North Atlantic right whale monitoring and surveillance activities

COVID-19 Update: Surveillance and monitoring of North Atlantic right whales is considered a critical service and will continue in a way that adheres to guidance provided by public health authorities.

North Atlantic right whales

We monitor North Atlantic right whales to better understand where they go and what they do while in our waters. This information informs the measures we take to protect this endangered species. We do this work in collaboration with other government departments and non-governmental organizations.

For the most up-to-date information on North Atlantic right whale sightings and detections, visit WhaleMap. It is an interactive map that integrates and displays whale sightings and acoustic detections data from multiple sources in Atlantic Canada and Quebec onto a single online platform.

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Our monitoring and surveillance activities

In some areas of the Northwest Atlantic Ocean, North Atlantic right whales have been shown to spend over 80% of their time underwater, and can be highly mobile. They are known to travel up to 50 kilometres in one day in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. This can make it difficult to observe the whales from the air or on the water. Our ability to visually detect them depends on their:

Similarly, our ability to acoustically detect right whales depends on:

We monitor and detect right whales using:

Confirmed visual or acoustic detections of right whales trigger the 2020 North Atlantic right whales management measures.

Aerial surveillance

Aerial surveillance is our primary means for detecting right whales in Atlantic Canada and Quebec. In the aircraft, our marine mammal observers look for whales that are at the surface of the water. If right whales are observed, the marine mammal observer:

The location and time of each sighting are uploaded to WhaleMap and the sighting triggers the management measures.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada has multiple aircraft that fly multiple times a week, weather permitting, over Atlantic Canadian waters, including over the Gulf of St. Lawrence in search of North Atlantic right whales.

The objectives of the flights are to:

Aircraft from Transport Canada’s National Aerial Surveillance Program monitor designated shipping zones and certain areas of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

At-sea surveillance

At-sea surveillance is observing right whales from a vessel. Our marine mammal observers may be aboard Canadian Coast Guard vessels. When they are, they visually scan the water in a predetermined way to look for whales that are at the surface of the water. They confirm the species of whales and number of individuals with binoculars as necessary. They follow the same steps as during aerial surveillance.

Acoustic technology

Hydrophones are underwater microphones that can be used to detect whale calls 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Acoustic recorders equipped with hydrophones can be attached to the sea floor, mounted onto surface buoys, deployed from a vessel or mounted onto mobile gliders.

Depending on ocean conditions, hydrophones can detect the presence of whales that are tens of kilometers away. Currently, they cannot provide the exact location, number of whales or differentiate one whale call from another. They can only tell us that there is at least one whale calling within the detection range of the hydrophone.

We use both archival and near real-time acoustic recorders equipped with hydrophones to detect right whales. Archival recorders listen and record whale calls for several months before being retrieved and analyzed. This helps us to better understand their distribution throughout the year in Canadian waters. Near-real time recorders transmit right whale detections over satellite or cellular tower system to marine mammal experts for validation in near real-time.

Near real-time acoustic technology: Viking buoys

Viking buoys are scientific buoys equipped with sensors that collect information on ocean and weather conditions. This information helps to validate and interpret data from satellites and enables us to follow oceanographic conditions in near real-time.

Our researchers have incorporated hydrophones onto six Viking buoys in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. These hydrophones are now transmitting right whale calls in near real-time to a team of marine mammal acoustic experts for validation. Detections are displayed on the St. Lawrence Global Observatory Viking Buoy Detection Portal and WhaleMap. This is the first year near real-time acoustic detections are triggering North Atlantic right whale management measures.

Near real-time acoustic technology: Gliders

Gliders are autonomous, underwater vehicles equipped with sensors to monitor and collect information on ocean conditions. They can travel long periods of time and into less accessible areas of the ocean.

The Department and Transport Canada have partnered with the University of New Brunswick and Dalhousie University to help fund the deployment of gliders equipped with hydrophones in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Laurentian Channel, Bay of Fundy and Roseway Basin to detect right whales. As with Viking buoys, this is the first year that glider detections will trigger the North Atlantic right whale management measures.

Our research activities

We survey and monitor right whales to better understand their distribution, movements, behaviours and environmental stressors that are affecting them. All this research informs how we protect them with fisheries and shipping management measures and the strategies we implement to help their recovery as an endangered species. Scientific work on identification, counting of individual right whales, as well as necropsies, are done by our partners.

We provide science advice on North Atlantic right whale issues, such as timing of presence and their distribution in Canadian waters. This helps inform our fishery management measures, species recovery measures, and mitigation strategies for environmental stressors.

Science advice and research

Latest right whale observations

Environmental stressors

Fishery management measures

Species information and recovery measures

Review for recovery potential and effectiveness

Identifying and counting North Atlantic right whales

When a North Atlantic right whale is sighted in Canadian waters by one of our marine mammal observers, whether by air or at sea, they take photos of its features and markings whenever possible. The photos are sent for identification to the New England Aquarium, as it maintains the North Atlantic right whale catalogue.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration personnel fly over our waters to identify as many different individual whales as possible, to estimate the total number of animals that have visited Canada in a season. This information informs the North Atlantic right whale database managed by the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium.

Necropsies

When a North Atlantic right whale death is reported, steps are taken to determine if a necropsy is warranted and if the carcass can be towed to shore for analysis. Tagging the carcass helps to track where the carcass is drifting and informs where to find it later for towing or sampling purposes. Decisions to tag a carcass or conduct a necropsy depend on factors such as:

We work closely with marine mammal response partners and veterinarians from the University of Prince Edward Island and the Université de Montréal (in French only) to conduct necropsies and/or other sampling methods. Marine mammal necropsies are the primary method for researchers to inspect the carcass and collect samples to analyze and determine how and why the whale died. The information contributes to our overall understanding of the species and the threats affecting it. This helps to informs how we can protect them.