Orcas target of new technology in a bid to protect marine mammals

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Technology new tool to protect marine mammals as the Canadian Coast Guard monitors ship traffic to keep vessels and whales apart.

Transient orcas are growing in numbers along BC’s west coast, but one concern is the growing number of vessels in BC’s waters and the risk they pose to marine mammals such as the endangered southern resident killer whale population.

That’s why the Canadian Coast Guard is throwing technology behind an effort to better protect the whales and other cetaceans from ship traffic and vessel strikes, according to Scott Rear, Regional Program Specialist, Marine Communications and Traffic Services Centre, Canadian Coast Guard.

“We’re looking at some existing technologies such as surface radar, and such as hydrophone networks that are being operated by other government departments,” Rear said.

For 24-hours a day, a Coast Guard employee monitors all ship traffic on the coast and tracks all marine mammal movements.

“We have a Transport Canada aircraft flying over, say, Active Pass and they notice killer whales in there. They would notify the marine mammal desk as soon as possible of the presence of those animals. they try to give them species, number of animals, direction of travel and behaviour,” Rear stated.

One of the greatest dangers to marine mammals are ship strikes.

Larger whales like humpbacks can’t maneuver in the water as easily as orcas and are more vulnerable.

In 2019, a ferry struck and killed a young humpback whale in Elliot Bay near Seattle.

Josh McInnes is a marine mammal researcher with Juan de Fuca Marine Research.

He said ship strikes are a significant concern.

“I think it’s great work. I think it’s important. Ship strikes are one of the major causes of whale mortality in pretty much on earth, actually,” McInnes said.

McInnes says there are more whales in the region resulting in potentially more deadly encounters.  “A lot of the populations are doing quite well. Humpback whales have really rebounded. Rebounding is also an issue in that there are more whales in the area, increasing the chances of getting hit by a ship.”

The Centre also monitors sanctuary areas where boats are banned and its surveillance has already resulted in a number of fines to commercial operators.

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