca deportiva sobre el comportamiento de los cetáceos en el Refugio de Vida Silvestre Isla Iguana, Panamá. [Tesis de Maestría]. [Panamá]: Universidad Marítima Internacional de Panamá.

Trejos-Lasso, L. 2015. A summary of strandings in Panama caused by boat collisions and entanglement in fishing nets, Scientific Poster, 21th Biennial Conference, Society for Marine Mammalogy, San Francisco, California, EE.UU., December 12-18, 2015.

Trejos-Lasso, L. Forthcoming. A summary of strandings in Panama for one decade in coast of  Panama.

Urriola, K. 2017. Frecuencia de avistamiento y áreas de importancia ecológica de delfín nariz de botella (Tursiops truncatus) en Pedasí, provincia de Los Santos, Panamá. [Tesis de Licenciatura]. [Panamá]: Universidad Marítima Internacional de Panamá.


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