Dalhousie researchers track right whales by mapping food sources

In the battle to save the endangered North America right whale, Dal researchers are looking to map where the massive mammals go for lunch.

Research since 2015 showing definite patterns

Researchers are trying to predict the movements of North Atlantic right whales by establishing where they are likely to go to eat. (Stephan Savoia/AP)

Those trying to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale are putting enormous effort into tracking the massive marine mammals.

But a group of Dalhousie University researchers are concentrating their search on the location of the tiny creatures they eat in the hopes of predicting whale movements.

Oceanographer Christopher Taggart and his team have been mapping areas of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where the whales are most likely follow their stomachs to food.

"We're trying to figure out what is driving the places where they go, and when they go there, and it's all to do with the oceanography and their food," Taggart said Friday at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography, where Ottawa announced it would continue to fund his work.

Dalhousie's Christopher Taggart wants to know where right whales go to eat. (Robert Short/CBC)

The goal is "to monitor where the whales are, when they come and when they go," he said.

Information already put to use

Taggart said the information his team has collected in the Gulf since 2015 has already been put to use.

"In 2016 that pattern became similar, in 2017 it was similar again, in 2018 it's very similar again," he said.

"So now there are abilities to reroute traffic, slow down traffic, change the fishing effort in certain locations — at certain times so to reduce the likelihood of vessel strikes and and reduce the likelihood of entanglement."

Rather than looking for the actual food source, the Dalhousie researchers are studying the structure of the water, looking for denser sections.

"Inside those waters, we find these very small bugs that are about three millimetres long that the right whales eat," said Taggart.

"So clearly if they're eating three millimetre-long bugs there's got to be a lot of them down there. And so we're trying to find out how that is controlled by the environment."

David Barclay plans to calculate the noise level in the ocean. (Robert Short/CBC)

Ottawa is contributing $635,000 to the project.

"It's going to take us right through this season and, hopefully, we'll use some of our other funding sources to be able to do it all again next year."

Ocean is noisy

David Barclay, Taggart's colleague, is also getting money from Ottawa. He'll receive $22,000 to determine the current ambient noise levels in the ocean.

"The ocean is a noisy place," he said.

By setting a baseline, other researchers will have something to work from when they want to study how man-made noises from vessels affect marine mammals, including right whales.

"If you live on a busy road maybe you'll have a little bit less sleep at night or so forth," Barclay told reporters. "That affects you are in terms of health.

"But we haven't yet got to the point we understand what effect that has on the right whales, or other marine mammals, so this is applying new technology to answer some of these questions."

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