Drowning in Sound

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A Halifax company is helping ports protect whales by reducing undersea noise

By Debbie Lawes

The ocean is getting noisier and that’s making 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. This growing threat is prompting governments around the world to take action to reduce undersea noise, and the global shipping industry is under increasing pressure to respond.

The European Union’s Marine Strategy Framework Directive calls on member countries to meet new environmental standards by 2020, including a reduction of undersea noise. In 2014, the International Marine Organization adopted voluntary guidelines aimed at reducing underwater noise from commercial shipping. The issue has also been championed by the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Convention on Migratory Species and the International Whaling Commission.

Listen to the sounds of whales and ships picked up by JASCO’s underwater listening station in the Straight of Georgia, BC

But it’s in Canada where real on-the-ground action is happening, prompted by ongoing threats to endangered orca populations. The Trudeau government’s approval last November of the Kinder Morgan expansion of its Trans Mountain Pipeline is projected to bring nearly 300 more oil tankers to the Port of Vancouver every year. That same month, the government launched a $1.5 billion national Oceans Protection Plan to improves marine safety and responsible shipping and protect Canada’s marine environment

A new technology developed by a Halifax company promises to help with that effort. JASCO Applied Systems, a 30-year veteran in the field of marine acoustics, has developed the Autonomous Multichannel Acoustic Recorder (AMAR)— a highly advanced hydrophone monitoring system

— and the PortListenTM software system that automatically measures and analyzes ship noise, and detects and tracks marine mammals including cetaceans as well as pinnipeds (seals and sea lions).

David Hannay (right), Chief Science Officer at JASCO Applied Sciences Ltd, presents information on the development of the Strait of Georgia Underwater Listening Station to Transportation Minister Marc Garneau at the launch of the ECHO Program in January. (Photo: JASCO Applied Sciences Ltd.)

The technology has been installed on the University of Victoria’s Ocean Networks Canada cabled undersea observatory off the coast of British Columbia. Data are streamed in real-time back to JASCO’s computers where the information is automatically analyzed and the results posted on a web portal for immediate use.

The first customer for this system is the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority. Hydrophones installed on the approach to the port monitor the acoustic characteristics of incoming ships. The project is part of the port’s Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation (ECHO) Program, a collaboration between JASCO, Transport Canada and Ocean Networks Canada (ONC).

In January, 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 do this,” says David Hannay, JASCO’s chief science officer. “Users simply logon to a website and look at the sound levels from individual vessels as they enter the port, essentially in real time. That will allow the port to provide a discount to fees immediately based on the measurement of that particular vessel.”

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.”

JASCO, which employs 60 people in Nova Scotia and Victoria BC, and another 15 in Australia, the U.S. and U.K., has begun marketing AMARs and PortListenTM to port authorities worldwide. In addition to the Port of Vancouver, JASCO’s technology was recently installed on the Fundy Ocean Research Centre for Energy (FORCE), a test centre for in-stream tidal energy technology located in Nova Scotia’s Bay of Fundy. The company also finalized its first export with the Port of Dublin’s Alexandra Basin Extension Project which is happening in an area that is also home to dolphins and minke whales

JASCO’s product is among several made-in-Canada technologies that comprise ONC’s Smart Ocean Systems, a turnkey package of technologies and services that measure everything from ocean temperature and salinity to dissolved oxygen, currents, weather—and now acoustics. “Acoustics is our expertise and that fits quite nicely into the package because it adds a new measurement that was not available previously.”

Hannay says another advantage to PortListenTM is its ability to be deployed anywhere, including the Saint Lawrence Seaway, home to 13 different species of cetaceans; the high-traffic waters off eastern Canada; and other areas of BC’s coast where at least 20 liquefied natural gas plants are proposed, potentially adding 1000 tanker trips a year and further stressing the noise-sensitive whales and dolphins in the region.

JASCO’s “Observer” platform carries its hydrophones,
AMAR measurement system and specialized computers
to process acoustic data onboard in real-time and transmit results
to shore via satellite.

“In the Arctic there isn’t a lot of shipping yet but with the potential opening of the Northwest Passage there could be much increased level of shipping activity and there’s a large number of species, especially cetacean species that use the Arctic as feeding grounds in the summer,” says Hannay.

“Our technology will have an impact on the marine population worldwide because shipping globally  is the largest producer of underwater noise of any source,” he adds. “If we can help make vessels quieter then we can reduce noise levels globally so all marine animals and marine fauna, fish and other species in the ocean, will benefit from having a quieter environment to live in.”

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