Right whales seen from space

Studying whales from space, but while being based in Rimouski: this is the challenge that will be taken up by a research team that has just been awarded a contract of nearly a million dollars with the Canadian Space Agency.

A total of five research projects on the use of satellite data in the detection and monitoring of North Atlantic right whales will share $ 5.3 million.

Acting Head of Earth Observation Applications and Uses and Manager responsible for the Canadian Space Agency’s utiliTerre initiative, Steve Iris, is particularly proud of the outcome of the call for tenders launched last spring .

More than a dozen companies responded. Our colleagues are really happy with the effort and to see the projects proposed and supported , comments Mr. Iris.

The project has resonances in Eastern Quebec, particularly with research centers such as Merinov, in Grande-Rivière, or the Institute of Marine Sciences (ISMER), in Rimouski, which are part of the consortia. retained.

But even more, Arctus, a research and development company based in Rimouski and specializing in remote sensing and Earth observation, is one of the five research consortia selected by the Canadian Space Agency.

The call for tenders was divided into two categories: a first focused on the detection and monitoring of whales and a second on forecasting and modeling of the distribution areas of the right whale.

The Arctus project falls into the second category, like the one in which ISMER will participate.

The Institute will work together to create a near real-time intelligence system on the predicted presence of right whales and the potential for them to encounter a vessel. This project is led by the engineering firm WSP Canada.

The proposals were evaluated by the three departments and agencies that act in partnership in the project, namely the Space Agency, Transport Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Researchers will also have access to data compiled by these two ministries. The idea is to provide access to satellite data. Not to data alone, but in combination with other types of existing or future information , explains Steve Iris.

Innovative projects

According to the manager of the Space Agency, little research of the kind has already taken place in the world. In several cases, there is the integration of new technologies, such as the use of artificial intelligence to analyze large amounts of data, the integration of very high resolution satellite images. This is the first time that we are going to push research and development so far for this issue.

The research will be spread over three years. For three years, we will get the companies to push this research as much as possible to see if, on the one hand, it is applicable. Maybe it isn’t. If it is, how can it be improved? There are technologies that may not exist at the moment or that may not be mature enough to allow it, but at least we will have all this information that will allow us to move forward thereafter.

The goal, at the end of the program, is still to develop a product that could be used by Transport Canada and DFO.Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada. However, it will be up to one of these two departments to take over the mandate thereafter. The operationalization or marketing part is outside our mandate. We at the Agency really have a mandate to push research to the limit , specifies Steve Iris.

Image by itprax from Pixabay 

Specializing in remote sensing in aquatic environments, Arctus could not miss this call for tenders, comments project manager Christiane Dufresne. We had a lot of fun developing ideas and surrounding ourselves with collaborators to develop this project. You might think it was a call for tenders that was predestined for us.

Arctus will coordinate the research of 14 principal scientists based in Rimouski, at the Merinov research center, but also elsewhere in Canada, the United States and France.

It’s very multidisciplinary. We have biologists, we have a physicist, oceanographers. We have specific but complementary strengths , observes Christiane Dufresne.

The objective is to develop a tool for modeling and predicting the movement of whales from the detection of food.

This modeling tool will be based on the one hand on models: an oceanographic model of the circulation of marine currents, a simulation model of the prey of whales, calanus, copepods and phytoplankton, and also on remote sensing which provides information on the properties of the ocean surface , explains the project manager.

The tool envisaged by Arctus will collect, process and disseminate this data in the form of maps on a web platform that will be intended for the fishing industry, but also for maritime transport so that they can avoid sectors where whales could be found. .

The tool will transmit to its user the probabilities of meeting with one or more whales on its course.

This will help support decision-making and the protective measures that could be taken , specifies Ms. Dufresne.

Christiane Dufresne explains that Merinov’s role, in the Gaspé, will be to bridge the gap between the research team and the fishing industry so that the tool is adapted to the needs of users.

Interactions and pooling

During the three years of the program, researchers from the five selected companies will meet annually to discuss their common objectives.

Beyond each of the individual contracts, we want to have this inter-ministerial, inter-consortium discussion , says Steve Iris.

These discussions will allow, according to the Agency, to coordinate, for example, purchases or to maximize the use of resources.

This is the first investment by the Integrating Service Space Agency which aims to pool industry and research resources in order to meet a national priority, in this case the protection of whales. black from the North Atlantic.

This research will complement what already exists to protect the right whale, such as aerial and maritime surveillance, echo sounders. The results could one day be applicable to the protection of other marine mammals.

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