One of the most important wetlands in all the Americas is under threat
The Panama Bay (Bahía de Panamá) wetlands constitute a vast stretch of mudflats, mangroves and other habitats stretching for over 130 kilometres to the east of Panama City, the country’s capital. The wetlands at this site are exceptionally important for migrating shorebirds and provide many vital environmental services to the people of Panama – but are under increasing pressure from urban development. Despite their crucial importance as ‘natural infrastructure’, the Panama Bay wetlands recently lost their legal protected status. At the same time, regulations on mangrove cutting have been relaxed. This leaves the Panama Bay wetlands in immediate danger from ill-advised development – even though they are listed as a Ramsar site.
What is already being done
The Alliance for the conservation of the Bay of Panama is taking legal action against the destruction and is working with local communities to make sure their voices are heard. It has also been raising the issue at global meetings such as the Ramsar Convention and the IUCN World Congress.
Audubon (BirdLife Partner in the USA) has been vocal in its opposition to the development of the Bay of Panama and has mobilised its membership to mount a letter campaign.
What you can do to help
The Upper Bay of Panama was recognised as a globally significant Important Bird Area in 1998, declared a Wetland of International Importance in 2003 under the Ramsar Convention and designated a Site of Hemispheric Importance in 2005 — as the most important shorebird site in Central America.
In 2009, the “Humedal Bahía de Panamá” (Panama Bay Wetland), covering over 80,000 ha, became a National Protected Area. However, in May 2012 the Panama Supreme Court suspended the protected area designation following a technical legal challenge inspired by the pressure for urban and resort development on the mangrove forests closest to Panama City.
At the same time, the Governing Body of the Autoridad de los Recursos Acuáticos de Panamá (Panama’s Aquatic Resources Authority) reduced the fees for the use of mangroves, and the fines for illegal mangrove clearance.
These changes leave the Panama Bay wetlands, and other mangrove wetlands in Panama, highly vulnerable. Developers are already filling-in mangroves within the Ramsar Site boundary to build industrial, commercial and residential developments without the approval of Environmental Impact Assessments.
The Panama Bay wetlands provide food and shelter for juvenile stages of commercially valuable fish and shrimp that contribute $86 million a year to Panama’s economy. Sediments in these mangroves trap pesticides and other damaging chemicals from agricultural and urban runoff and keep them from entering the marine food chain.
Panama Bay’s mangroves and low-lying landward areas significantly decrease the risk of flooding and the impacts of severe weather on Panama’s coastal zone by providing a sink for storm waters. Furthermore, mangrove ecosystems worldwide are also now known to be vital carbon sequestration areas, more important per hectare than terrestrial ecosystems.
Panama Bay wetlands – crucial for biodiversity
The Panama Bay wetlands shelter important wildlife. The bay’s extensive mudflats are exceptionally rich in organic matter, with a diverse and abundant invertebrate fauna. There are 27 species of fiddler crabs in the Panama Bay wetlands, more than any other place in the world. Globally threatened wildlife includes American Crocodile, Loggerhead Sea Turtle, Tapir and Geoffroy’s Spider Monkey, as well as several mangrove tree species. The mangrove forests are frequented by Cerulean, Golden-winged and Prothonotary Warblers along with many other migratory songbirds.
Panama Bay is one of the most important shorebird migration stopover sites in the entire Western Hemisphere. Between 1 and 2 million shorebirds of more than 30 species use the bay during their annual southward migration. For many migratory shorebird species, significant percentages of the global population depend on the bay, including Western Sandpiper (31% of the global population, most of them females), Semipalmated Plover (20%) and Semipalmated Sandpiper (8%). The bay is key to maintaining the Pacific coast population of other species, including Black-bellied Plover (6%), Short-billed Dowitcher (8%), Whimbrel (22%) and Willet (12%). The 30 km stretch of coast between the city and the Bayano River holds especially many shorebirds: over 50% of all female Western Sandpipers use this part of the wetlands on migration. Many birds use the bay as a molting site, a process that requires intense energy expenditure.
The Panama Bay wetlands need protection!