The great whale watch: How a data blitz put the plight of endangered animals into sharper relief
In the Gulf of St. Lawrence, environmental change is bringing North Atlantic right whales into a danger zone of shipping and fishing. A massive research project has given the experts a better picture than ever of what's going on down below
Wednesday, September 26, 2018 – Print Edition, Page A10

When he saw the flight track of the U.S. survey plane over the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Hansen Johnson knew the plan was working.

Watching on his computer, he could see that the plane had veered off from its search pattern of evenly spaced parallel lines into a spaghetti-like tangle of loops and tight circles.

"That's when I started getting excited," said Mr. Johnson, a PhD student in marine bioacoustics at Dalhousie University. "I knew that meant that they were photographing right whales."

That was July 31, as Mr. Johnson and his colleagues were on a twoday data-gathering blitz to find out what North Atlantic right whales were doing in areas where they have only recently been spotted in significant numbers.

All told, Canadian and U.S. expert observers identified about 30 to 40 whales from plane and survey boat, while two autonomous gliders were underwater recording whale calls. Overhead, a passing satellite simultaneously measured ocean conditions. Finally, and most crucially, were the 32 sonobuoys - sensitive underwater microphones that are designed to hunt for submarines - which the Canadian air force deployed in the same location from a C-140 maritime patrol aircraft.

Together, the academic, government and military contributions added up to an unprecedented snapshot of right-whale activity across 1,500 square kilometres of open ocean.

Waiting for news of the results "was like holding my breath for eight hours," said Mr. Johnson, who remained in Halifax to play a co-ordinating role during the joint exercise.

The point of all this effort goes beyond scientific curiosity.

North Atlantic right whales are among the most endangered of all marine mammals, numbering fewer than 500 individuals. They are well known in the Gulf of Maine and the Bay of Fundy, where protocols to protect them from collisions with passing ships have been in place for years. More recently, right whales have been observed in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where it's thought they have been driven in pursuit of a shifting food supply.

The new habitat comes with new risks. After a period of steady recovery in the early 2000s, rightwhale population numbers are in decline once again. Last year marked a devastating turning point, when a dozen dead right whales turned up all around the gulf - many of them victims of collisions, others more likely killed by entanglement in fishing gear. As a result, the Canadian government imposed an emergency response to try to stem the carnage. The new measures, which include slowing down shipping traffic and curtailing crab fishing across a swath of the New Brunswick coast where the whales are now found, continue to be enforced.

So far this year, no right-whale deaths have been reported. But even with emergency measures in place, that's been something of a lucky break, said Mr. Johnson, who last month witnessed a right whale narrowly escape with its life as it struggled to disentangle itself from fishing gear over a twohour period.

"It is absolutely gut-wrenching to see an animal in distress like that," he said.

And as the community comes to grips with how to manage whales in the gulf, a longer-term question is coming into focus: How can right whales and humans co-exist in one of the busiest coastal waterways on the planet?

The answer, scientists say, hinges on better data, innovative technology and hand-in-glove cooperation between researchers, governments and industry to ensure that everyone knows what they need to know to avoid a repeat of last year.

"No one wants to come home with a dead whale on their bow," said Christopher Taggart, an oceanographer who leads Dalhousie's Whale, Particle and Fish Lab. "The big problem is how can you get the information to the people who can use it."

URBAN WHALES While many types of whales face serious threats, the ecology and behavior of right whales seem to make them uniquely vulnerable to human activity at sea.

Known as "the urban whales," they are rarely found in deep ocean water, preferring instead to hug the continental shelf of eastern North America, where they migrate up the coast every year to New England and the Maritimes.

Lacking a pronounced dorsal fin, they have a low profile at the surface that increases their likelihood of being struck by ships.

More than most whale species, they are also strongly dependent on a single food source. These are the small crustaceans known as copepods, vast numbers of which go dormant in the later part of the year and sit suspended in frigid, salty water near the sea floor like tiny blisters of pure fat.

In previous years, right whales have congregated into two Canadian locations, one in the Bay of Fundy and another south of Nova Scotia called the Roseway Basin.

Starting in the early 2000s, shipping practices were altered in an effort to reduce whale strikes in these areas.

But more recently, scientists have found that the copepods are moving, likely in response to altered ocean conditions that are related to climate change. This has presented right whales with a serious survival challenge.

"They show up and the restaurant is closed," Dr. Taggart said.

The Dalhousie team has been at the forefront of trying to understand where the whales are going in search of food. Increasingly, the evidence has led them to a fingerlike depression between New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island called the Orpheline Trough.

There, conditions are nearly identical to the best right-whale habitat in the Gulf of Maine, including the presence of copepods.

Whether right whales have always used the trough is not known. What is clear is that it has now become crucial to their survival.

"Within a single year, we've documented more than onequarter of the population using that area," said Kim Davies, a research associate at Dalhousie who has been studying the whales' shifting habits.

Over the past three years, Dr.Davies has championed the use of underwater gliders to identify where right whales are located by picking up their distinctive whoops, or "up calls" that they use to signal each other. The technology, first developed at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts, has proved ideal for Canadian waters where fog and poor weather conditions often interfere with efforts to spot whales from the surface or the air.

The gliders are also far cheaper than aerial flights, but the information they can provide is limited. For example, it's not entirely clear from what distance they can pick up whale sounds. It was researchers' desire to get more out of the technology and use it to help prevent whale deaths in a new setting that led to this past summer's data blitz.

'A BONA FIDE CRISIS' The idea was cooked up at a campus pub night last fall, when Mr.Johnson found himself discussing the right-whale challenge with fellow PhD student Dugald Thomson, a major with Defense Research and Development Canada - the research arm of the Canadian forces - and a specialist in marine acoustics.

Together, they realized that the sonobuoys the military uses to listen for submarines could be used to calibrate the gliders' performance if both methods were used on the same whales at the same time. As the conservation continued over the following months, the idea became more ambitious. Perhaps all the ways of recording whales, both visually and acoustically, could be attempted at the same time in a coordinated way so that scientists could compare their observations and get more out of the data.

With Major Thomson's help, the military was on board. The plight of the right whale, he said, is "a bona fide crisis" of the type the department of national defense would respond to.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada also joined the project, as did other groups already involved in whale surveys in the Gulf of St.

Lawrence, including the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the New England Aquarium in Boston and the Canadian Whale Institute, a not-forprofit organization based in New Brunswick.

By the time the operation was under way, it was the largest and most multilayered data-gathering effort ever attempted with right whales.

Two months later, Mr. Johnson is still collating all the data, including the sonobuoy recordings that have only this week been declassified and made available to researchers at Dalhousie. While the first attempt on July 30 was hampered by poor weather, the number of whales seen during the second day gave Mr. Johnson and his colleagues plenty to work with.

"It's giving us greater context," Mr. Johnson said. "We can start to put together a picture with these different levels of information that we've never had access to before."

Moira Brown, a long-time right-whale scientist with the New England Aquarium and the Canadian Whale Institute who was not directly involved in the July operation, said the project illustrates why a co-ordinated approach is needed to better understand the behaviour of right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and enable measures that can allow them to co-exist with shipping and fishing in the long term.

"There's a huge value in learning about the area where the project was done," Dr. Brown said.

"Now we can perhaps more narrowly tailor the area where measures are in place."

But Dr. Brown added that the fate of right whales still hangs by a thread. "After four decades, we're still trying to save this species one whale at a time," she said.

Associated Graphic

Marianna Hagbloom of the New England Aquarium observes a North Atlantic right whale during a research trip in the Gulf of St. Lawrence this summer. Fewer than 500 of the animals still exist.


Dalhousie scientist Kim Davies and master's student Meg Carr take samples of tiny crustaceans called copepods - one of the right whales' few food sources. Recently, scientists have found that the copepods are moving to new habitats, likely owing to effects from climate change.

Hansen Johnson, a PhD student in marine bioacoustics at Dalhousie University, was among those who embarked on the ambitious study this summer to uncover why right whales are being spotted in new waterways. Two months on, Mr. Johnson is still collating the data.


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