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Satellites being used to help critically endangered whales

The North Atlantic right whale is critically endangered with only about 336 known to be in existence.

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North Atlantic right whale mother and calf. (Wikimedia Commons)

By Pol Allingham via SWNS

Powerful space satellites that can identify individual whales from their markings have been used for the first time to track a critically endangered species.

Scientists are using the tech to follow the North Atlantic right whale to keep them away from ships and find out where they go in the summer and fall.

The latest satellites are able to capture finer images than Google Earth, meaning conservationists can identify species and even individuals.

Knowing where the whales are at any given time enables fisheries to open or close to avoid the whales and enables ships to bypass them to prevent collisions and deaths of the beasts.

(University of Ottawa/Canadian Space Agency via SWNS)

The team successfully spotted “Ruffian," a Gulf of St. Lawrence North Atlantic right whale who has a large white scar across his back after being severely injured in an entanglement with fishing gear in 2008.

Matus Hodel, a Ph.D. student at the University of Ottawa who ran the study, explained how this can be used to improve conservation efforts.

Mr. Hodul said: “The North Atlantic right whale is critically endangered, with about 336 individual whales accounted for."

“Mortality comes from whales being hit by ships and becoming entangled in fishing gear, so being able to detect and monitor their location is important to conservation efforts.

Writing in the journal Marine Mammal Science researchers said the technology will help them save the majestic creatures from injury and death.

Mr. Hodul said: “This is a new type of satellite imagery which has a spatial resolution of 15 cm, which means each pixel in the image represents 15 cm on the ground.

Matus Hodul of the University of Ottawa is the co-author of the study with Dr. Anders Knudby. (University of Ottawa via SWNS)

"For context, this is much finer than Google Earth satellite images.

“This imagery allows us to find the endangered North Atlantic right whales and confidently differentiate this species from other kinds of whales, such as fin whales and humpbacks.

“In some cases, it also allows us to identify individual whales, in circumstances where a whale has sufficiently distinct markings.

“Interestingly, it is not known where approximately 50% of North Atlantic right whales go in the summer and autumn months.

“Now that we can detect and positively identify right whales using satellite imagery, it will likely have significant implications for conservation efforts.

“We were able to identify the whale named “Ruffian,” who was severely injured in an entanglement with fishing gear in 2008 that left him with a distinct, large white scar on his back.

"In the satellite imagery, we were able to spot a right whale with this exact scar, allowing us to identify the whale as Ruffian.”

From April 2021 to late summer 2022 the University of Ottawa team conducted aerial surveys to locate and photograph the whales.

In the months after the survey they located the whales using satellite imagery.

The Canadian Space Agency, Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and Transport Canda all helped finance the project.

It's a part of the Canadian Space Agency's wider smartWhales initiative to explore ways to detect the North Atlantic right whales using space tech.

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