ST. ANDREWS, New Brunswick (CP) – Some high-flying research on endangered right whales in the Bay of Fundy east of Maine is going to be expanded.

For the past two summers, a team of scientists has used a remote-controlled video camera suspended from a helium balloon to discreetly observe how the whales react when approached by vessels.

The group is led by federal Fisheries Department biologist Lei Harris and Jim Hain, of the group Associated Scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

They’re trying to determine if there’s a safe distance for humans to observe the huge marine mammals without causing them stress. The information could be used in drawing up regulations or guidelines on how to operate commercial vessels in areas frequented by the whales.

Susan Parks, of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., will join their effort. She will use hydrophones to listen and record sounds transmitted through the water.

“This will be a terrific addition to our research,” Harris said. “The recordings will provide bearings of vessels as they approach, allowing us to characterize their sounds. We’ll also be able to examine how whale vocalizations and rates change with increasing vessel noise.”

A marine sciences professor at the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine, won a $581,000 grant in September to study the North Atlantic right whale.

Stephen Zeeman planned to track the whales using satellites high above the Earth and a network of ocean buoys. He also hoped to use the information to prevent deadly ship-whale collisions.

There are only about 350 North Atlantic right whales left in the world. About two-thirds of them migrate north each year to spend the summer feeding in the Bay of Fundy.

On a typical summer day in the bay, there is considerable vessel traffic in the vicinity of the whales. It includes whale-watching operations, recreational boaters, research vessels, fishing boats, and commercial ships, Hain said.

But there are currently no regulations restricting vessel proximity to whales, although guidelines recommend staying about a mile away.

Most vessel operators make a concerted effort to not disturb the whales, but there’s no clear definition of what makes a disturbance, Harris explained.

Hain, formerly with the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service, has previously used airships to study right whales at their calving and wintering grounds off Florida.

The airborne camera enables scientists to observe the whales on the surface and to a depth of 15 to about 35 feet. The video can also be used for photo identification of whales.

Last year, the Canadian government took several significant steps as part of its program to protect the fragile right whale population. In July, shipping lanes in the Bay of Fundy were adjusted in a way that ensures ships can still operate safely while avoiding areas frequented by whales.

The International Maritime Organization approved a Canadian proposal to amend shipping routes in the bay between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick off the Gulf of Maine.

AP-ES-01-02-04 0750EST

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