The Panama Canal Authority (PCA) has confirmed to Ship Technology it has reduced its maximum draft, and cut the number of transits per day, due to drought conditions leading to dropping water levels on the Panama Canal and Gatun Lake. 

This has led to a build-up of ships and tankers at both the Atlantic and Pacific entrances to the vital shipping route. 

The build-up of ships on either side of the Canal, seen via

“In response to the unpredictable weather patterns and the need to ensure reliable and sustainable service, the authority aims to maintain a maximum draft of 44ft or 13.41m through the remainder of the current year and part of 2024,” the PCA explained in a statement. 

The normal draft level is 50ft, although from March 2022 it was reduced to 49.5ft and earlier in 2023 the maximum draft level was reduced again to 47.5ft. 

The PCA explained it has been consistently reviewing its regulations as climate change affects the region’s water supply. 

“Since the previous drought in 2019-2020, the Canal has been implementing procedures to improve water efficiency in its operations while conducting studies to identify long-term solutions to climate variability. Yet, current severity and its recurrence have no historical precedence,” the PCA said. 

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“Consequently, the Canal will limit daily transit capacity to an average of 32 vessels per day, down from an average of 36 in normal circumstances, during this period. It is worth noting that Neopanamax transit capacity will remain largely unchanged at an average of ten daily transits.”

Booking slots will also be reduced in a bid “to alleviate congestion for ships already in queue to transit or en route, who were unable to secure reservations beforehand”.

But in its 10 August communication, the PCA tried to reassure customers hoping to secure a Canal transit slot. 

It explained: “For the benefit of its customers, the authority emphasizes that those with existing reservations will not be impacted by these temporary measures. It is highly encouraged for customers to reserve ahead of time, as this will ensure a seamless experience.” 

PCA administrator Ricaurte Vasquez Morales said the authority would continue to communicate regularly with shipping firms as a key priority. 

Vasquez said: “Communication is a cornerstone of our relationship with customers. Considering changing circumstances, we maintain an open line of communication to keep our customers informed about booking slot availability.

“Through regular updates, transparent dialogue, and close collaboration with shipping lines and stakeholders, we strive to manage expectations and provide real-time information that enables our customers to make informed decisions.”