Watching Out For Whales: Cell Phone Towers To Track Ship Traffic Near Roseway Basin
By JENNIFER MacMILLAN The Canadian Press
Most university students are only worried about a single cell signal, namely the one from their own phone. But Angelia Vanderlaan has her hands full keeping track of thousands of signals.
The PhD candidate at Dalhousie University is using cellphone towers scattered across Nova Scotia to pick up identification signals from ships travelling the North Atlantic.
It’s key information for the oceanography student. Vanderlaan monitors the signals to see if ships are detouring around the Roseway Basin, a habitat for endangered whales southwest of the province designated as a voluntary "area to be avoided."
"It’s early on, but some seem to be going around," Vanderlaan said. "We think it will make a big difference."
Vanderlaan’s efforts to find strategies for whale conservation have garnered worldwide attention. Last week, she was honoured by the American Society of Mammologists with their William T. Hornaday Award, an international prize given annually to one student working on conservation issues.
Dalhousie oceanography professor Christopher Taggart said Vanderlaan
has put her "heart and soul" into the project, which is the first study
of its kind.
"We want to find out if these kinds of voluntary management measures
work, as opposed to forcing people to do these things," Taggart said.
The Roseway Basin’s status as a no-go zone for ships came into effect
on June 1 after the International Maritime Organization — an arm of the
United Nations — passed the resolution last fall.
The population of North Atlantic right whales has plunged to about 350
worldwide and the basin is a key area where they gather from June to
December to feed.
It’s believed they’re particularly vulnerable to being killed by
container ships as the slow-moving animals are unable to get out of the
way before being struck.
Momentum for instructing ships to avoid the Roseway Basin grew last
summer when a right whale washed up in Yarmouth after it was hit by a
It was later determined the collision had likely happened in the basin.
Before June 1, about 10 to 20 ships travelled each day through the
region, a thoroughfare for ships heading to ports on the eastern
"We have a container ship that does multiple trips from Halifax to the
New York shipping lanes," Vanderlaan said. "I think I’ve seen them
eight times previous to June 1 and he was always going directly through
the area, but when we saw him (on June 5) he went right around."
It’s a promising start, and in the coming weeks, Vanderlaan and Taggart
are planning to start tracking more signals from cell towers in Digby
and Caraquet, N.B., in addition to the towers they’re already using in
Halifax, Glace Bay and Barrington.
"We’re trying to build a network that’s broad enough that we can see the entire coast," Taggart said.
The Dalhousie researchers are collaborating with Aliant to piggyback
onto the company’s existing network of cell towers in the region.
Aliant installed receivers for ship signals on their towers, which transmit vessel data to Vanderlaan’s computer at Dalhousie.
Taggart said he believes that even though it isn’t mandatory for ships to avoid the basin, most will co-operate.
"The environmental ethic has reached a new level in corporations," he
said. "People want to try and do this stuff if it can be shown it won’t
damage their economic interests."
In the U.S., efforts to pass legislation mandating ships to slow down
in whale habitats have been bogged down as shipping companies argue the
slowdown will hurt their ability to do business.
Taggart says asking ships to change their routes may be more effective than ordering them to slow down.
"We want the statistics to establish the credibility of making a move,"
Taggart said. "If you avoid the region by planning your route change
early only, it will cost you only eight minutes in a 14-hour trip —
it’s less than a one per cent change in the operation of the ship."