New underwater robot to help North Atlantic right whales

HALIFAX – A new underwater robot will join the Canadian North Atlantic Right Whale Watch Squad, which tries to prevent these endangered mammals from colliding with ships in the Gulf of Saint -Laurent.

Traditionally, these cetaceans have spent the summer months in the vicinity of the Bay of Fundy between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, but in recent years they have migrated further north to the Gulf of St. Lawrence – in full shipping lanes. Ottawa has in recent years ordered speed limits for vessels and a number of temporary fishing closures in the area.

The new robot will be integrated into the fleet of “submarine gliders” operated by the organization “Ocean Tracking Network” and Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. The most recent acquisition will carry a hydrophone capable of identifying calls from right whales and reporting their location, Fred Whoriskey of the Ocean Tracking Network said Monday. The University of New Brunswick and Transport Canada are also partners in this $ 3.6 million project which will run over the next five years.

“There is not just one way to effectively determine where whales are at a specific time when they are in the Gulf of St. Lawrence,” Professor Whoriskey explained in an interview. Aerial surveillance is only good on sunny days, in calm seas, when hydrophones mounted on fixed buoys have their limits, explains the biologist, an American who obtained his doctorate at Laval University.

“Gliders descend in the navigation channels, listen to and detect the sounds of whales calling, then come back to the surface periodically and broadcast their information. These banana yellow gliders are about a meter and a half long and have the shape of a torpedo with wings, ”says the researcher. Three gliders are already in use in the Gulf this year, and the most recent, under construction, will replace one of them.

Since June 2017, an unusually high number of right whales have died, reducing the population to less than 400 individuals. Some experts say the species is on the brink of extinction. Collisions with vessels and entanglements in fishing gear are the cause of most of these fatalities.

Professor Whoriskey believes his team’s research, which also includes analyzing animal movements and the location of food sources, could help the endangered species recover. “We can see that the species is struggling,” says Whoriskey. Calves were born this year. It is now up to us to do everything in our power to help them get back on their feet. ”

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