Since 2019, North Atlantic right whales have been monitored around-the-clock during the ice-free season in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, using devices developed by the Maurice Lamontagne Institute (MLI) underwater acoustic team and its partners. In 2017 and 2019, because of collisions with ships and entanglements in fishing gear, there was a high mortality rate for this endangered species in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, which has a current population at around 350 individuals. To implement protective measures for these whales, their presence in important areas must be monitored.
To detect the presence of North Atlantic right whales, the team at MLI mounted hydrophones onto Viking oceanographic monitoring buoys in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The hydrophones detect whale calls and transmit the information in near real-time to a team of marine mammal acoustic experts for validation. The detections are displayed on the St. Lawrence Global Observatory Viking Buoy Detection Portal and WhaleMap.
A pilot project was first carried out from June to October 2019 at five buoys in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The pilot project was successful: whales were detected as soon as the hydrophone-mounted buoys were in the water and continued to be detected throughout the summer and fall, until the buoys were removed prior to the freeze-up. The system even survived tropical storm Dorian in September 2019, with winds exceeding 100 km/h and waves as high as 13 metres. Building on this success, the multidisciplinary team made the system more robust and efficient during winter 2020 by adding a sixth buoy and an artificial intelligence (AI) algorithm developed with its partners to better detect right whale calls.
Following a second successful season and despite the restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the team worked over the past winter at the MLI laboratories to prepare the buoys and optimize the algorithms for the 2021 season. In early May 2021, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) will be deploying seven Viking buoys, all equipped with hydrophones. North Atlantic right whales detections will be available on WhaleMap. DFO and Transport Canada will be informed of the presence of North Atlantic right whales. Any near real-time acoustic detections of right whales will trigger the 2021 North Atlantic right whale management measures in the dynamic management zone.
These technological innovations make Fisheries and Oceans Canada a world leader in applying knowledge to protect whales.
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