Research projects on marine mammals are logistically challenging, often require sophisticated equipment and long-term studies to get relevant results and always need special permits from the competent authorities. Many species have very long life cycles, spend most of their time under water and cover huge distances between their warmer breeding grounds and the (sub-)polar feeding areas. Some species live in the Arctic or Antarctic year-round. Marine mammals are at the top of the marine food chain and are particularly impacted by contaminants which accumulate from plankton to fish to apex predators – therefore, they are bioindicators for the state of health of the large marine ecosystems.
Many researchers use (satellite) tags with special sensors and cameras to „follow“ animals in climatically extreme conditions and in great depth. Others count on « mark-recapture » methods to identify individual animals based on special marks, e.g. using photo identification. For studies about accumulated contaminants and their biological effects on the animals, a crossbow or an airgun is used to retrieve biopsies which are later analyzed at the lab. And for research projects on acoustic signals of marine mammals as well as the impact of man-made noise in the ocean, hydrophones and specially designed acoustic buoys are deployed that cover frequencies from infrasonic to ultrasonic, depending on the goal of the project.
In the framework of our research program, we are conducting three long-term projects:
- Long-term monitoring of minke whales in the St. Lawrence Estuary: photo identification, spatio-temporal distribution and behavioral ecology (since 2001)
- Bioaccumulation and biological effects of PBDEs and emerging flame retardants in minke whales in the St. Lawrence Estuary (since 2015)
- Passive acoustic monitoring of marine mammals in the St. Lawrence Estuary: structural and functional properties of marine mammal vocalizations and effects of anthropogenic noise (since 2001)
We are operating under permits issued by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and Parks Canada and our biopsy protocol is approved by the Canadian Council on Animal Care. We are a member of the Quebec Marine Mammal Emergency Response Network, the Quebec Expert Group of Ecotoxicologists, and the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary (Quebec). Furthermore, we are regularly involved in working groups of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and Parks Canada.