How spotting right whales from space could help save them

The key to saving endangered North Atlantic right whales could come from space, says a Nova Scotia researcher who’s developing technology that would scan satellite imagery and relay the whereabouts of the elusive mammals within hours.

It’s one of the best hopes for keeping up with the whales that are fast and hard to detect, said Olivia Pisano, a PhD student in marine biology at Dalhousie University in Halifax. 

“Because they can move so quickly, you can make a decision about one part of the [Gulf of St. Lawrence] and then have them show up in another part of the Gulf the next day, and so you’re constantly playing this game of catch up,” she told CBC’s Information Morning

“When it comes to right whales, we need to start being more proactive.”

Satellites orbiting Earth have views of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of St. Lawrence and can scan large swaths of the whales’ habitat in a relatively short period of time, Pisano said.

She said while satellites have been used to track animals in Canada’s North, they’ve yet to be recruited in the fight to save North Atlantic right whales, whose population has dwindled to about 400.

The team at Dalhousie is developing a computer algorithm that would process the satellite imagery, as well as aerial imagery, and determine how many right whales are in the area.

Olivia Pisano is getting a PhD in marine biology at Dalhousie University in Halifax. (Olivia Pisano)

This “machine-learning algorithm” can do the work far quicker than a human can, which saves valuable time, Pisano said.

“If we were to know within hours that there was a whale spotted in a certain area, then we can notify the right people and we can start to get some management protections going,” she said.

Last year, 10 right whales were found dead in Canadian and United States waters, and there has been one death so far this year. A six-month-old calf was found dead earlier this summer with wounds that appeared consistent with a ship strike.

Ship strikes and entanglements are often to blame for right whale deaths, leading governments to introduce measures, such as speed restrictions and fishery closures.

While planes have been used to track right whale movements, Pisano said looking into how satellites can be used is relatively new. (Center for Coastal Studies)

Right now, researchers keep track of the whales using a number of methods, including survey plans, acoustic monitoring and gliders, but even these efforts fail to accurately track the whales, Pisano said.

She hopes satellite imagery can be another tool governments and conservationists use.

It’s an area of research that’s largely been untapped when it comes to right whales in northern waters, she said.

“This is a relatively new technology,” Pisano said. “This is really not something that’s been done before or tried before, so this is all new to us, but we really do feel that it will give us an advantage in protecting the whales.”

Dalhousie researchers began working on the project in January 2019, and Pisano believes the team could have a preliminary tool ready by sometime next year.

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