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SFU researchers developing warning system to protect killer whales from marine traffic

July 24, 2019
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By Diane Mar-Nicolle

SFU researchers have teamed with regional partners to conduct critical research they hope will save and enhance the remaining 76 Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKWs) in B.C.’s Salish Sea.

Their initial study, published in Frontiers in Marine Science, highlights the potential benefit of slowing marine vessels to protect the SRKW population from collisions and underwater noise. The SRKWs have protective status under Canada’s Species at Risk Act.

Ruth Joy, an SFU statistician who specializes in quantitative marine- mammal science, and her team of acousticians and biologists worked with the Port of Vancouver ECHO Program and commercial and government partners to manage a 61-day vessel-slowdown trial in the Salish Sea. The Salish Sea is the region at the southern end of Vancouver Island that includes Puget Sound, the Juan de Fuca Strait and the Strait of Georgia.

They found that reducing underwater noise in and adjacent to the shipping lanes benefited the whales in regions that overlapped with foraging hotspots.

“We know that noise causes chronic stress to whales,” says Joy, “and with shipping lanes getting busier, we foresee that potential implications could include lower survival rates and lower reproductive success for these whales.”

She notes that a major port expansion and an oil pipeline terminal planned for the area adds to the importance of managing vessel traffic to ensure the integrity of the whales’ habitat.

This month, Joy and SFU colleague Dave Campbell received additional funding from the Government of Canada’s Ocean Protection Plan to develop a practical tool that that will alert mariners when the SRKWs direction of travel is going to overlap with their ship’s path.

The  researchers plan to develop a model that uses real-time data to estimate current SRKW locations and predict their travel direction.

To monitor the whales’ presence, Joy’s team will use underwater hydrophone nodes located adjacent to shipping lanes in the Salish Sea, and will also deploy movable acoustic buoys.

“This acoustic data, combined with visual sightings from reliable sources, will provide real-time SRKW location data to inform the probabilistic model of marine animal movement,” she says.

Joy says this dynamic model could be an effective tool because it can synthesize historical and current data.

“When the SRKW location data becomes available from any of the real-time sources, we can use our model to predict where next the animals are likely to go.

“Ultimately, we hope that this information will build the framework for a comprehensive advance-warning system for vessels or marine traffic controllers to take action to reduce the chance of whales colliding with commercial vessels.”

The team hopes to complete the $1-million study by 2022.