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Network will track marine animals around the world

Published Friday December 3rd, 2010

ST. ANDREWS - Time in St. Andrews passed faster than Fred Whoriskey realized.

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Fred Whoriskey has begun a new job as executive director of the Ocean Tracking Network.

Whoriskey spent 15 years at the Atlantic Salmon Federation in St. Andrews, most of them as vice-president of research and environment.

"I was shocked to count them up," he said Wednesday from Halifax, where he began a new job in November as executive director of the Ocean Tracking Network at Dalhousie University.

Last month in New York the salmon federation presented the native of Newton, Mass., with the Lee Wulf Conservation Award, acknowledging his contribution to conserving Atlantic salmon.

The Ocean Tracking Network (OTN) will use sonic telemetry that Whoriskey, along with many others, helped develop to follow marine animals around the world.

Two federal government agencies committed $45 million to the network over seven years - $35 million from the Canada Foundation for Innovation and $10 million from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

Receivers anchored to the sea floor record "pings" from acoustic tags attached to creatures swimming overhead. The receivers send the data to research vessels that pass directly above or, in some cases, to satellites in the sky.

The pings travel only through water, limiting the tracking technique to animals in the ocean: marine mammals, turtles and fish, but not seabirds.

However, sonic telemetry uses tags smaller than those for satellite telemetry, allowing scientists to attach them to 93 per cent of the species in the ocean - including Atlantic salmon, Whoriskey said.

Each tag affixed to an animal costs $300 to $700, depending on what information it collects. Different sensors might detect water and body temperatures, depth in the ocean and acceleration among other things.

The Ocean Tracking Network will set up a series of receivers around the world, allowing researchers interested in a particular scientific puzzle to gather data.

Whoriskey describes the project as "building a highway. Other people are going to drive the cars."

"Half of what we do here is maintain a huge database," he said, for scientists to mine and compare patterns among species - such as sharks and salmon perhaps.

The network will build on work already under way to set up receivers on the seabed at different places around the planet.

"And this is really a Canadian success story," Whoriskey said.

Canadian companies make the tags, he said.

"It puts out a sound ping. It puts out an identity code," he said.

Each tag sends out eight to 10 pings in a pattern, each identifying a specific fish.

The Ocean Tracking Network recently updated its code book so the system can track hundreds of thousands of tags.

"And it's moving to millions," Whoriskey said.

The salmon federation will contribute its line of receivers across the Strait of Belleisle, and partially across the Cabot Strait, which is able to record salmon from Gulf of St. Lawrence Rivers - including the Miramichi and Restigouche.

To date the system does not include receivers across the Bay of Fundy.

"It's one of the holes," Whoriskey said.

The network will include receivers on all three of Canada's oceans as well as the Great Lakes, tracking everything from cod and sculpin to seals and Arctic char.

The network includes a line of receivers off Halifax. Lines off Australia track sharks and groupers. One is being built across the Strait of Gibraltar. Lines placed over the next couple of months off South Africa will track great white sharks. Hawaii and the Azores will also have lines.

Each receiver, kept at a certain depth by a cable, has a battery that someone must replace once a year. Receivers in a line are 800 metres apart.

"We're working in technologies," Whoriskey said.

Work continues on an "autonomous vehicle" - an unmanned mini-submarine - to follow tagged fish.

Scientists hope to learn how to use one species as a "bio-probe" for another - tagging grey seals that follow cod in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, for example.

Tagging salmon smolt to determine why they do not return to their home rivers in the numbers they should will continue.

Whoriskey will not do as much of this work as he used to. His new job involves more administrative work.


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