Inside Logistics

Feds fund research to help prevent killer whale collisions

Two-year research project at Simon Fraser University (SFU) will use AI to enable near real-time tracking of the whales


December 14, 2020
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OTTAWA – The federal government has funded a two-year research project at Simon Fraser University (SFU) in Vancouver to improve the ability automatically detect killer whale sounds and distinguish them from other underwater sounds.

Few species have captured Canadians’ hearts and minds as strongly as the endangered Southern Resident killer whale. Known for their beauty, intelligence, and cultural significance, these creatures are facing unprecedented stressors directly related to human activities. With only 74 individuals remaining, it has never been more critical to understand the threats affecting these iconic mammals and their environment.

The research project is being granted $568,179 under the Oceans Protection Plan (OPP) – Whale Detection and Collision Avoidance Initiative which aims to develop and test technologies to detect the presence of whales in near real-time. The project complements another SFU research project, also federally funded under the OPP – Whale Detection and Collision Avoidance Initiative, which is developing a tool that can predict the direction of movement of Southern Resident killer whales in near real-time. The ability to capture up-to-date information on whale presence could help alert mariners of the presence of whales in a particular area, reducing the risk of collisions.

Endangered whales

Protecting Canada’s endangered whales is a priority for the Government of Canada. Key threats affecting the survival and recovery of Southern Resident killer whales include reduced prey availability, contaminants, as well as physical and acoustic disturbance from vessels. The ability to detect the presence of Southern Resident killer whales in near real-time and predict their direction of movement is critical to developing evidence-based solutions to manage and mitigate these threats.

“The School of Environmental Science at Simon Fraser University thanks Fisheries and Oceans Canada for their generous support to undertake this important conservation work on an endangered whale population,” said Jeremy Venditti, director and professor, School of Environmental Science, Simon Fraser University.

“The project, led by Dr. Ruth Joy, will use state-of-the-art techniques from the field of Artificial Intelligence to develop a deep neural-network classifier that can discriminate between different whale species and other underwater sounds. The funding supports essential marine research within this whale’s critical habitat, ensuring these waterways continue to provide habitat for wildlife and the coastal communities that depend on the Salish Sea.”

In June 2018, the Government of Canada announced the $167.4 million Whales Initiative to protect and support the recovery of the Southern Resident killer whale, the North Atlantic right whale, and the St. Lawrence Estuary beluga.