The technology of conservation: how ocean-going robots are protecting the critically endangered right whale

The following article was provided by The Ocean Tracking Network. Research Nova Scotia has been supporting The Ocean Tracking Network since 2014.

The Ocean Tracking Network (OTN) is a global aquatic research, data management and partnership platform headquartered at Dalhousie University.

Since 2008, collaborators in Canada and around the world have been using OTN’s infrastructure and analytical tools to document the movements of more than 300 keystone and commercially and culturally valuable aquatic species in the context of changing ocean and freshwater environments.

A Slocum glider equipped with a hydrophone developed at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). Hydrophones detect the calls of right whales as they navigate Canadian waters and provide near real time whale detections to authorities to help mitigate collisions with vessels in busy shipping corridors. Hydrophone-equipped gliders also detect and report the calls of other large whales, including blue, fin, sei and humpbacks.

Photo: Nicolas Winkler Photography, Courtesy of the Ocean Tracking Network

From coast to coast to coast, Canadian researchers use OTN’s infrastructure and analytical tools to address science questions of national interest and importance, and OTN’s global network enables researchers to participate in, leverage and build upon international studies to enhance the collective understanding, conservation, and management of migratory species. Together with their colleagues from the Coastal Environmental Observation Technology and Research (CEOTR) group, a collaborative initiative between the OTN and the Ocean Frontier Institute (OFI), OTN is operating most expansive academic fleet of marine autonomous vehicles in Canada—ten Teledyne Webb Slocum gliders and four Liquid Robotics Wave Gliders.
Once a proof of concept, these ocean-going robots are a safe, energy-efficient tool for revealing life underwater—they can be remotely piloted from home, travelling for months at a time and collecting data on marine animals and ocean ecosystems along the way.

To date, OTN gliders have travelled more than 138, 936 kilometers—more than three times the Earth’s circumference—in support of oceanographic monitoring and animal tracking in Atlantic Canada and beyond.

They operate at a fraction of the cost of conducting ocean sampling by ship and reduce risk for field personnel. Gliders are used in several areas of OTN’s research, including servicing moored equipment—primarily acoustic receivers—monitoring for tagged animals, listening for whale calls, and providing additional monitoring capacity for climate, weather, and oceanographic scientists.

OTN’s capacity and expertise has facilitated collaborations with other research groups and institutions, including MEOPAR’s Whale, Habitat and Listening Experiment (WHaLE), led by Dr. Kimberley Davies now at the University of New Brunswick. In 2021, OTN and Dalhousie University, in partnership with University of New Brunswick and Transport Canada, initiated a $3.6 million dollar project to continue the monitoring of North Atlantic right whales for five years in the Gulf of St. Lawrence using gliders. The funding also allowed OTN to purchase a new G3s Slocum glider equipped with an upgraded hydrophone that is better integrated into the glider, leading to more streamlined flight.

Slocum and Wave Gliders can travel for thousands of kilometres tracking whales, snow crab, sharks, seals, and offloading tracking stations around the Northwest Atlantic. Wave Gliders are also tracking the movements of acoustically tagged cod and salmon in the region. Photo: The CEOTR crew deploys a Wave Glider off the coast of Nova Scotia.

Photo: Nicolas Winkler Photography, Courtesy of the Ocean Tracking Network

As part of these monitoring activities, researchers are using DMONs—a type of hydrophone developed by Mark Baumgartner at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution—to detect, classify and report the calls and locations of right whales, along with four additional baleen whales. This information is shared, in near-real time, to acoustic data analysts who validate the detection and send the information to regulators and vessel operators in busy shipping corridors. Researchers also affix multi-beam echosounders to the gliders to locate occurrences of right whale food (copepods and other zooplankton) within the water column. ‘Gliders are a key tool in better understanding the changing distribution of right whale food sources and how the animals are changing their movements in response,’ says Dr. Fred Whoriskey, OTN’s executive director. ‘This collaborative and ongoing monitoring program is helping mitigate whale-ship strikes and entanglements. These efforts support the livelihoods of coastal communities by keeping regulators and fishers informed on where whales are present, thus reducing harmful interactions between whales and fishing activity, which could trigger export sanctions on Canadian seafood.’

OTN executive director, Dr. Fred Whoriskey

Photo: Nicolas Winkler Photography, Courtesy of the Ocean Tracking Network

In late 2020, Canada ordered two temporary fishery closures in the Roseway Basin after multiple right whale detections in the area. Results from the work aim to reduce the number of right whale-ship collisions by informing temporary closures and vessel rerouting and are also assisting with the protection of critical right whale habitats such as the Roseway Basin off southeastern Nova Scotia.

Understanding the migration routes and habitat use of right whales is helping reduce the risk of accidental ship strikes and fishing-gear entanglements—the main causes of death for these critically endangered mammals.

With continued support from Research Nova Scotia and other funders and partners, OTN’s gliders and monitoring equipment will continue to play a vital role in effectively implementing mitigative measures that are key to protecting this iconic species.

Learn more about OTN and Aquatic Animal Tracking on the Beyond Research Podcast.