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In The Sad Saga Of Ships Killing Whales, The Panama Canal Offers A Glimmer Of Hope

Source: Hakai Magazine/Andrew Wight - February 12, 2018 in Politics

In The Sad Saga Of Ships Killing Whales, The Panama Canal Offers A Glimmer Of Hope
Photo: José Porras/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0)

In the balmy, rich waters of the Gulf of Panama, hundreds of humpback whales gather to feed and mate. But this sunny spot isn’t just a refuge for the southern hemisphere’s mighty whales, it is also the Pacific end of the Panama Canal. This shipping superhighway sees more than 36 ships ply its waters each day, including massive cargo vessels weighing hundreds of thousands of tonnes. Until recently, unregulated shipping patterns caused whales and ships to frequently collide, damaging vessels and injuring or killing the animals. From 2009 to 2012, there were 13 whale deaths in the gulf, many thought to be the result of ship strikes.

Fortunately, a combination of solid whale biology and regulations passed by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has resulted in a scheme that has lessened the frequency of those ship strikes, and is now being expanded to other countries. These traffic separation schemes (TSS), which require ships entering and leaving the Panama Canal to follow specific routes, are estimated to have cut the potential for whale strikes by as much as 92 percent, says Héctor Guzmán, a marine biologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama whose research was crucial to the development of the new regulations.

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