ReportageShips and Whales in the Hub of the Americas

Ships and Whales in the Hub of the Americas

By: Catalina Gómez

Photos: Javier Pinzón, Alejandro Balaguer

The humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) that swim in the Pacific Ocean choose the calm shallow waters of Panama to have their young. But like these whales, humans have also identified the convenience of the country’s geography as an important transit route, so much so that whales and ships involved in international trade have become intertwined. Their navigational routes, hundreds of miles long, converge in the Gulf of Panama.

The entrance to the Panama Canal and its ports along the Pacific coast receive approximately 17,000 international merchant vessels each year. This entrance is just fifty-seven kilometers from the Las Perlas Archipelago, the main breeding site for humpback whales. What can be done to prevent Panama’s role as a Hub of the Americas from interfering with global initiatives to protect the recovering humpback whale population and other threatened cetaceans?

A scientific study published in the journal Marine Mammals Science in early 2013 used examples from other countries to propose a solution to this dilemma. Héctor M. Guzmán, scientist with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and the lead researcher on the study, used satellite transmitters to track the whales’ movements and superimpose them in real time over the ships’ entrance and exit routes in the Gulf of Panama, calculating possible points of collision between merchant vessels and migrating whales. Another study, also led by Guzmán and published this year in the same journal, revealed that the visiting population of humpback whales could reach up to one thousand individual whales in the waters of the archipelago.

Collisions between ships and whales have been recognized as a considerable risk for the species. In Panama, approximately thirteen cases of such collisions have been reported in less than three years, but this is thought to be an underestimate. Countries such as Canada and the United States have adopted measures to reduce the risk of these collisions, implementing what in the maritime shipping industry is known as Traffic Separation Schemes, (TSS). These are legally established virtual ocean lanes created to facilitate safe international navigation in areas with heavy boat traffic and reduce potential accidents. 

Guzmán and his team evaluated the potential of these measures in Panama and came up with interesting findings. Implementing the Traffic Separation Scheme at the entrance of the Gulf of Panama would reduce potential collisions between boats and whales by 93%. “It’s incredible how a marine spatial planning tool, widely known in the commercial shipping world, can also help protect whales,” said Guzmán, who estimates that this measure could also reduce potential encounters between boats and whales by 95%.

The good news is that Guzmán’s research did not end up filed away in a scientific library. A decade ago, Captain Fernando Jaén, a practicing pilot and the Port Captain of the Panama Canal Authority (ACP is its Spanish acronym), designed various TSS to increase the order and safety of merchant ships in the Caribbean and Panama Pacific, but the proposal was not deemed important at that time and was filed away.  

Motivated by both ship safety and the protection of whales, both professionals worked together on this study for two years. Now, Captain Jaén says he’s confident that “with the implementation of these Traffic Separation Schemes, Panama will substantially increase maritime safety in its waters.” He also believes that “although the separation schemes are located outside the waters of the Panama Canal, they will be used by all vessels transiting this interoceanic route; our clients will become the principle users and beneficiaries of these systems organizing the maritime traffic.”

The Panama Maritime Authority (AMP is the Spanish acronym) suggested the proposed design of the traffic separation schemes to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a specialized agency of the United Nations responsible for security and the prevention of marine pollution, and the authority that will advocate for the proposal’s implementation and compliance. “The TSS is helping us reduce the risk of collisions and a spill, ensuring more orderly shipping so that our industry will continue to grow as it has up until now,” stated Roberto Linares Tribaldos, AMP manager.

For the proposal to be successful, it was necessary to consider how it would impact the shipping industry that moves more than 250 million metric tons of cargo in Panama each year. It was essential to get the support of Jocelyne Anchor, Director of the Panama Maritime Chamber (PMC) and president of the organization’s Environmental Commission. “Our aim is to support the maritime and logistics sector so it grows sustainably. To achieve orderly growth we must reduce all types of risk. In the case of shipping, collisions and potential spills are a huge risk that not only impact the environment but also the image of the country-industry, and possibly result in the suspension of traffic in an area because of an incident,” said Anchor.

Although the AMP will oversee the implementation of these traffic separation schemes, the industry will always be present. The Panama Maritime Chamber has a clear role.  “The PMC is committed to protecting Panama’s environment, especially its maritime environment. We are conscious of the need to take preventative measures to avoid damage to our ecosystem that causes millions in losses to our industry and accidents we all regret. We support the AMP and the ACP in these measures and we are confident that our members will abide by these requirements to protect our most important wealth, the maritime sector,” says Willy Delvalle, president of the PMC and representative of the union that includes 210 maritime sector companies.

Although the team process was difficult, Guzmán recalls, “The most complicated part of this process was not convincing the Panamanian authorities or the Maritime Chamber. Panama’s proposal was clearly drafted and met with consensus. We knew that the scientific information was strong and spoke for itself. Nevertheless, the technical support sessions with delegates from many nations who had come together for IMO’s Sub-Committee on Safety of Navigation in London became tense at times.” However, Guzmán states, “the delegates from the government of Panama were decisive and eloquent in presenting our position and the original proposal remained almost entirely intact. It recommended, among other things, the reduction of vessel speed during the high migration season for the whales.” Captain Kevin Coulombe described it perfectly in the October 2013 edition of the journal Seaway: “Panama made a very passionate argument for the inclusion of language that emphasizes that speed determines the outcome of whale strikes, citing science that found anything over 10 knots was lethal.”

Additionally, the TSS design considered two other important factors. By organizing boats into established lanes, the integrity of eleven sensitive ecosystems would be protected, including the Special Coastal-Marine Management Zone of Las Perlas Archipelago, Isla Iguana, and the Coiba National Park World Heritage site, by reducing the risk of contamination as a result of maritime accidents. Also, artisanal, industrial, and recreational fishermen, who could carry out their activities in coastal areas within the continental shelf without affecting the navigational or maritime safety of large vessels, would also benefit.

The Hub of the Americas is increasing its importance and regional leadership; Panama will continue to fulfill its maritime industry mission in a way that is safer for boats and friendlier for humpback whales and other cetaceous species.