With 15 right whale deaths on their minds, researchers gather in Halifax

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Efforts to protect North Atlantic right whale are working, says researcher

The focus of this year's annual meeting of North Atlantic right whale researchers has been altered in light of 15 of the critically endangered marine mammals being found dead this year in waters off eastern Canada and the U.S.

The North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium said the goal of this year's meeting is to explain the science behind the "mortality crisis" to members of government who will be there.

"The focus is on clearly communicating the science and the risks to the right whale population by those people who have been studying these animals for decades, with the goal of educating these newcomers to the field," said Kim Davies, a post-doctoral fellow in Dalhousie University's department of oceanography. 

She is also one of the speakers at this year's meeting, which is underway at Saint Mary's University in Halifax.

The consortium also said the purpose of this year's meeting is to form an international working group to look at the big picture when it comes to right whales, instead of managing problems region by region. 

"There are probably other habitats still that we don't know about and you know with climate change, all bets are off," said Davies. "To be surprised like this again in future years is not something anybody wants." 

Davies said she wasn't surprised that recently released necropsy results revealed four whales died from collisions with ships, while two appeared to have died after being entangled in fishing gear.

"It calls attention to the need for very systematic and broadscale enforcement of management measures to help reduce these interactions across their entire migratory range," said Davies. 

"This is not limited to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. We've tended to manage right whale conservation on a region-by-region basis but the solutions to these problems are similar across their range: slow down, reduce rope in the water, those kinds of things."

Scientists, fishermen, large-vessel operators and Indigenous groups will also be meeting next month in Moncton, N.B., in an effort to reduce the number of right whale deaths. That meeting will be hosted by Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc.

"That's what's key ... getting all the stakeholders in the room," whale biologist Moira Brown said in an interview earlier this month. "Not just the scientists and the managers, but vessel operators and the fisherman — let's share information."

At today's meeting, Davies and colleague Mark Baumgartner of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution will discuss their research on detecting North Atlantic right whales using autonomous ocean gliders. 

There are two gliders currently in Canadian waters: One in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence and another in the Roseway Basin off southwest Nova Scotia. They've been out since June and will operate continuously for three or four months until the lithium ion batteries run out of juice.

Each is equipped with a hydrophone that listens for low frequency sounds made by baleen whales such as right whales. Software aboard the gliders, developed by Baumgartner, can figure out which whales are making the sounds as the audio is being recorded.

All of this data is then uploaded for researchers.

"We can have a glider that's deployed, listening for right whales, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence 100 or 1,000 kilometres offshore and we get that data back in real time," said Davies.

Davies said right whale detections by the gliders in the gulf have dropped off recently and there have been none in the past week.

She said this likely means most of the whales are leaving Canadian waters for their southern breeding grounds off the coast of the southern U.S.

There are only about 500 North Atlantic right whales left in the world. The 15 confirmed deaths in U.S. and Canadian waters this year represents three per cent of the population.

"It's incredibly significant," said Davies. 

"It comes at a time when right whales are already doing badly for several years — when there have been very few calves for several years, when the distribution of the animals has shifted away from their primary feeding grounds, when the animals are looking unhealthy." 

Davies said 2015 was the first year right whales were sighted in large numbers in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence, well north of their usual range in the Bay of Fundy and off southwest Nova Scotia. There were three recorded deaths that year.

DEEP TROUBLE | Right whale in peril

After an unprecedented number of deaths this summer, CBC News brings you an in-depth look at the endangered North Atlantic right whale. In a series called Deep Trouble CBC explores the perils facing the right whales.