R&D focused on underwater vessel noise key to protecting Canada's whales

Lindsay Borthwick
January 6, 2021

A new marine acoustic research station near Rimouski, Quebec — a first of its kind in Eastern Canada — has been funded by Transport Canada to address a major threat to the St. Lawrence Estuary’s marine mammals: underwater vessel noise.

It is the latest in a string of federal investments through the Quiet Vessel Initiative, a 5-year, $26-million national program to advance research and development and deployment (RD&D) of quiet vessel solutions.

The $2.5-million investment brings the total funding for establishing and operating the Marine Acoustic Research Station (MARS) — a joint venture between the Institut des sciences de la mer de Rimouski (ISMER) of the Université du Québec à Rimouski, Innovation Maritime, Multi-Électronique and OpDAQ Systèmes, and several Canadian shipping companies — to $5.7 million. Funding also comes from Quebec’s Ministère de l’Économie et de l'Innovation ($1.5 million) and private-sector partners, who are also making in-kind contributions. 

“The goal of the project is to better understand vessel noise and where it's coming from,” said ISMER’s director, Dr. Guillaume St-Onge (PhD), in an interview with Research Money. He is co-director of MARS with Sylvain Lafrance, Executive Director of Innovation Maritime, an applied research institute affiliated with Rimouski College. “The ship owners involved in the project really want to reduce their acoustic imprint on the environment given that the St. Lawrence Estuary is a place where we have a lot of marine mammals, including the very charismatic beluga.”

In an interview, Ryan Klomp, Director of Multi-Modal Technology Development Research & Testing at Transport Canada, stressed that measuring and mitigating underwater noise is complex, requiring multidisciplinary research and the cooperation of diverse stakeholders. MARS is set up to achieve that, he said, and "to provide the government of Canada with unique and critical insights into underwater noise generated by all types of vessels."

Furthermore, MARS will help to build much-needed capacity in marine acoustics and quiet vessel technology. "They are training the next generation of people who understand underwater noise," Klomp said. "If we’re going to tackle this issue in a meaningful way, we need folks who understand vessel design and operation and the marine industry to come together with the acousticians and marine mammal biologists to have meaningful discussions about reducing noise."

Deep listening

MARS will be located at a site near Rimouski where the Laurentian Channel plunges to a depth of approximately 350 metres. Four moorings will be anchored to the seabed in a rectangular pattern and outfitted with underwater noise recorders, or hydrophones, to listen to the sounds of commercial shipping vessels and the ambient noise of the estuary. 

Vessels will deviate slightly from their shipping lanes to enter MARS, where the four hydrophones will simultaneously capture the underwater acoustic signals radiating from the vessels. At the same time, instruments installed onboard will measure vessel sound and vibration. These signals will be combined to create an acoustic imprint—in the water and out—to help ship owners and Transport Canada understand the noise created by different types of vessels and devise ways to reduce it. In the future, MARS can also be used to test possible noise-mitigation strategies.

Initially, research will focus on vessels owned by four major Canadian shipping companies: Canada Steamship Lines, Algoma Central Corporation, Fednav and Transports Desgagnés. However, the goal is to expand to other companies once the station is installed, said St-Onge.  

A similar network of hydrophones is operating near the Port of Vancouver as part of a research effort to protect the endangered Southern Resident killer whale. But data from the West coast cannot be readily applied to St. Lawrence because sound propagates differently in each location. The hydrophones in the Laurentian Channel will be deeper than those in the Pacific Ocean near Vancouver; and other environmental conditions, including topography, salinity, water temperature, tides and currents, also affect the vessel noise signals picked up at a measurement site.

“This is something that needs to be done in Eastern Canada,” said St-Onge. 

Quiet vessels, quieter waters

Underwater noise due to oil and gas exploration, military activity, port operations, shipping and tourism has increased dramatically over the past 50 years and is now recognized as a global environmental issue. It poses a major threat to marine mammals because it can interfere with their ability to navigate, communicate and locate food. The International Maritime Organization, governments, universities, private industry and non-profits are rallying to better understand the impacts on marine life of underwater noise from human sources.

For example, in October, Fisheries and Oceans Canada opened public consultations on an Ocean Noise Strategy for Canada, which will include further scientific research and technology development to reduce human-induced underwater noise. Consultations close this month—and initial recommendations will be released in summer 2021.

In March 2020, Fisheries and Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, under the Species at Risk Act, also released an action plan to reduce the impact of underwater noise on beluga whales, North Atlantic right whales and two other at-risk species in the St. Lawrence Estuary.

In recent years, the North Atlantic right whale population has dropped precipitously. Warmer waters have pushed the whale's food source further north during summer, into busy marine shipping routes, including the Gulf of St. Lawrence. In the Gulf and westward lies the critical habitat of the St. Lawrence Estuary beluga, a population that is also in decline. As the whales’ numbers fall, marine traffic along the St. Lawrence Seaway is rising, and proposed industrial projects, such as a pipeline and LNG terminal at the Port of Saguenay, could increase tanker traffic further, especially in the beluga’s range. 

Transport Canada launched the Quiet Vessel Initiative in 2019 to test technologies, vessel designs, retrofit and operating procedures to reduce vessel noise and mitigate its effects on the marine environment. It is investing in research to develop new technologies, measurement and modelling tools, and capacity building. 

"In the military, there's a long history of advanced research into quiet vessel technologies, for obvious reasons," said Klomp. "When it comes to commercial vessels and recreational crafts, we're at a much earlier stage in terms of science and technology, so a significant amount of work still needs to be done."

Transport Canada's support for quiet vessel research goes beyond marine acoustics. It includes propeller design, electrification, hull coatings, as well as operation and maintenance practices. For example, Glas Ocean Electric developed a prototype propulsion system for a small vessel that can operate in diesel or electric mode, with financial support from Transport Canada’s Innovation Centre. Another Canadian company is developing next-generation hull coatings, such as graphene, that could reduce drag and biofouling.

"Broadly speaking, industry is quite keen to tackle the issue, but they need the RD&D to support their investments. Many of these vessels are in the water for 20, 30 or 40 years. So we really want to make sure that the technology we're investing in today is the best and most optimal," said Klomp.

"That's where projects like MARS come in. In order to make recommendations to industry, you need a lot of good quality scientific evidence," he said.



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