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The critically endangered North Atlantic right whale historically earned its name because its slow-moving coastal patterns made it the easiest, or right, whale to hunt.

Today, it’s nicknamed the “urban whale” – most notably by New England Aquarium biologists Scott Kraus and Rosalind Rolland in the title of their 2010 book – because ocean commerce off the east coast of Canada and the United States is accidentally killing off the species.

This modern conundrum has been the bane of existence for the school-bus-sized mammal for decades, and while conservation efforts have long been in place and led to a modest comeback in the 1990s, for the past seven years the species has shifted back into decline.

Today there are just 450 right whales left in the world. A record death toll of 18 over the past year including 12 in the Gulf of St. Lawrence last summer, coupled with zero calves this year, has raised the alarm for scientists and government. They’ve now shifted into high gear with several science, technology and management initiatives designed to trace migration patterns, prevent mammal and ship collisions, and contend with what they say is the biggest threat to the right whales: fishing-gear entanglements.

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Carrie Cockburn/The Globe and Mail

“If we’re going to save the right whales from extinction, tech is going to be part of the solution,” said Patrick Ramage, director of marine conservation for the International Fund for Animal Welfare in Cape Cod, Mass.

“It’s going to require a lot more technology and some of the things just coming online offer new hope for this species, but the answers lie not so much in restrictions being placed on the fishing and shipping industries as in unleashing their knowledge and creativity, and enlisting fishermen and mariners in the cause of right whale protection.”

Ropeless fishing, lower breaking strength rope and acoustic underwater monitoring are all on the table right now, but still require testing and investment.

Much of the focus is around developing technology for ropeless fishing. The urgency stems from U.S. federal government numbers that show the vast majority – 82 per cent – of right whale deaths between 2010 and 2014 were caused by fishing-gear entanglements. Scientists say entanglements also degrade right whales’ overall health which contributes to their fertility.

“Ropeless could get us very far down the road to eliminating fishing-gear entanglements from fixed gear,” said Mark Baumgartner, a right whale biologist at the Massachusetts-based Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

“There’s a big problem and we need to be working really hard on technical solutions for this.”

Ropeless fishing differs from typical fixed-gear fishing in that there is no end line (the vertical line of rope in the water) or buoy which sits on the surface and marks the gear. Instead, an acoustic signal is used to retrieve fishing gear through bottom-stowed rope or an inflatable bag.

Ropeless technology is on the minds of Atlantic snow crab fishermen, too. Their industry, worth $593-million, is in jeopardy after it lost Marine Stewardship Council sustainability certification on March 20.

Robert Haché, director general of the Acadian Crabbers Association, said 10 fishermen in northern New Brunswick will begin testing two U.S.-designed ropeless systems next month with $2-million from the federal government.

“We don’t want to raise everybody’s expectations too much in terms of the effectiveness of this ropeless gear at this time,” Mr. Hache said. “It’s still some ways ahead, but we’re quite confident that we will be finding out some stuff that will be quite useful.”

Dominic LeBlanc, the Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, is also interested in ropeless options. “If it’s successful as many think it might be, then we would work with the industry on a longer-term much more widespread use of this technology,” he said.

Apart from testing and sorting out economic feasibility, (ropeless retrofits currently run about $1,000 a pop) one technological hitch is that ropeless still requires a marking system so fishermen’s gear doesn’t overlap. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute is developing a solution to this which Dr. Baumgartner refers to as a trap modem. “This technology should be as simple to use and work as well as a smartphone in your pocket,” he said. “Instead of looking out the window to see where can I put my traps, you’re looking at a screen.”

In the interim, Dr. Baumgartner suggests snow crab fishermen use weaker fishing rope. He points to a 2015 research study published in Conservation Biology that suggests adult right whales can break out of ropes that are less than 1,700-pound breaking strength. The New England Aquarium is testing to see whether this is viable for fixed-gear fisheries.

“It won’t prevent right whales from getting entangled, but the hope is that it will reduce entanglement mortality,” Dr. Baumgartner said.

Scientists say tagging right whales to track their movements is not feasible, but ocean tracking technology could be the next best thing.

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Launch of an underwater glider which records low-frequency calls of right whales and other whales. (Kim Davies/Ocean Tracking Network)handout

Oceanographers at Dalhousie University in Halifax have been plotting the movements of right whales with the use of hydrophones. These listening devices are attached to underwater gliders which travel for months at a time and record the low-frequency upcalls of right whales and other whales within a 10-kilometre radius, transmitting the sound and location back to a lab in near real time.

One goal is to send this real-time data to ships so that crew can take precautions if alerted to a right whale nearby. The federal government is testing this acoustic technology on both coasts this summer in the hope the project can be expanded to monitor right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

“The minute we have reliable evidence that it helps, we’ll be ramping it up very quickly,” said Mr. LeBlanc.

An app called Whale Alert 2.0 is also helping to track right whales’ movements by allowing citizens and mariners to report sightings of live, entangled or dead whales. It also provides mariners with near real-time displays of areas where right whales might be and recommends routes to avoid ship strikes. Mr. Ramage, who designed the app with the U.S. government, says it’s being tweaked to also incorporate data from acoustic monitoring and aerial surveillance.

This week, the Canadian government announced closures of the snow crab fishery in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence, adding that it will be increasing aerial surveillance in the Gulf and, for the first time, using thermal technology to plot right whales’ locations in foggy or bad weather.

“There will be many more closures and openings of different parts of the fishing zone over the course of this season because we’re going to have what we hope is more reliable and more comprehensive data based on the real-time location of the whales,” Mr. LeBlanc said.

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Findlay Hilchie, left, Ross Arsenault and Aaron Stevenson in Eastern Passage, N.S. They are masters of technology, entrepreneurship and innovation students at Saint Mary's University in Halifax. Along with student Maxwell Poole, they are developing a ropeless fishing design to save the right whales from fishing-gear entanglements. (Scott Munn/The Globe and Mail)Scott Munn

A modern-day MOBI

Some snow crab fishermen will begin testing a new ropeless fishing model designed by four Halifax master students in May.

Aaron Stevenson, Ross Arsenault, Findlay Hilchie and Maxwell Poole hope their Modular Ocean Based Instrument (MOBI) will be the next wave of fishing gear that uses electronic signals to retrieve and mark crab and lobster traps in the ocean.

Right now, crab fishing ropes run along the ocean surface and to the ocean floor, which puts right whales and other marine mammals at risk of becoming entangled.

The MOBI system uses a bottom stowed rope design with a buoy attached to the crab trap. The buoy has an acoustic receiver which allows fishermen to use an electronic signal to pull their trap to the ocean surface.

“It minimizes the amount of time the rope is in the water which greatly reduces the risk of whale entanglement,” said Mr. Stevenson, who along with Mr. Arsenault and Mr. Hilchie is completing a master of technology, entrepreneurship and innovation at Saint Mary’s University. (Mr. Poole is doing a master of applied health sciences.)

The students haven’t figured out a price point for the MOBI yet but say they hope to keep it under $1,000 a unit. Crab fishermen usually have 150 crab traps per licence while lobster fishermen have 300.

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An ultrasonic sensor, part of a ropeless fishing prototype that will be tested by local fishermen in May. (Scott Munn/The Globe and Mail)Scott Munn

Their goal is to have MOBI on the market next spring.

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