Panama saves whales and protects world trade

May 28, 2014

The Republic of Panama's proposal to implement four Traffic Separation Schemes for commercial vessels entering and exiting the Panama Canal and ports was approved unanimously by the International Maritime Organization in London, May 23. Based on studies by Smithsonian marine ecologist Hector Guzman, the new shipping lanes are positioned to minimize overlap between shipping routes and humpback whale migration routes and reduce vessel speed four months a year at the peak of the whale overwintering season.

Several cetacean species move through the tropical waters near the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal in the Gulf of Panama. With Smithsonian ecologist Richard Condit, intern Betzi Perez-Ortega and colleagues from Whalesound Ltda. in Chile and the College of the Atlantic in Maine, Guzman recently published results from six seasons in Panama's Las Perlas Archipelago. Based on photo-identifications of nearly 300 individual , including 58 calves, they estimated the total population at more than 1000 animals that visit year-round and matched them to individuals sighted from the Antarctic Peninsula, Chile and Colombia. They concluded that the Archipelago, only 60 kilometers (40 miles) from the Pacific entrance to the Canal, is an important breeding area for humpback whales from the Southern Hemisphere.

Panama is a leader in global commerce and a steward of this exceptional marine biodiversity. Nearly 17,000 cross the Gulf of Panama each year. This number is expected to increase significantly when new locks now under construction permit larger, "post Panamax" vessels to transit the Canal and enter its ports.

Based on his analysis of whales tagged with satellite transmitters, Guzman estimates the new policy will reduce potential areas of collision between ships and whales by 93 percent and reduce the interactions between ships and whales by 95 percent in the Gulf of Panama.

In the Pacific, an array of three schemes is also expected to significantly diminish the potential of ship collisions with coastal fishing vessels and pollution-causing accidents affecting seven marine protected areas including Wildlife Sanctuaries, a UNESCO World Heritage site and wetlands protected under the international Ramsar Convention.

The Panama Maritime Authority took the lead, based on the input from the Panama Canal Authority's Captain Fernando Jaen and the Maritime Chamber's Jocelyne Anchor to define the policy and shepherd it through the approval process.

"This is a clear example of Smithsonian research that makes a difference," said William Wcislo, acting director of STRI. "We are a research organization, not a conservation organization, but our research feeds conservationists' efforts to protect biologically rich and vulnerable ecosystems."

"Scientific results impact conservation, but putting policy into effect takes a great deal of time," said Guzman. "We have to be patient and consistent. It took two years of teamwork to design the policies and obtain a consensus for the traffic separation schemes for whale protection. Now Panama has six months to implement the TSS's, and the maritime industry has six months to comply."

Guzman is currently working with scientists and policy makers from Ecuador and Chile to safeguard passage for whales along the entire coast of South America and plans to expand the project to other countries in South and Central America.

Explore further: 'Whale Spotting' app seeks to reduce ship strikes (Update)

More information: Guzman, H.M., Gomez, C.G., Guevara, C.A. and Kleivane, L. 2012. 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

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

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

'Whale Spotting' app seeks to reduce ship strikes (Update)

Sep 18, 2013

U.S. federal officials trying to reduce the number of whales that are struck and killed by ships sailing in and out of San Francisco Bay are testing a new smartphone application that could help locate the mammals more accurately.

Melting Arctic opens new passages for invasive species

May 28, 2014

For the first time in roughly 2 million years, melting Arctic sea ice is connecting the north Pacific and north Atlantic oceans. The newly opened passages leave both coasts and Arctic waters vulnerable to ...

Tropical forests mitigate extreme weather events

Dec 18, 2013

Tropical forests reduce peak runoff during storms and release stored water during droughts, according to researchers working at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. Their results lend credence ...

Recommended for you

How fussy pandas maintain a balanced bamboo diet

40 minutes ago

(Phys.org) —Pandas are famously fussy eaters, but new research suggests there is method to their madness, with the animals switching between different species and parts of bamboo plants to maintain a balanced ...

New planthopper species found in southern Spain

6 hours ago

Not much is known about the the genus of planthopper known as Conosimus, which now includes six species after a new one was recently discovered in the southern part of the Iberian Peninsula in the Spanish ...

How rockstars and peacocks attract the ladies

23 hours ago

What is it that makes rockstars so attractive to the opposite sex? Turns out Charles Darwin had it pegged hundreds of years ago – and it has a lot to do with peacocks.

User comments : 0