Around the Panama Bay

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TSS to help whales

Panama Canal Atlantic side TSSs.

Panama Canal Atlantic side TSSs.

Sailing into Panama, the boat traffic converges from every direction. A bit of organization goes a long way towards reducing collisions at sea. One of the many positives of the new Traffic Separation Schemes (TSS’s) is less confusion and easier navigation for boaters on vessels of all types and sizes. TSS’s also protect marine life and coastal ecosystems.

The perspective of a marine scientist

Hector Guzman has been working for over 20 years as a scientist for the Smithsonian Institution doing research on Panama’s marine environment. “I prepared my thesis on the threat to whales and other cetaceans from encounters with commercial shipping traffic,” he said.

Encounters with whales

In a 2012 study published in Marine Mammal Science, Guzman defines whale-vessel interactions, or “close encounters,” as the number of occurrences that a whale crosses a vessel’s track within a distance of 200 m or less.

According to the study, slow movement and time spent at the surface during calving near the coast make whales highly vulnerable to lethal or severe injuries due to collision with ships. This threat is higher across their migration routes and winter breeding grounds.

Controlling encounters

For the whales and other cetaceans, like dolphins and porpoises, corralling commercial shipping traffic into specific lanes reduces the overall space where a collision can occur.

“We can’t control the whales,” said Guzman. “But we can simply control the location of the ships. We chose the location of the TSS’s to minimize possible encounters between whales and ships. We also reduced the speed of huge mercantile vessels in the months of August, September, October and November, the peak of the breeding period of humpback whales in Panama.”

Guzman explained: “The schemes only apply to huge vessels. The speed restrictions will not affect smaller fishing boats or ships involved in tourism industries.”

Panama Canal Pacific side TSSs.

Panama Canal Pacific side TSSs.

Traffic Separation Schemes

“TSS’s had been used for navigation safety for decades in several countries and I was wondering why Panama, being the center of commerce for the maritime industry, had not adopted a similar plan. This is the first time for the Republic to have these traffic separation plans implemented under the control of the AMP, the Panama Maritime Authority,” Guzman said. The AMP took a leadership role and presented the TSS’s proposal to the International Maritime Organization in London last year.

There will be four schemes: three on the Pacific side and one on the Caribbean side at the entrance to the Panama Canal. There is always pushback from industries that fear regulations limit their ability to move freely where they want, when they want. In this case, though, the Maritime Chamber of Panama was very supportive of the initiative.

A cursory look at the chart shows that very little open water will be regulated. Common sense dictates that marine life will benefit from less haphazard boat traffic.


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