North Atlantic right whale and oil spill impact mission

Map: Map of the 2019 North Atlantic right whale and Oil Spill Impact Mission

The main focus of the work will extend through the southwestern Gulf of St. Lawrence.

The mission

From August 6 to September 3, 2019, Fisheries and Oceans Canada will be carrying out its North Atlantic right whale and Oil Spill Impact Mission. The work is focused on collecting details of the ecology and physiology of North Atlantic right whales, factors affecting the distribution of their prey (mainly copepods, a small crustacean), and the potential impact to habitats through ship-based oil spills.

The Gulf of St. Lawrence is an important summer habitat for the North Atlantic right whale, but is also an active shipping and fishing area. This mission is required to better understand the population, the risks associated with exposure to noise, vessel collisions, and entanglement, as well as the potential impacts of marine oil spills within their habitat.

Mission objectives

This mission seeks to collect information on North Atlantic right whales (NARW) and their habitat and prey in the Gulf of St. Lawrence to better protect them. Specific research objectives include:

  1. Sample NARW: The health of whales will be monitored by using drone overflights to assess body condition and, when possible, measure hormonal status. Small boats will be used to approach the whales and collect samples of fecal material or use extraction tools to biopsy tissues for hormones, DNA or contaminants analysis.
  2. Assess NARW exposure to noise and to collision and entanglement risks: Small boats will be used to attach instruments to the whales to study their movement and diving patterns as well as their exposure and reaction to noise from vessel traffic.
  3. Study of copepod aggregation: Copepods are small crustaceans that NARW prey upon. Processes that impact copepod distribution, such as transport by currents and copepod vertical migration, will be studied to advance our knowledge of North Atlantic right whale habitat use. Copepod distributions will be mapped to help understand where high concentrations of prey develop.
  4. Ship-based oil spill characterization: Water samples will be collected to provide the data needed to predict where oil will go and potential impacts in the event of a ship-based oil spill. The speed at which bacteria that naturally occurs in the area can break down oil by carrying out a series of experiments on board the ship will also be measured.
  5. Microplastics survey: Microplastics are contaminants that have the potential to degrade habitat quality. Water samples will be collected to find out how much and what type of microplastics are found in the study area.

The area

To a large extent, the area of study will be driven by reported North Atlantic right whales sightings. Specific stations for sampling copepods or carrying out oil effects studies include areas that have been previously sampled, with adjustments made based on whale observations.

The oil spill work will extend from the St. Lawrence Estuary through the southwestern Gulf of St. Lawrence. A small number of sampling stations will be within the estuary, with the main surveying and sampling occurring in the southern Gulf near Miscou Island or the Gaspé Peninsula.

The team

Alice Ortmann
Chief Scientist
Bedford Institute of Oceanography, Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Whale Health and behavior

Andrew Wright
Lead scientist
Bedford Institute of Oceanography, Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Hilary Moors-Murphy
Research scientist
Bedford Institute of Oceanography, Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Gabrielle Macklin
Marine mammal observer
Bedford Institute of Oceanography, Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Michael Williamson
Field technician
Institute of Zoology, King’s College London

Melanie White
Marine mammal observer
Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute

Clair Evers
Whale biologist
Bedford Institute of Oceanography, Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Liam Olders
Drone Pilot
Liam Olders Aerial

Pam Emery
Whale science technician
Bedford Institute of Oceanography, Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Whale Ecology and tagging

Veronique Lesage
Lead scientist
Maurice Lamontagne Institute Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Russ Andrews
Research scientist
University of Alaska, Fairbanks

Copepod aggregation

Catherine Johnson
Lead scientist, Copepod aggregation
Bedford Institute of Oceanography, Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Marc Ringuette
Aquatic Science Biologist
Bedford Institute of Oceanography, Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Oil spill fate and behaviour

Alice Ortmann
Chief scientist, Oil spill fate and behaviour
Bedford Institute of Oceanography, Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Susan Cobanli
Biologist
Bedford Institute of Oceanography, Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Gary Wohlgeshaffen
Aquatic technician
Bedford Institute of Oceanography, Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Brian Robinson
Aquatic science chemist
Bedford Institute of Oceanography, Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Jennifer Mason
Aquatic technician
Bedford Institute of Oceanography, Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Caroline Leherbauer
Co-op student
Dalhousie University

Camilla Ryther
Student
Dalhousie University

The research and tools

The science crew will use a variety of research methods and tools to meet their research objectives.

Marine mammals will be monitored and photographed using recording devices such as drones. When possible, scientists will collect vapor cloud samples (blow hole spray) using drones and collect tissue samples using extraction tools. Suction-cup tags will be used to track animal movements and exposure to noise. Satellite transmitters will be attached to the animals to obtain longer-term information on their use of different depths to better assess their exposure to collision and entanglement risks.

Copepods will be identified using plankton nets, a Video Plankton Recorder, and a hull-mounted scientific echo sounder then mapped to show their relative distribution. Physical conditions in their local environment will be measured with a CTD (conductivity, temperature, depth sensor) and Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler.

The area will be surveyed using a CTD/Rosette system to sample different depths in the water column to measure chemical and biological properties including the amount of oil and the number and types of microbes. The samples collected will enable the science crew to predict potential oil spill behaviour.

The team will also use the CTD/Rosette system to collect water samples and filter the water to quantify and characterize microplastics. Microplastics are microscopic plastic contaminants that have the potential to degrade habitat quality.

Results

North Atlantic right whale sightings will be reported to Whale Map 1-2 days after the initial sighting. Whale Map is an online platform used to communicate the latest right whale observations and survey results to scientific, regulatory and industrial sectors to inform more effective, dynamic planning of research and conservation activities.

All other research results will be shared in the months following the mission once the samples and data collected have been analyzed.

Photo gallery

Related information

Date modified: