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Helping ports protect whales from noisy ships


A homegrown technology that can monitor underwater noise is helping Canada’s largest port protect at-risk marine life while continuing to support $200 billion in annual marine trade and over 98,000 jobs.

The underwater listening station (ULS) – or hydrophone array and acoustic analysis system from JASCO Applied Sciences– is now integrated with Smart OceanTM Systems, a package of technologies and services that continually monitor everything from ocean temperatures and salinity to dissolved oxygen, currents, weather—and now acoustics. These technologies are installed on Ocean Networks Canada’s (ONC) world-leading cabled seafloor observatories. The ONC Innovation Centre (a Centre of Excellence in Commercialization and Research) helps to commercialize the technologies and market them as turnkey solutions nationally, and to countries that are spending billions of dollars on the “blue economy”, a big part of which includes ocean monitoring and surveillance.

Here at home, the observatories will provide critical data that will help governments and vessel operators facilitate marine trade in a way that protects the environment and coastal communities.

Western Economic Diversification Canada provided $9 million for ONC to install new ocean monitoring stations along the BC coast, including ports in Vancouver and Prince Rupert. Transport Canada provided ONC with $20 million to transform the oceanographic data it collects as part of Smart OceanTM Systems into navigational safety information that will help vessel operators and others avoid navigational hazards and prevent marine accidents.

“With Smart OceanTM Systems we have installed technologies along the coastline to enable science-based decision making as it relates to marine safety, public safety and environmental monitoring,” says Scott McLean, Director of the ONC Innovation Centre. “These systems are combined with our Oceans 2.0 data management platform which provides valuable data and operational data products, including early alerts of offshore earthquakes, landslides and tsunamis and their impact on coastal communities.”

ONC and JASCO Applied Sciences also partners in the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority’s Enhanced Cetacean Habitat and Observation (ECHO) Program, which aims to better understand and reduce the cumulative impacts of commercial vessel activities on at-risk whales throughout the southern coast of BC. One such threat is underwater noise from vessels, which makes it more difficult for whales, dolphins and other marine mammals to forage for food, find a mate, keep track of their young and listen for predators.

And the risk to cetaceans will only grow: annual shipping traffic at the Port of Vancouver is projected to increase by more than 40% by 2026.

“We are aware there is predicted growth in commercial vessel activity so it’s critical that our operations are conducted in a responsible and sustainable manner that safeguards and promotes the continual protection of the environment,” says Orla Robison, Program Manager of the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority’s ECHO Program, a collaboration with the marine transportation industry, government agencies, First Nations individuals, conservation and environmental groups, and scientists.

One pivotal ECHO project has installed a ULS on ONC’s observatory network to monitor the acoustic source levels of incoming ships to the Port of Vancouver and to monitor in real-time for the presence of calling marine mammals.

“This is a perfect example of how we can add a sensor systems and data analytics on top of our existing infrastructure to support small and medium-sized companies, ports and the government,” says McLean.

Developed by JASCO Applied Systems, the ULS and accompanying PortListenTM software system automatically measure and analyze ship noise, and detect and track marine mammals including cetaceans as well as pinnipeds (seals and sea lions). Data are streamed in real-time back to ONC’s computers where the information is quickly analyzed by JASCO’s software and the results posted on a web portal for immediate use.

“The system is allowing us to build up what we believe is the most comprehensive database of vessel sound signatures in the world right now,” says Robinson.

Combined with ONC’s Oceans 2.0 data management platform, the ULS will help the port better understand the noise levels of incoming ships. The data will also inform potential vessel noise reduction solutions and may support the development of additional underwater noise criteria for a Vancouver Fraser Port Authority incentive program that provides harbour due rate discounts for quieter ships.

In January 2017, the port authority announced that it would cut docking fees for quieter ships by nearly half. This makes Canada the first country in the world with a marine noise reduction incentive.

“Our technology makes it possible for the port authority to obtain real-time information on the noise emissions of visiting ships,” says David Hannay, JASCO’s chief science officer. “Users simply logon to a website and can view the comprehensive noise reports on individual vessels as they enter the port.”

JASCO’s earlier systems required technicians to travel to a site to deploy the equipment, have vessels pass by the hydrophones, retrieve and bring the equipment back to their labs, download and analyze the data and then write a report. The whole process would often take several weeks.

PortListenTM automates the process, enabling data to be made available to decision makers within minutes in the form of “noise report cards”. “We now have a system that is well tested and very easy for entities like ports to install and to be able to get results immediately and at lower cost,” says Hannay, whose company employs 60 people in Nova Scotia and British Columbia, and another 15 in Australia, the U.S. and U.K..

“This project would not have gone forward if we had to start from square one installing the hardware and cabling on the seafloor,” adds Robinson. “The expense would be prohibitive. ONC’s seafloor infrastructure combined with JASCO Applied Sciences’ underwater listening station is generating critical data that will help inform vessel noise reduction solutions for vessels calling the Port of Vancouver, and other ports around the world.”