British Columbia

Whales are dying from ship strikes. A newly funded project aims to prevent that

Researchers at Simon Fraser University are developing a tool to help commercial vessels detect southern resident killer whales in order to reduce collision deaths.

SFU researchers are building a tool to help commercial vessels spot whales in the Salish Sea

Ship strikes and entanglements are among the leading causes of whale death. (Fisheries and Oceans Canada)

Researchers at Simon Fraser University are developing a tool to help commercial vessels detect southern resident killer whales in order to reduce collision deaths.

The team will use underwater acoustic technology to track the endangered whales in real time so that vessels can adjust their path and speed as they travel through the Salish Sea.

The three-year project, which received $1 million in federal funding this month, comes in the wake of a report that found J34, an 18-year-old male killer whale nicknamed Doublestuff, died in 2016 of blunt force trauma from a ship strike near Sechelt, B.C.

Ship strikes and entanglements are among the leading causes of death for whale species. The federal government introduced new regulations in May that mandate ships stay 400 metres away from whales.

"There's a real incentive coming both from the public and from the political side to make a difference and to make the right management decisions around this endangered population," Ruth Joy, an SFU environmental science professor who's leading the team, told CBC's On The Coast

Recording underwater

The tool, which is in its concept stage, will draw from archival data that traces the whales's historical movement patterns, along with real-time acoustic data drawn from underwater listening nodes, which record sound.

The nodes, which look like a bit like fire hydrants, are about 30 centimetres long and 2.5 centimetres wide. Researchers will deploy about 20 of them in the Salish Sea to collect data.

Storing and processing that data won't be easy — or cheap. Each node collects a terabyte of data per month, Joy said. It costs about $100,000 annually to process the data and maintain each node.

But it could be worth it. 

A recently published study by Joy and other researchers found that slower vessels make less noise and are less disruptive to southern resident killer whales when they're foraging.

The project, which the government announced Wednesday, is one of 12 new federally funded initiatives aimed at improving the safety of southern resident killer whales. The government is investing nearly $3 million in the projects.

The SFU team hopes to complete its project by 2022.

With files from CBC's On The Coast

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