In the last century the world’s oceans have become major hubs of activity, with large number of ships traversing the globe each year. Along with the increased presence of mere ships in the sea has been the increase in fishing, which has led to great numbers of nets, trawls and other such devices. Add to this the use of sonar and you will begin to understand why whale species are under more stress than ever before.
Ship strikes and entanglements with nets are a major issue for whales across the globe. The mere presence of ships, even without sonar use, has caused significantly elevated noise pollution in the world’s oceans. All of the action in the seas can make merely going to typical feeding and calving grounds difficult for whales. Amidst concerns regarding ship strikes and interference with local whales, Panama is taking action to change shipping routes near the Panama Canal.
The recent International Whaling Commission held their annual meeting in Panama City. The area is not widely known for their whale populations but the nation is quickly becoming popular for whale-watching. Humpback whales are the species Panama is particularly concerned about as local plankton bring approximately 900 individuals to the region each year. Unfortunately 17,000 large ships go through the region to get to and from the Panama Canal each year, leading to ship strikes and general stress on the individual whales.
Research conducted by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute helped Panama propose plans to implement altered shipping routes in the Gulf of Panama in order to avoid the main whale areas. Research including fitting fifteen humpback whales with satellite tags was done and then compared to ship activity in the region. At least ninety-eight whale-ship interactions were noted during eleven days of the study.
The plan has not yet been approved but would consist of developing two lanes entering and exiting the Panama Canal on the Pacific side of the canal. These shipping lanes would be sixty-five nautical miles in length. In order to minimize potential interaction with whales, the entrance and exit lanes would only be about two nautical miles apart. In addition, ships would have to go no more than ten knots during breeding season in the Gulf of Panama. It is said that this plan would reduce interactions and therefore ship strikes for whales in the region by ninety-five percent.