Digby tidal energy company working on apps, training observers to track whales

Jonathan
Jonathan Riley
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A humpback in the Bay of Fundy off Brier Island.

Fundy Tidal wants to know where the whales are – and more importantly, they want to know how to detect where the whales, and other marine life, are.

The local company, with tidal electricity projects planned for Grand Passage, Petit Passage and Digby Neck, has received $20,000 in funding from the Nova Scotia Offshore Energy Research Association to adapt two smartphone apps for use in and around the local passages.

The apps will allow a range of different people to send whale and other marine life sightings to an online database.

Greg Trowse, chief technology officer with Fundy Tidal, says they need to learn about how marine mammals will react to tidal turbines and these apps will be the first step in tracking them.

“We don’t know if they’ll exhibit avoidance—staying away from the turbines, or evasion—turning away closer to the turbines, and we’ll be using a variety of methods to study that,” he said.

One method will involve observers and the apps. Anyone in the general public who happens to see a whale, dolphin, turtle, shark, or other marine life in the passages, will be able to use Whale Alert to send information about their sighting to the database.

Whale tour operators and other observers trained on the apps will be able to use Spotter Pro.

The big difference between the two apps is that Spotter Pro also records the observers’ effort; that is how long and where they looked for marine mammals, which is important data for scientific studies.

Working with the Canadian Whale Institute, they have hired Conserve.iO to take the apps, set up for use on the west coast of North America, and adapt them for use in the Bay of Fundy.

Conserve.iO will also host database servers, software, and on-line mapping.

Both apps will be available for free.

Observations will be uploaded to a common online database, and users will be able to assess species composition, distribution, abundance and seasonality. The program will enhance efforts currently underway by local whale and seabird tour operators.

Fundy Tidal’s marine life monitoring system will also use passive and active acoustic systems and optical cameras.

Trowse says they are working on adapting that technology too for use in the passages.

“The best analogy is a microphone in the wind,” he said. “The passages are noisy and we’re we’re working with Nova Scotian companies and researchers to develop technology to work down there.”

He says that will work similarly to how cellphones already listen with two sensors—one picks up your voice and another picks up ambient noise like the wind and tries to clean that up from the signal that gets sent out.

Fundy Tidal will be hiring part-time observers to work certain periods this summer and fall as well as relying on information coming in from the apps.

“We want to be able to compare sightings by observers and the information our systems are picking up in the water,” he said. “That will help us evaluate the technology.

He calls this a ‘look and listen’ approach that will help assess potential effects of tidal energy development on marine life.

“Fundy Tidal is excited about this step forward in environmental monitoring and community engagement,” says Trowse. “In marine energy development it’s important to remember that the site, the sea, and the community are inseparable. This advancement utilizes the connection between the community and the sea to assist in marine life monitoring, will help reduce uncertainty in marine life interactions with tidal energy developments, and creates local employment. It’s a win, win, win advancement, and Fundy Tidal appreciates the continued support provided by our provincial government through OERA.”

Some of the OERA funding will be used to pay two marine biologists.

Chloe Malinka, a former Dalhousie Marine Biology student, currently studying at the Sea Mammal Research Unit at the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland, will provide data review, interpretation, and database management.

Dr. Moira Brown, a senior scientist at the CWI in New Brunswick, will assist with marine life monitoring program development and oversight, including marine observer training.

Dr. Brown and Trowse will host a free marine observer training session in Freeport, NS on Monday and Tuesday, June 16 and 17.

The training isn't mandatory to participate in the program, but data from those who attend or have a professional background in marine life observation will be most valued in the database. Anyone interested in participating in the volunteer program is encouraged to attend, as is anyone interested in working as observers for Fundy Tidal.

Dr. Brown will also hold a Whale Emergency Network information session following the observer training on the afternoon of June 17. This session will provide information for reporting entangled whales and whales in distress, and discuss stand-by support measures that can be taken while the response team is on route.

Trowse will be talking about all this and more, including turbine site selection at a public meeting at the Westport Community Hall at 7:15 PM on Thursday, June 5.

[More information on that meeting -Where should the turbines go?, May 2, 2014]

More information at fundytidal.com or email info@fundytidal.com to register for the training session.

jriley@digbycourier.ca

Organizations: Grand Passage, Nova Scotia Offshore Energy Research Association, Canadian Whale Institute University of Saint Andrews

Geographic location: Nova Scotian, North America, Bay of Fundy Scotland New Brunswick Freeport

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