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Whale of a tale: Protecting Panama’s humpbacks from ship collisions

Areas rich in wildlife and human vehicle traffic rarely make for good news — think of the number of rare and endangered species killed on highways every year. But when it comes to protecting whales and other cetaceans from being struck by ships, the problem gets even more difficult — how do you watch out for a creature underneath the waves?

The key to alleviating this problem ended up being inspired by a solution used on land — and led to a years-long struggle for a Panama Canal pilot and a whale biologist to help reduce whale strikes in the Gulf of Panama, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

Similar to how roads are now sometimes built to curve around the natural habitats of land creatures, Traffic Separation Schemes (TSS) create shipping lanes that restrict marine traffic to certain areas. But in order to get all shipping to abide by this system, countries need the approval of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a UN body that regulates shipping safety and navigation around the world.

Rocky Start

Captain Fernando Jaen tells Mongabay of the early challenges: “Due to my experience as a deck officer at sea in the 1990’s, I proposed six [TSS] in the Panamanian waters around the Canal in 2001,” he said. “The proposal was endorsed by both the Panama Maritime Authority (AMP) and the Panama Canal Authority (ACP), but ultimately was not sent to the IMO for approval.”

To make for a stronger proposal, Captain Jaen needed to gauge reactions from government agencies, shipping companies, and others, as well as marine scientists.

“In 2011, I was connected with Dr. Hector Guzman from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), who studied whales in the Gulf of Panama in 2009,” he said.

During this study, Dr Guzman and his team used satellite tracking to follow over a dozen whales around the tepid, nutrient-rich waters of the Gulf of Panama and then overlaid those tracks with that of the hundreds of ships that carried more than 245 million metric tons of cargo through Panamanian waters in 2017.

The Traffic Separation Scheme in the Gulf of Panama. Credit: IMO.

Speed Kills

In a paper published in 2012, Dr. Guzman and his team explained that collisions between whales and ships at speeds below 10 knots (11.5 mph) don’t usually cause injuries. However, given that tanker and cargo ships in the Gulf of Panama usually maintain speeds of 15 to 17 knots, this causes a large, but unknown, number of casualties and deaths among the whale population.

“Even if a whale is struck by a vessel, the currents could take it off shore,” Guzman told Mongabay, “so it’s almost impossible to know exactly how many whales are being killed or injured.”

The study found that whales came within 200 meters (218 yards) of ships nearly 100 times in the 11-day study period.

These waters are home to a wide variety of whales, but are a particular favorite haunt for hundreds of migratory Humpback whales from the southern hemisphere, who stop there to mate and feed. The shipping lanes on the Pacific side of the canal touch on eleven sensitive ecosystems, including the Special Coastal-Marine Management Zone of Las Perlas Archipelago, Isla Iguana, and the Coiba National Park World Heritage site.

Off to London

Armed with this whale biology, the team from the Smithsonian and Captain Jaen went to gather input and support from a wide range of industry and government bodies.

“After two years refining the proposal, with support from CMP and AMP [and] following several meetings with government agencies, shipping companies, and others, Dr. Guzman and I joined the Panamanian delegation that went to London to participate in the IMO’s Navigation subcommittee meeting,” Captain Jaen said.

This is not the first time that the Canal Authority and the STRI have worked together. They also cooperated on the Agua Salud Project, a joint effort to “understand and quantify” the ecological, social, and economic services provided by forests in the watershed of the Panama Canal.

The final proposal was a 65-nautical-mile Traffic Separation Scheme and a 10-knot maximum speed for vessels routed through the Gulf of Panama. The hope was that the area for potential whale-vessel collisions could be reduced by 93 percent. The proposal was approved on May 23, 2014.

“The TSS in the Gulf of Panama [now] has a seasonal speed restriction to protect the whales from August to November,” Captain Jaen said.

International shipping charts were updated and the routings were mandatory from December 2014. According to Guzman, compliance has been 100 percent in the years since — but even if a whale is struck by a vessel, the currents could take it out to sea, making exact record-keeping very difficult.

“All the ships that transit the Panama Canal use the TSS, so my involvement, as a Canal employee and Port Captain, was to ensure that the TSS do not have a negative impact on our clients, while bringing about traffic organizations and increasing safe navigation — reducing the risk of collisions, groundings and other problems,” Captain Jaen said. “TSS improve safety and reduce the risk of oil pollution, and at the same time protect the whales.”

A humpback whale breaching. Photo via Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC BY 3.0.

First Panama, now the world

Guzman is now using his whale biology studies and the lessons learned from the Panama project to help create similar schemes all along the Pacific coast.

An IMO spokesperson said an international area to be avoided (ATBA) off the Peninsula de Osa, which lies on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, was implemented on January 1 of this year. Costa Rica’s first TSS is expected to be submitted to the IMO for approval soon.

Farther up the coast, other measures have been implemented: In November 2012, IMO adopted amendments to TSSs off the west coast of the United States to decrease the likelihood of commercial vessels coming into close contact with endangered blue, fin, and humpback whales off San Francisco and to reduce the likelihood of ship strike deaths and serious injuries to blue whales and other whales in the Santa Barbara Channel and in the approaches to the major port of Los Angeles.

“To get something like this done, you need to talk to everyone: The navy, the coastguard, the fisherman and governments — everyone,” Guzman said.


• Guzman, H. M., Gomez, C. G., Guevara, C. A., & Kleivane, L. (2013). Potential vessel collisions with Southern Hemisphere humpback whales wintering off Pacific Panama. Marine Mammal Science, 29(4), 629-642. doi:10.1111/j.1748-7692.2012.00605.x

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