Computer Program Helps Boats Avoid Deadly Whale Collisions
Researchers at the University of Montreal have designed a computer program that will help protect whales in the St. Lawrence Estuary, a designated marine park located in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Each year, over 6000 ocean vessels and 10,000 whale watching tours travel through the park boundaries, exposing whales to noise, disrupting their feeding habits and putting them at risk for deadly collisions.
The St. Lawrence Estuary is one of the largest estuaries in the world, discharging about 12 million litres of water per second. In 1998, the region was given the status of marine park to protect its exceptional biodiversity. The park is home to 54 vertebrate species and 248 invertebrate species, including fish, birds, whales and seals.
The Estuary’s surface waters are rich with nutrients all summer long and upwellings of cold, deep water promote the formation of forage species like krill and capelin. Every year, whales migrate to the area to feed and build up energy for the breeding season:
But in addition to being an important habitat for both resident and migratory whales (as well as many species of birds, fish and marine mammals), the St. Lawrence River system is also one of the busiest waterways in North America.
There’s no official data on how many whales are actually killed—most vessels aren’t even aware they’ve hit a whale because carcasses tend to sink—but the situation is so serious that Parks Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada requested something be done about it.
Researchers at the University of Montreal stepped up to the plate, creating a computer program with the objective of reducing collisions with whales while taking into account the impact on industry and marine transportation. Researchers mapped the estuary and simulated the presence and movements of the five species of whale—fin, beluga, humpback, minke and blue—and three types of boats—excursion, recreation and cargo—while factoring in different environmental conditions and human behaviors.
Safer routes aren’t straightforward—while a detoured cargo ship avoids the marine park, it will also come closer to the beluga whales that prefer to swim in the centre of the river. But the software will help the government better weigh the economic and ecological repercussions of different policy decisions concerning the conservation of the whales’ fragile habitat.
In the meantime, researchers suggested reducing boating speed limits from 25 knots—a fatal collision speed for whales—to a much safer 10 knots.