A Vancouver company is leading efforts to help protect endangered North Atlantic right whales in Canadian waters by monitoring them from space.
Hatfield Consultants is leading a group of researchers working with the Canadian Space Agency on the program, dubbed “smartWhales,” which will use satellite data to detect the presence of right whales and to predict the animals’ movements.
The goal is to help prevent interactions with ships and fishing gear, two of the leading causes of right whale deaths that are threatening an already severely endangered species.
“There are not many of these whales in existence … so looking for them is a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack,” said Hatfield senior consultant Dr. Andy Dean.
“What we need is all the support we can get to know where to look for them.”
In October, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimated only 366 right whales were alive in January 2019, with fewer than 94 of them being females with the ability to breed.
More than 30 whales have been killed by ships or fishing gear entanglements in the last three years, two-thirds of them in Canadian waters.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature in July moved the whales from “endangered” to “critically endangered” on its red list of global species facing threats to their survival — the final step before extinction.
The smartWhales program also involves Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Transport Canada, along with researchers from the Canadian Wildlife Federation and the University of New Brunswick. Ottawa is giving a combined $5.3 million over three years to a total of five companies for the project.
Dean said the program will also help detect sources of zooplankton that are the right whales’ food source, which will help determine where the whales are headed or gathering.
He’s hopeful that the information gathered, including whether whales are approaching a ship, will lead to new policies that will further protect the whales from vessel strikes and entanglements.
“If we know where the right whales are located and where they may move to, Transport Canada can bring in protection measures, such as reducing the speed that vessels are allowed to travel through certain areas of right whale habitat,” he said.
“So by reducing the speed of the vessels, the likelihood of a vessel strike and the mortality of a right whale is significantly reduced.”
Current seasonal rules require vessels in the Gulf of St. Lawrence — a key feeding ground for the whales — to reduce their speed to 10 knots when whales are spotted, while respecting a buffer zone of five nautical miles.
Dean says Hatfield’s goal is to later bring their technology for the right whale program to British Columbia’s coast to monitor endangered species in western waters.
“Obviously, being based on the west coast, we have a particular interest in whales and marine mammal monitoring (and) there are similar issues and challenges for a number of species (in the Pacific),” he said.
— With files from Global’s Linda Aylesworth and the Canadian Press