Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations


January 2002


Organisation des Nations Unies pour l'alimentation et l'agriculture


Organización de las Naciones Unidas para la Agricultura y la Alimentación




Land area:

75 517 km2

Area of the islands:
Coastal length in the Pacific Ocean:
Coastal length in the Caribbean Sea:

1 488 km2
1 700,6 km
1 287,7 km

Continental Shelf (200 NM):
Territorial Sea (12 NM):
Inland waters (includes the Historical Bay):
Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) :

250 892.9 km2
32 115 km
36 816 km
218 777,9 km

Population (2000):

2,8 million

Gross domestic product (2000):

$US 7 341,9 million

Expenses (2000): consumption per inhabitant


$US 1939,9


Commodity balance (2000):





Total supply

Per caput supply


'000 tons liveweight equivalent


Fish for direct human consumption






Fish for animal feed and other purposes






Estimated employment (1999):


(i) Primary sector:

167 628

(ii) Secondary sector:

174 898



Fishing production gross value:
(nominal value of the estimated landings, 2000):

US$250 877 million

Trade (2000):


Value of imports:

US$7 485 million

Value of exports:

US$807 million


Panama ratifies the Agreement on the Sea Rights in 1996, and that is why its marine domain changed recently. Its territorial sea occupies a zone of 12 nautical miles and the Gulf of Panama is considered like an Historical Bay due to its historical and geographical conditions. The coastal length has a total of 2 988,3 km of which 1 700,6 km are in the Pacific coast and 1 287,7 km in the Caribbean Sea.

95 per cent of the fishing activity is developed in the Pacific Ocean, and 80 per cent of the population of the country is also located in its coast. The occurrence of an important upwelling in the Gulf of Panama, in the dry season, increases the primary production and accelerates the development of a great number of species. Fishing is distributed in two great sectors: the industrial and the artisanal fisheries. There is also a fishing fleet internationally authorized to capture in distant waters.

Aquaculture is another important component and the shrimp of the gender Pennaeus is the most important culture; industry is developed in the coastal zones of the Pacific. At the end of the 90's it had an important apogee duplicating the production per hectare, as well as the cultivated areas.

Under a legal point of view, the division between the artisanal and the industrial fisheries is based on a legislation that establishes that the vessels bigger than 10 GRT are industrial vessels, and also considered as artisanal the vessels with a tonnage under that value. The Fishing General Law establishes other categories but, in practice, they are not used. That same Law establishes that there is no need of licences for the sportive fishing, an activity that has greatly increased in the last years, making difficult the implementation of an ecosystem conservation program. At the present, it is not known exactly how many boats exist in the sportive fishing activity and if any catch reports are done.

Industrial fisheries

There are two traditional activities, the herring and anchovy fisheries, exclusively used for fishmeal and the shrimp fisheries. In the recent years fisheries were diversified, having been developed activities for the fisheries of pompano dolphinfish and tunas. The fishing of seabream and other demersal species like sharks have been considered artisanal due to the characteristics of the vessels used but in the recent years, the sizes of the vessels, and the use of longlines, have increased and at the present moment there is an important seabreams fleet. The capture of Pajarita and of rainbow wrasse has also been developed.

Shrimp fishery

There are studies that show that the white shrimp fishery reaches its Maximum Sustainable Yield between 4 and 5 million pounds of shrimp tails, corresponding to 200 vessels. The productions in the last years are as follows: 1 072 tons (1996), 906 tons (1997), 1.529 tons (1998), 1 116 tons (1999), 912 tons (2000). There are several hypothesis to explain the problem, like the increase of the number of vessels, the increase of the artisanal fisheries which is competing for this resource, the use of forbidden fishing gears in the shrimp nursery areas and the size of the mangrove for the aquaculture and other activities.

There are, at the present, 232 vessels with licences for the shrimp fishery and that catch also several shrimp species among which the fidel, cabezón, Carabalí, Rojo and the Titi. The vessels are trawlers of the "florida" type. There is, since 1988, a legislation that does not allow the replacement of the shrimp vessels, in order to reduce progressively the fishing capacity; for that reason, the vessels are quite old (more than 20 years). Most of them have a length between 18 and 20 m, engines between 150 and 380 HP, refrigerated holds and a tonnage between 50 and150 GRT. They use beam trawls and operate in surface waters or up to 200 m waters deep (Executive Decree 10 de 1988).

The total catches (tons) including all the shrimp species, for the period 1996-2000 are the following: 8 304, 8 979, 6 112, 5 441 and 5 328, being the biggest catch to the shrimp titi. In order to solve the existing excess of fishing capacity a prohibition was started in 1976 and later on, other measures like the reduction of the fishing effort expressed in days of work were adopted.

Anchovies and herrings

Anchovy and Herring Fisheries in Panama began in the 50´s, when they were very important for the tuna fisheries. From analyses based on eggs and larvae surveys data, it was conclude that the Maximum Sustainable Yield is 250 000 tons. The mean annual catch is around 120 000 tons; however, in 1985 the catch reached 241 000. This catch is directed to the fishmeal and oil production. There are 30 vessels dedicated to this activity. The fishing season takes place from April to September, because of the availability of the fish resources to the fishing gears, due to their migration to less deep waters. These vessels have between 21 and 22 m of length, its hold capacity is up to 150 tons and their engines have between 265 and 340 HP and are not equipped with refrigerating systems.

The catch fluctuations could be explained by the changes in the fish abundance due to the February - April upwelling.

Artisanal fisheries

The artisanal fisheries are characterized by vessels with less than 10 GRT with outboard motors and their majority have low autonomy and little technology in their fishing system. However, the catch statistics of seabream, dusky grouper, pompano dolphinfish and sharks include also vessels with more than 10 GRT.

Caribbean Coast: The artisanal fishing is mainly directed to the capture of Lobster, Cambombia o Cambute, Octopus and the Cangrejo Centollo. From all these species, the most important is the lobster, which is caught by diving with the help of a stick and a slipknot. There are strong indicators that the lobster is overexploited and the people mainly dedicated to this activity, established in the Congreso Indígena (Native Congress), a fishing prohibition of the Lobster and the Centollo. Other regulations for the catch of Lobster, like the minimum size and prohibition of catching spawning females are not fully accomplished. The pepino de mar is being extracted in an illegal way to be sold to Asian markets, even being an activity forbidden since 1998. Non-published studies still indicate a very low density of the cambute that should impose measures directed to its conservation. The statistics show that there are 402 vessels and 794 fishermen in the seabream artisanal fishery. These numbers do not include the native districts. For the artisanal Lobster fisheries, there are 75 vessels with fishing licences. There is no data for the offshore fisheries, except for the shrimp fisheries. About 5 shrimp vessels operate every year in the Pacific Ocean and in the Caribbean Sea. Most of the information on shrimp is obtained from the catches transported by air from the landing places to the capital market and to export.

Pacific Coast : The greatest fishing activity takes place in the Pacific Coast. In the vessels registrations can be found a total of 4 959 vessels, distributed by canoes, boats and motor boats. From this total 2 937 vessels are authorized to catch fishes, 2 022 to catch shrimp and 92 to catch Lobster.

There is a great rivalry between the artisanal and the industrial fishing, because of the resources. Concerning the shrimps, the increase of the use of nets or gillnets has enormously influenced its catches. This fishing gear was introduced in the country until 1975; in that moment the shrimp mean annual catch was 4 million pounds of tails; the increase of the industrial fleet coincided with the use of gillnets. Up to this moment, the landings tendencies are still negative despite the fact that, at the present moment, the fishing effort of the vessels catching shrimp corresponds to 200 vessels, in terms of fishing days. The fishing free access, despite the restriction of the licences for the shrimp artisanal fishing, allowed a remarkable increase in the use of gillnets; the studies show that the number of gillnets increased from 1 296 unites in 1986 to 14 000 in 1995. The Legislation does not foresee a way to stop new inscriptions for the fish artisanal fishing; many of these fish fishermen also catch shrimps.

The catch statistics of the artisanal landings do not reflect the reality and underestimate the real impact of the artisanal fisheries. With the creation of the Autoridad Marítima (Marine Authority) in 1997, the institutions with competence in the marine sector were unified. When the fishing Administration moved from a Ministry to the recently created Authority, it lost a very important part of the scheme established to collect catch data, loosing a valuable source of information about the artisanal fishing.

For what concerns the artisanal fishing on the weirs which maintain the Panama Canal 1 062 vessels and 2 728 fishermen caught 1 596 short tons in 1999.

International waters fisheries

In 1995 the registrations of the Marina Mercante (Merchant Navy) indicated that there were more than 1 000 fishing vessels. In 1997, Legislation imposing a Fishing Licence for the vessels inscribed in the Panamanian registration was approved. At the present, there is a fishing registration with 82 vessels with international patent; in the registration of the Merchant Navy there is a bigger number of vessels,223, including those with a licence. The vessels without licence have paid a high fee for not accomplishing the rules established and, besides that they have been eliminated from the registration of the Merchant Navy. The licence form of the International Fishing is accordingly to the Acuerdo de Cumplimiento (Accomplishment Agreement) and requests what is established in the Agreement. All the vessels with the International fishing licence have a devise that allows the satellites to detect them.


There are, at the present moment, 9 102 724 hectares for the shrimp Pennaeus vannamei culture divided by 73 producers. In April 1999 there was a serious attack of a disease known as "Mancha Blanca" which reduced considerably the shrimp culture in the country. The mean survivals, which were 70 per cent in 1998, decreased to 25 per cent in the year 2000. The mean production of 1 856 pounds by ha in 1998 decreased to 304 pounds/ha in the year 2000. Great efforts have been done in the genetic improvement to obtain species more resistant to the disease, which start now showing some positive results.

There are 14 laboratories in the country producing shrimp larvae 5 of which are working at the present. Many of these laboratories are dedicated to the export of their production to the Central American countries and have accomplished, for this reason, the adequate zoo-sanitary inspections. The Law nº 58 of 28 December 1995 defines Aquaculture as an Agriculture and Livestock activity which means that, in Panama, the fishing sector belongs to the Marine Authority and the aquaculture sector belongs to the Ministry of the Agriculture and Livestock Development.

There are, in the Continental Aquaculture, 100,85 hectares in tanks in land reaching a production of 755,83 tons in the period 1995-1999. The most cultivated species are the red and black tilapia. River prawns, the rana toro, bivalves and fishes like sargento, trouts and colossomas are also cultivated.


A great percentage of the fishing for human consumption is exported to different International markets. The United States are the main market for the shrimp fished while the European Community is the main market for the aquaculture shrimp. All the factories processing the shrimp fished can be found in the fishing harbour of Vacamonte. The most important culture shrimp processing factories are in the Province of Cocle. There is a total of 9 factories to process fished shrimp and 4 for the aquaculture shrimp. All these factories follow the demands of the "HACCP". Likewise, the United States are the traditional market for fishes although there are important exports to Japan and Continental China; there are several processing factories distributed by all the country. The anchovies and herrings landings are used in the fishmeal and oil production. There are two factories dedicated to this activity in the country.

The artisanal fishing production supplies the national market, but most of the so-called "fine" fishing, that is, high value species, are exported to the international markets. There is an under utilization of the fishing, because during the abundance period the national market is quickly supplied but there is not an adequate procedure for the conservation of the captures.

Present situation of the industry

The mean production of the fishing sector in the period 1996 - 2000 is 150 000 tons of which an average of 83 per cent corresponds to the industrial fisheries and from this value, more than 90 per cent corresponds to the anchovies and herrings fishing, totally used in the fishmeal and oil production. The catches from artisanal fisheries have increased from 12,5 per cent of the total catches in 1998 up to 15,86 per cent in the year 2000. For what concerns the white shrimp, the main resource of the fishery, its production decreased, being now lower than the Maximum Sustainable Yield; however the official statistics, do not reveal that this fact is due to the artisanal fishing catches, which captured during the period 1996-2000 the following amounts: 221, 126, 76, 143 and 66 tons.

The productions of the culture shrimp during the period 1996-2000 were respectively: 2 002; 4 525; 6 549; 1 676 and-----; higher productions are expected in the future years. The problem of the shrimp diseases led many producers to convert their tanks to the production of tilapia.

Economical function of the industry

Fishing is extremely important in the economy of Panama being the second product exported, after the banana and represents a considerable source of employment for the coastal populations. It is estimated that a total of 1 500 industrial fishermen and 13 062 individual fishermen depend on this activity and that 37 500 depend on the processing activity. The problem of the "mancha blanca" disease in other shrimp cultures represented a loss of jobs, which brought great socio-economic problems for the populations of the typical culture zones. The fishing sector contributes with 250 877,000 in foreign currency in the year 2000, 49 per cent of which are from the industrial fisheries and the remaining 51 per cent from the artisanal fisheries. In the previous years, the aquaculture maintained the exports of 6.5 thousand tons (1998) which decreased to 1,4 thousand tons (2000). The artisanal fishing has been increasing very strongly and in the previous years its exports amounted to 30 238 tons. The United States of America are still the main market.


The fishing consumption has increased in the last years and is one of the biggest in Central America. An increase in the consumption of non traditional and low economic value species has been noticed; the development of activities directed to obtain processed products from the catches of the artisanal vessels promoted a bigger fish consumption. Other activities carried out like the development of storage centers in the artisanal fisheries landing places allow a better commercialization and better prices for the fishermen and for the consumers. It has been tried to ease the fishing protein consumption, in the communities living far from the coast, through the rural aquaculture. Several farms where the peasants are learning how to cultivate vegetal species and fishes have been developed. There are 100,3 hectares of subsistence culture in the country. The problems associated to the markets are changing the alimentary habits, which reflect a bigger fish consumption.


The fishing planning has followed too much the interests of the different pressure groups instead of the measures that are really directed to a rational and sustained fishing. The organization measures that have been implemented do not accomplish completely the objectives, and if they were applied they could give an effective answer to the needs of the marine resources conservation; however, the fishing administration cannot fulfil its objectives due to the lack of an adequate budget and qualified technicians. The highest economic value resources are biologically and economically overexploited.

The development perspectives are associated to obtain more benefits from the fisheries if an aggregated value is given to the captures. There is also a great potential for the development of marine cultures like tunas (Yellowfin Tuna) in floating cages, the seabream and the meagre and species of molluscs and lobsters and sea weeds culture due to the most recent experience. An improvement in the conditions of the shrimp farms can be observed and there is optimism for what concerns the fact of finding the adequate technique to fight against the "mancha blanca" disease. In fact, during the present year (2001), new economical inputs have been directed to new shrimp farms. There is also a considerable development of the fresh tuna fishing and processing which is being exported to the United States and the Asian markets. A study about the environment impact is being developed in order to determine the possibility of cultivating fishes in part of the 83,000 hectares of the lakes that maintain the Panama Canal.


The Marine Authority through the Dirección General de Recursos Marinos y Costeros (Direction General of the Marine and Coastal Resources) is the entity responsible for the marine resources while the Dirección Nacional de Acuicultura (Aquaculture National Direction) of the Ministerio de Desarrollo Agropecuario (Agriculture and Livestock Development Ministry) is responsible for the Aquaculture.

Concerning fisheries, the research has not been done very frequently in the last years. This happens when external assistance ends. The Department of Sciences and Limnology of the University of Panama carry out fisheries research. There is more research in other fields other than fisheries.

The Laboratory of Achotines (Comisión Interamericana del Atún Tropical) (Tropical Tuna Inter American Commission) carries out several researches for the Yellowfin Tuna. Concerning the Aquaculture, several researches are being carried out, one of them associated to the development of techniques to face the "mancha blanca" disease, others directed to the genetic development of shrimps that can survive to the "mancha blanca"; studies on aquaculture sanity are carried out in order to prevent new diseases and new culture species are also being investigated.


There are two Institutions, JICA and Misión Técnica de China (China Technical Mission), that give their support to the development of the fishing communities. This action includes training and equipment for the fishermen. Economical support for the fisheries research was not possible to get which became one of the greatest deficiencies faced by the fishing administration. The aquaculture has received support from JICA from Japan.


Fishing faces new challenges within the concept of new markets and the proliferation of the ecological stamps. It will be fundamental to have a greater research in the next years in order to have the necessary scientific evidence to take the most correct decisions in order to show the sustainability of the activity and to avoid exclusion from the international markets, due to the lack of the ecolabels.


Autoridad Marítima de Panamá

Dirección General de Recursos Marinos y Costeros

[email protected]

Ministerio de Desarrollo Agropecuario

Dirección Nacional de Acuicultura

[email protected]