New Brunswick

Drones, satellite tagging will help monitor harbour seals in Saint John

The Atlantic Coastal Action Program (ACAP) Saint John has launched a harbour seal monitoring program that could include using drones and satellite tagging to find out more about the mammals and their activities in the area.

Non-profit organization working with other groups to learn more about seal activities, hopes to engage public

Harbour seals often haul out on rocks during low tide, like these ones spotted sunning themselves on the Shag Rocks on Nov. 2. (Twitter/ACAP Saint John)

The Atlantic Coastal Action Program (ACAP) Saint John has launched a harbour seal monitoring program that could include using drones and satellite tagging to find out more about the mammals and their activities in the area.

Graeme Stewart-Robertson, the group's executive director, says the program has been a long time coming, with "a lot of information gaps" to fill.

"We realized that despite promoting [harbour seals] to tourists and within our own community … with the names of mascots or sports teams that we really don't have a clear understanding of what these seals are doing," he said.

"So it's really exciting for us to be able to move forward on a project like this and to hopefully address some of those questions."

Graeme Stewart-Robertson, executive director of ACAP Saint John, is encouraging citizens to participate in the project by submitting any photos or observations they make about harbour seals. (CBC)

Although some research has already been conducted by University of New Brunswick scientists, among others, much of the work has focused on the Bay of Fundy as a whole, or looked at the impact of seals on aquaculture, which is predominantly located west of Saint John, said Stewart-Robertson.

ACAP's project, being done in collaboration with researchers at UNB, Fisheries and Oceans Canada officials and other groups will focus on the Saint John Harbour for the next two-and-a-half years.

Staff of the non-profit organization started doing some field observations last week to determine where some of the key haul-out sites are, where seals come out of the water to rest or breed.

"Those are our most critical spots," said Stewart-Robertson.

The number of such sites has been reduced over the years by development and infill, he said, but there are still others, including Shack Rogs, Manawagonish Island and Round Reef, off of Tin Can Beach.

'Phenomenal' data

Crews plan to use drones to evaluate the harbour seals, as well as grey seals, to avoid getting too close and scaring them away.

They also hope to use satellite tagging to track them, providing it can be done safely for both staff and the seals.

"It would certainly not be easy," said Stewart-Robertson, noting it would involve locating the seals, tranquilizing them and attaching trackers to them with an adhesive that lasts about six months in the ocean in order to get the GPS satellite tagging locations.

Still, "the hope is there because the amount of data we would get from that would be phenomenal," he said.

It could, for example, provide a better understanding of whether the seals are resident to the harbour or travel to other areas such as Charlotte County or Kennebecasis Bay.

Stewart-Robertson expects to spend the first year assessing the feasibility and developing a plan.

Graeme Stewart-Robertson is the executive director of ACAP Saint John. The project will take stock of seals in our harbour and region. 9:31

In the meantime, ACAP wants to engage the public in the project, and is encouraging citizens to report when they see seals, and ideally, take photographs of them.

"Having that community input of – 'Oh, I saw five seals hauled out on the rocks at Manawagonish Island," or 'I saw them at …​ Mispec' that's really helpful to have that citizen science component as well because it gives us more eyes in the community."

 A special platform to submit photos and detailed information, such as time of day and weather conditions, will be developed in the coming months, but ACAP's Facebook page and website can be used for now, he said.

With files from Information Morning Saint John