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Space data being used to monitor, protect endangered North Atlantic right whales


Space data is being used to monitor and protect endangered North Atlantic right whales in Canadian waters.

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) launched the initiative called "smartWhales" in 2021, in co-operation with Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) and Transport Canada.

"The North Atlantic right whales were actually suffering quite a bit of damage themselves during a period from 2017 to 2019 or 2020," said Mike Kirby, earth observation utilization and service program officer with CSA, in an interview with CTV Atlantic's Todd Battis. "There were 21 deaths of the North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, so it appeared that the Canadian waters were actually being quite dangerous for these whales."

As a part of the launch, Canada provided a total of $5.3 million over three years to five Canadian companies for a series of projects to help protect the endangered species. Kirby says that three-year window ended in March.

"Three of them were investigating the detection and monitoring whales from space and two of the projects were investigating the modeling of the potential risk of collision, for example, unfortunate collision with a vessel, as well as the habitat for the whales."

According to Kirby, the research being done using space data is a complement to the airborne work that's already being done by Transport Canada and DFO.

"So it's not to replace things that are being done already. If anything, it's to complement them and hopefully down the road be able to cover a bigger area and be able to give them some intelligent information that they haven't been seeing using the current system that they're working with," he said.

"And it's not at all a limitation of the system other than the fact that the space data can cover a larger area. However, for the research purposes, we had to look at smaller areas with higher resolution just to see what we can actually resolve in terms of the whales themselves."

Kirby says there are two families of types of satellites being used for the research project.

"One family is optical, so it's a visual kind of information like you would see in a camera with and extended out into the near infrared. And the other kind is a high-resolution radar, known as synthetic aperture radar, and Canada's a world leader in many of these earth observation technologies, but in particular, within the synthetic aperture radar or high-resolution imaging radars," explained Kirby.

"Through our RADARSAT Constellation Mission, which just by the way celebrated its fifth year of operation, we were able to look at areas within the Gulf of St. Lawrence and along the coast of the U.S. ... at the different whale motions and migrations and try to see if we can't resolve the specific whales themselves. And surprisingly we were able in a couple of cases under certain conditions to actually see specific whales."

Kirby says each whale that was spotted has been named by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as well the New England Aquarium based on their appearance.

"So we were looking for those kinds of things within the whale populations when we could see them from space and determine whether or not space could be used for this purpose."

With files from CTV Atlantic's Todd Battis Top Stories

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