A new marine robot that is part of the underwater glider fleet operated by the Ocean Tracking Network and Halifax Dalhousie University will help monitor the endangered North Atlantic right whales and prevent them from colliding with ships.
Fred Whoriskey, executive director of the Ocean Tracking Network, said on Monday that the latest glider will carry a hydrophone that can recognize the calls of right whales and report their location. The University of New Brunswick and Transport Canada are also partners in this $3.6 million project, which will be completed in the next five years.
“There is no way to effectively determine the location of a whale at any particular moment in the Gulf of St. Lawrence,” Whoriskey said in an interview. “So we need to start integrating our methods.”
He said that aerial surveillance is only effective on sunny days and few waves. He added that hydrophones installed on fixed buoys have their limitations.
“This year we will deploy gliders to shipping channels,” he said. “They go down, listen to and detect the calls of whales, and then regularly surface to broadcast information about whether there are whales there.”
Whoriskey said these gliders were about one and a half meters long. “They are banana yellow and shaped like torpedoes with wings.”
Three gliders are being used in the Gulf region this year, and the latest glider under construction will replace one of them. Whoriskey said that in addition to listening to whales, the glider can also record water temperature and oxygen content, as well as measure chlorophyll and algae.
Since June 2017, an unusually large number of right whales have died, reducing the population to less than 400-a number that has led some experts to warn that the species is on the verge of extinction. Ship collisions and entanglement of fishing gear accounted for the majority of deaths.
Whoriskey said he believes his team’s research, including the analysis of animal movements and the location of food sources, will help the species rejuvenate.
Traditionally, these whales spend the summer months in and around the Bay of Fundy, but in recent years, they have migrated north to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, raising concerns about their presence in the waterway. In recent years, after whales have been found in the area, orders have been ordered to restrict ship speed and close some fisheries.
“You can see the species fighting back,” Whoriskey said. “This year we have produced Mavericks. It is absolutely necessary for us to do our best to make them rebound.”