New Panamanian policies aim to prevent ship-whale collisions

Each year, some one thousand humpback whales gather near the Pacific coast of Panama to breed. The sea in the Gulf of Panama is dotted with some 200 islands and islets collectively known as the Las Perlas Archipelago. The waters are shallow and clear. There isn’t anything deeper than 50 meters, and most of the seafloor is just 15 meters from the surface.

For six years, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) biologist Hector Guzman collected data on the individual humpback whales moving around the Las Perlas Archipelago each austral winter (Northern hemisphere summer). Some of them were spotted using photo identification techniques, others were tracked using satellite tags. Some of the individuals spotted off the coast of Panama were known to feed as far away as the Antarctic Peninsula, Chile, and Colombia. Though the archipelago is just 40 miles from the Pacific side of the Panama Canal, Guzman’s work has established that it’s an important area for humpback whales from the Southern Hemisphere.

The problem is that Panamanian waters are also some of the most heavily shipped in the world. For each of the 1,000 humpback whales that visit the Las Perlas Archipelago, there are seventeen commercial vessels that cross the Gulf of Panama each year. And when new locks, currently under construction, which will allow larger vessels to navigate the Canal are finished, there will be far more than 17,000 ships sharing the ocean with the whales. And humpbacks aren’t the only ones – there are at least six other cetacean species for which these are important waters.

Luckily, the Republic of Panama has come up with a solution for more peaceful coexistence between the two oceanic giants, biological and mechanical. Relying on Guzman’s research, the government drafted a proposal for four “Traffic Separation Schemes” for ships entering and exiting the Panama Canal and its associated ports. Three of those schemes apply to the Pacific side of the Canal. Last month in London, the International Maritime Organization approved the proposal.

By sticking to a narrow strip of sea west of the archipelago, ships can avoid the areas most densely populated by whales. The new rules should be fully implemented within a year.

The blue lines show ships that entered or left the Gulf of Panama in just one month in 2009. Colored lines show the tracks of 12 tagged whales during the same period. In the new scheme, boats would all enter via the yellow area, to minimize spatial overlap.

In an official statement prepared by STRI, Guzman said that the new policies will “reduce potential areas of collisions between ships and whales by 93 percent” in the Gulf of Panama. It took Guzman and his partners two years to design policies that were acceptable to all interested parties, in addition to all the years he spent collecting data. “Scientific results impact conservation, but putting policy into effect takes a great deal of time,” he added. – Jason G. Goldman | 04 June 2014

Source: Guzman H.M., Condit R., Perez-Ortega B., Capella J.J. & Stevick P.T. (2014). Population size and migratory connectivity of humpback whales wintering in Las Perlas Archipelago, Panama, Marine Mammal Science, DOI: 10.1111/mms.12136

Header image:; Map graphic via Smithsonian, used with permission.