San José Canyon and Adjacent Shelf IMMA
Size in Square Kilometres
11 729 km2
Qualifying Species and Criteria
Humpback whale – Megaptera novaeangliae
Criterion A; C (1, 3)
Pantropical spotted dolphin – Stenella attenuata
Criterion C (1, 2)
Spinner dolphin – Stenella longirostris
Criterion C (1, 2)
Common bottlenose dolphin – Tursiops truncatus
Criterion C (1)
Marine Mammal Diversity
Delphinus delphis, Grampus griseus, Orcinus orca, Pseudorca crassidens, Steno bredanensis, Balaenoptera edeni
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The San José canyon and adjacent shelf are in Guatemala’s Pacific waters. The site includes flat shallow areas, especially near the coast, as well as the San José Canyon that drops from 200 to 2,000 m and extends out into the Middle America Trench. This IMMA hosts important habitat for several cetacean species. Humpback whales from the Northeastern Pacific (Megaptera novaeangliae kuzira), Pantropical spotted dolphins (Stenella attenuata) including the coastal (S.a.graffmani) and offshore (S.a. attenuata) subspecies, spinner dolphins (Stenella longirostris) including the Central American (S.l centroamericana) and Eastern (S.l. orientalis) subspecies, and common bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), are the species most frequently observed in the area. Groups with calves, including neonates, of these species have been identified in the area, which also serves as a foraging area for several small cetaceans.
Description of Qualifying Criteria
Criterion A – Species or Population Vulnerability
Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) that use the cIMMA 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 for 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). This DPS wintering area is understood to extend into southern Mexico (Wade, 2016; Taylor 2021; 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). 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 5,000 individuals (Calambokidis & Barlow, 2020).
Criterion C: Key Life Cycle Activities
Sub-criterion C1: Reproductive Areas
Four species have been documented in the IMMA with calves, including neonates and young of the year (for definition of terms: Wells et al., 1996): humpback whales, pantropical spotted dolphins (Stenella attenuata), spinner dolphins (S. longirostris), and common bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) (Ortiz¬-Wolford, 2011; Quintana-Rizzo, 2012, 2019; Quintana-Rizzo et al., 2021). In the case of humpback whales, calves have been documented in 28% of the humpback whale groups observed between 2008 and 2022, and those groups were significantly larger than non-calf groups (Quintana-Rizzo & Calambokidis, 2017; E. Quintana-Rizzo, unpublished data). Singing, associated with humpback whale reproductive activity, was recorded in 88% of the acoustic stations within the IMMA in the 2008-2010 survey season, suggesting that the activity is very common (Quintana-Rizzo & Calambokidis, 2017). Two subspecies of pantropical spotted dolphins (costal: S. a. graffmani and offshore: S. a. attenuata) and spinner dolphins (Centro Americana: S. l. centroamericana and Eastern: S. l. orientalis) were also regularly observed in the IMMA with young of different ages; calf presence (including neonates) was observed in 55% and 100% of all observed groups in which calf presence or absence was documented, respectively. Calves were reported in 22% of observed bottlenose dolphin groups in which calf presence or absence was documented (small cetacean estimates based on combined unpublished data: A. Cabrera, V. Davila, J. Ortiz-Wolford, E. Quintana-Rizzo, pers.comm).
Sub-criterion C2: Feeding Areas
The offshore waters of Guatemala are characterized by seasonal eddies that function as retention mechanisms for planktonic organisms, which serve as food sources for first-order consumers and consequently generate food for higher trophic predators (Ehrhardt & Fitchett, 2006; Acosta-Pachón et al., 2017). Submarine canyons, such as the San José Canyon, serve as conduits for the transport of deep, nutrient-rich waters to the continental shelf waters of coastal ecosystems (Fernandez-Arcaya et al., 2017; Santora et al., 2018).
Spinner and spotted dolphins have been observed feeding in the IMMA. A high percentage of spinner dolphin groups (70%) have been observed feeding, while only 20% of spotted dolphin groups were involved in this activity. Spinner dolphin groups were larger, with groups of up to approximately 2,000 individuals (mean ± standard error = 585 ± 129) while the largest spotted dolphin group was 55 (19 ± 3). Feeding in both species was typically observed near the San José Canyon, along the 200 m isobath (near the continental shelf edge), and the Middle America trench. These are likely areas of high productivity where dolphins concentrate to feed (estimates based on combined unpublished data: A. Cabrera, V. Davila, J. Ortiz-Wolford, E. Quintana-Rizzo).
Sub-criterion C3: Migration Routes
Large-scale movements of humpback whales to this IMMA have been confirmed with photographic identification and/or satellite tagging (Curtis et al., 2022; Mate et al., 2018; Quintana-Rizzo & Calambokidis, 2017). Humpback whales make 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 (Modest et al., 2021). In the northern hemisphere, their breeding and migratory corridors include the Pacific continental shelf off Central America. During their migration to/from Central America, whales use the waters of the IMMA (Quintana-Rizzo, 2019). Evidence suggests a dual functionality of the IMMA for humpback whales. The low resightings rate of some individuals suggests that they use the IMMA as a migration route and/or a steppingstone on their migration routes, while the presence of whales with calves including neonates (Quintana-Rizzo pers. comm., Quintana-Rizzo & Calambokidis, 2017) suggests that other whales use it for reproductive activities. Resightings between the IMMA and other areas in Central America suggest that individual whales visit multiple sites within a breeding season (Quintana-Rizzo & Calambokidis, 2017). It also highlights the interconnectivity of the different sites and that this IMMA serves as a migratory corridor for the species.
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