Solutions and Innovations

Monitoring Whales from Space: Canada’s Mission to Save North Atlantic Right Whales

A North Atlantic right whale swimming off Provincetown, MA. Photo credit: Peter Flood.

Less than 400 North Atlantic right whales remain in the world. While the U.S. and Canada have taken certain steps to protect this critically endangered species, Canada is the first to fund an innovative solution that monitors right whales in a way that can provide more tailored protections on the water.

What happened? 

On Tuesday, the Government of Canada awarded $5.3 million (CAD) in federal funds to five Canadian companies to advance solutions to predict right whale movement—from space! The project, known as smartWhales, falls under the umbrella of smartEarth, a Canadian Space Agency funding initiative that supports the development of applications that use satellite data to solve challenges on Earth.

Projects funded through smartWhales have two goals: (1) detect and monitor right whales and (2) predict and model right whale behavior and movement in their habitat.

How does it work? 

The Canadian companies awarded funds are Hatfield Consultants, Global Spatial Technology Solutions, Fluvial Systems Research, Arctus, and WSP Canada. Over the next three years, these five companies will develop systems that detect North Atlantic right whales through deep-learning algorithms, artificial intelligence, and high-resolution satellite imagery. For instance, WSP Canada is developing technology that will “provide near-real-time information about the forecasted presence of [North Atlantic right whales] and potential risks of encountering a vessel.”

Why is it important? 

The Canadian government can use the information gleaned from satellite technology to better protect right whales in Canadian waters. For example, satellite technology allows for real-time tracking of the whales, which could prevent vessel strikes and fishing gear entanglements—the leading causes of right whale deaths. It’s a win-win according to Bernadette Jordan, the Minister of Fisheries, Oceans, and the Canadian Coast Guard, who stated, “By working together, we can drive growth in our ocean economy while setting these whales on a path to recovery.”

We applaud Canada for taking the lead on harnessing space solutions to protect North Atlantic right whales, and we urge the U.S. government to immediately increase funding for monitoring this critically endangered species to help bring it back from the brink of extinction.

Kristyn Ostanek is a legal intern for Conservation Law Foundation. 


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