Canada is growing its suite of innovative monitoring technologies to protect the North Atlantic right whale.
The Ocean Tracking Network (OTN) and Dalhousie University, in partnership with the University of New Brunswick (UNB) and Transport Canada, have established a $3.6-million project to conduct monitoring of North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence using ocean-going marine autonomous vehicles called underwater gliders.
The project has allowed OTN to purchase a new state-of-the art G3 Slocum underwater glider. This robot will be added to the fleet of gliders operated and maintained by Dalhousie’s Coastal Environmental Observation Technology and Research group (CEOTR).
The glider will be equipped with a new hydrophone developed at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). It identifies the calls of North Atlantic right whales as they navigate Canadian waters and provides near real-time whale detections to authorities to help avoid collisions with vessels in busy shipping corridors. Hydrophone-equipped underwater gliders also detect and report the calls of other large whales, including blue, fin, sei and humpback.
“Glider data is helping us know where whales are in time to help inform decisions that could reduce collisions with vessels — one of the main causes of death for these whales,” says Fred Whoriskey, executive director with OTN.
Extending and enhancing surveillance
Transport Canada is providing up to $2.8 million towards this five-year project, with an additional $800,000 in-kind contribution to support glider operations and data processing provided by OTN and UNB.
Over the past five years, the federal government has deployed a comprehensive suite of tools to monitor and protect the North Atlantic right whale, including aircraft surveillance and ship-based visual surveys in the gulf, and the glider program operated by OTN and CEOTR to name a few. This new project will extend and enhance existing right whale monitoring work for at least the next five years.
“The Government of Canada remains committed to protecting the endangered North Atlantic right whale and continues to take action to support the species’ recovery. This investment will improve our ability to monitor for these whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The data collected from these gliders will provide information for additional vessel traffic management measures that could reduce the risk of collisions between vessels and whales,” says the Honourable Omar Alghabra, minister of transport.
Kim Davies, a right whale expert at UNB, is the scientific lead for the project. She has led the design of glider survey paths for the 2021 season, and all acoustic recordings from the gliders indicating the presence of whales are confirmed by analysts in her lab.
Managing and mitigating risk
The recent shift of the North Atlantic right whale from its more traditional seasonal feeding grounds in the Bay of Fundy and the Roseway Basin to the Gulf of St. Lawrence has increased the risk of collisions with vessels and entanglement in fishing gear for this endangered species.
In late 2020, Canada ordered two temporary fishery closures in the Roseway Basin after multiple right whale detections in the area.
“The information gathered will be used to help inform decisions to manage human activities and mitigate risks to whales. While the whales do not call all the time, calls are not affected by darkness or rough surface conditions, making acoustic monitoring a valuable tool in efforts to protect the right whale,” says Davies.
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