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The blowhole of a North Atlantic right whale is seen from the research vessel Shearwater's upper deck off shore from Provincetown, Mass., in Cape Cod Bay.

Stephan Savoia/The Canadian Press

Sound-seeking gliders will cruise the habitats of North Atlantic right whales in a bid to capture their calls and learn more about how noises in the ocean may affect the health of the endangered species.

The federal government said Friday it will spend $26.6 million on research to help better understand noise pressures on marine mammals, including right whales, southern resident killer whales and St. Lawrence Estuary belugas, amongst others.

Scientists said the funding will help create a fuller picture of the ecosystem where the whales migrate and what effect sounds have on their stress levels, as well as their ability to feed and mate.

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“It’s really important to do the research, because if you don’t know where the right whales are, you can’t protect them,” Andrew Wright, a marine biologist at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography, said at the announcement in Halifax.

“We haven’t yet gotten to the point where we understand what effect (sound) has on the right whales and other marine mammals, so this is applying new technologies to answer some of these questions.”

Darren Fisher, a Halifax-area MP, made the announcement at Halifax’s Bedford Institute of Oceanography, where much of the research will be carried out.

The Fisheries Department said the research will help identify how to reduce the impacts of noise stressors on whales and other marine species.

“Establishing baseline data of environmental noise is important in understanding and quantifying noise levels that human activities are contributing to our oceans,” said Fisher.

“Underwater noise, collisions with ships and other disturbances, scarcity of food and contaminants all threaten their very existence.”

The department said the initial focus will be to better understand the effects of shipping-related noise on marine mammals.

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As part of the initiative, Dalhousie University will receive $635,000 to support its monitoring of the North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Roseway Basin, off southern Nova Scotia. It will also develop an ocean noise model capable of predicting the natural or normal underwater noise levels in waters inhabited by the whales.

The school will deploy gliders that use underwater microphones to detect the presence of the whales and how they move through the areas.

Clair Evers, a marine mammal biologist with the Fisheries Department, played recordings of whales with one sound — referred to as an up call — reminiscent of a plaintive horn, while another sounded like a gun firing.

She said scientists are still trying to decipher the meaning of the calls.

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