Data from space could help protect endangered North Atlantic right whale

From: Canadian Space Agency

January 26, 2021 – Longueuil, Quebec

Satellites provide critical data that helps us monitor and protect our planet – including our ecosystems and wildlife. The Government of Canada is turning to the space sector to harness this unique data to further protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

Under the smartWhales initiative, the Government of Canada is investing $5.3 million in five companies to advance innovative solutions that could enhance Canada’s ability to detect and monitor the presence of these whales in Canadian waters and predict their movements. smartWhales is another example of actions the Government of Canada is taking to try to reduce the risk of right whale entanglement in fishing gear and collisions with vessels – the two main threats they face.

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) is leading smartWhales in collaboration with Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Transport Canada. It is the first federal interdepartmental initiative that funds research and development projects that leverage satellite data to help protect the North Atlantic right whale. It also supports Canada’s Space Strategy, which seeks to ensure Canada’s leadership in acquiring and using space-based data to support science excellence and economic benefits.

Over the next three years, the five selected projects will mobilize more than 80 highly qualified individuals, and support Canada’s economic recovery. To fuel innovation and share knowledge and expertise, each company has built a team of experts, including collaborators from academia and non-governmental organizations, to carry out their projects.

The funded projects are:

Lead companyCollaboratorsProjectContract value
Stream 1: Detection and monitoring
Hatfield Consultants Ltd.
  • University of New Brunswick
  • Dalhousie University
  • Duke University
  • AltaML
  • Canadian Wildlife Federation
Develop a system that will detect North Atlantic right whales using deep-learning algorithms, high-resolution satellite imagery, automation, and geoscience computing.$1,199,520
Global Spatial Technology Solutions Inc. (GSTS)
  • Dalhousie University
  • Ocean Frontier Institute (OFI)
  • DeepSense
  • British Antarctic Survey
  • Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences
Develop a system that will detect North Atlantic right whales using machine learning and high-resolution satellite imagery hosted on the artificial intelligence-based maritime management platform, OCIANA™.$1,102,417
Fluvial Systems Research Inc. (FSR)
  • University of Ottawa
  • Canadian Whale Institute
Develop a system that will monitor North Atlantic right whales and their habitat using high-resolution satellite imagery.$1,176,682
Stream 2: Prediction and modelling
Arctus Inc.
  • Takuvik (Laval University)
  • Hatfield Consultants
  • Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life, New England Aquarium
  • M – Expertise Marine
  • Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences
  • Merinov
Develop a modelling system to help predict the presence of North Atlantic right whales in the Northwest Atlantic shelf, including the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Gulf of Maine.$900,000
WSP Canada Inc.
  • DHI Water & Environment
  • Canadian Whale Institute
  • Dalhousie University
  • Institut des sciences de la mer de Rimouski
Develop a system that will provide near-real-time information about the forecasted presence of North Atlantic right whales and potential risks of encountering a vessel.$899,582


“Satellite data is a critical and powerful tool bringing innovative solutions to the many challenges on Earth. By bringing together the top Canadian minds and satellite data, the smartWhales initiative will explore new techniques to further detect, monitor, and ultimately protect the North Atlantic right whale in Canadian waters.”

The Honourable François-Philippe Champagne, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry

“The North Atlantic right whale is endangered and we must take every step possible to save them. The smartWhales initiative is investing in innovative companies and projects that will enhance our ability to detect and monitor these whales, helping protect them against vessel collisions and fishing gear entanglements in our waters. By working together, we can drive growth in our ocean economy while setting these whales on a path to recovery.”

The Honourable Bernadette Jordan, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard

“Our government continues to invest in the protection of the endangered North Atlantic right whale. With the smartWhales initiative, we are supporting the development of new technologies to better inform our vessel traffic management measures that will further reduce the risk of vessel collisions and protect this endangered, iconic species. I look forward to seeing how the use of satellite data will safeguard our country’s ecosystems and wildlife.”

The Honourable Omar Alghabra, Minister of Transport

Quick facts

  • smartWhales falls under smartEarth, a CSA funding initiative that supports Canadian organizations in developing applications that use satellite data to solve challenges on Earth.

  • Out of the total $5.3 million in funding provided under smartWhales, $4.1 million is from the Canadian Space Agency and $1.2 million from Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

  • The North Atlantic right whale is endangered; there are approximately 366 remaining in the world. The Government of Canada is taking action to better protect them, and has introduced a series of measures and initiatives in Atlantic Canada and Quebec which focus on preventing collisions with vessels and entanglement in fishing gear. smartWhales will complement and build upon those measures and initiatives.

  • The Government of Canada currently uses a variety of tools to detect and monitor right whales, including aircraft and vessel surveillance, and acoustic technology.

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