SAINT JOHN, New Brunswick - The most jarring photo Dr. Chris Taggart has ever seen is that of a dead right whale with a severely broken jaw. It had come to the surface for air and was hit by a passing ship. The impact was so forceful it drove the fractured bone through the top of the mammal's head.
This is called a "ship strike" and over the years ship strikes have become more common and an increasing cause of death for right whales. One of the most endangered species on the planet, there are only approximately 350 right whales left.
Taggart, a professor in Dalhousie University's oceanography department in Halifax, has been watching ship strikes closely for a while now.
The latest area to catch Taggart's eye is a sea lane in the Roseway Basin, about 60 kilometres off the coast of Nova Scotia, just south of Barrington and Cape Sable Island.
"For right whales, of all the deaths that occur the most prominent are ship strikes," says Taggart.
"It's a pretty confined area and there is a lot of ship traffic going through there."
Right whales are struck when they come to the surface after feeding. They come up to perform what is called logging, a resting period lasting several minutes or longer during which they breathe and slowly swim.
"When they're on the surface is when they get nailed," says Taggart.
Several years ago, Taggart and a team of graduate-student researchers used radar data to track shipping patterns in the Bay of Fundy - another hotspot for right whales. They lobbied government and the shipping community and, in the summer of 2003, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) approved for the shipping lanes to be altered, bypassing where the whales congregate.
The difference with Roseway Basin, says Taggart, is there are no official shipping lanes.
Taggart and his Dalhousie team submitted a proposal to Environment Canada and, according to government documents, were granted $34,195 in June 2007 to begin project V.A.C.A.T.E. - Vessel Avoidance and Conservation Area Transit Experiment.
With that, the team got to work.
They already knew where the whales gathered: a wheel barrel-shaped area of about 1,000 square nautical miles the team deemed "the area to be avoided," or ATBA. But they needed to determine the shipping patterns.
That's when the telecommunications company Aliant came into the mix.
"We work on research grants," says Taggart. "Towers and antennas and cabling are expensive, so I started looking around. Aliant came to mind because you can see their towers all over the place."
Aliant allowed Dalhousie to place receivers on some of its coastal antennas. The team then used the automatic identification system used by ships to determine the patterns.
They took the results to the Marine Safety Council, Transport Canada and the IMO. They then asked the shipping industry to put the word out about the whales and the ATBA. Ships would avoid the area on a voluntary basis.
"If 75 per cent of the vessels avoid," says Taggart, "we expect the kill rate to be one every 64 years. That would be based on the minimum expectation of what we have (without an ATBA) of one every 12 years, and that's a minimum."
Just days after June 1 when monitoring began, there was evidence of ships avoiding the ATBA.
"There was one ship we had seen in the last year run diagonal - right through the area. And the first time we saw this ship subsequent to June 1 you could see (it) skirt around the ATBA."
Taggart says the whales do not move out of the way because they simply do not notice the ship coming.
"They're habituated to it, much like we ignore the cars going by when we're walking on the sidewalk."
Similar attempts have been made in the United States to reduce kills on the east coast. Proposals have been put forth to enforce a slowing of ship speed off U.S. ports, but the process has stalled at the U.S. Office of Management and Budget.
The slowing of ships is far more expensive for industry than slight changes in routing, says Dr. Scott Kraus of the New England Aquarium. "In the U.S., where right whales go north and south along the coast, most of the ships go east and west, so there's not really any place to manoeuvre ships around to a place where whales (are) not going to be."
Two events can occur when a ship hits a whale, says Dr. Michael Moore of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.
"It's either blunt trauma or sharp trauma, and if it's sharp trauma usually it's because they've been sliced by the propeller."
Of 30 whale deaths studied in the northwest Atlantic from 1970 to 2002, 11 were ship strikes and two more were considered "possible" collisions, according to a study co-authored by Moore.
In 1997 a whale was found floating dead with its jaw so badly broken, a chunk of it had been ripped off and was floating around in its mouth. Another was found in 2001 off the coast of Long Island. A ship's propeller had cut clean through its nasal cavity and facial bones.
A full-grown male can be as long as 20 metres, weigh as much as 60 tons and live as long as 100 years.
Their diet consists mostly of small crustaceans. The whale gulps in water and collects food on a dense screen of hair hanging from the top of its mouth. It blows the water out and licks the food off the hair with its tongue.
To Taggart's relief, project funding for this year was confirmed last week - about three months late.
"We were definitely reaching a critical point," he says.
"Our ability to do anything (with) technical support, with software, etcetera, would have been stopped cold. You can only run on spec for so long."
Still, Taggart can not hide his excitement for the future.
"What matters is we got it."
© 2008 CanadaEast Interactive, Brunswick News Inc.