The Listening River
Noise pollution from maritime activities has a big impact on species that live in the St. Lawrence. Researchers with the MARS project are listening closely and helping to find solutions.
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Yves Marchand was born a sailor. By the age of six, he was already venturing out onto the water in his grandfather’s small motorboat, all by himself. Ever since, Marchand has been guided by his love of the river and boats.
After more than 30 years working in a factory on the north shore of the St. Lawrence, he retired in 2009 and has been driving boats ever since. He now guides a daily sightseeing tour through the archipelago of Lake Saint-Pierre for the Sorel-Tracy Biophare, a museum of the region’s natural and cultural heritage. The job requires him to have an in-depth knowledge of the history of the river, Indigenous peoples and colonizers, and the local flora and fauna.
Yves Marchand leads an excursion aboard his zodiac, one of the many boats plying the water of the Lake Saint-Pierre archipelago, where noise pollution is growing problem:
A font of anecdotes, the 67-year-old captain has been witness to major changes.
Over the years, the number of boats on the water has increased considerably as recreational licences have become easier to obtain. “On busy summer weekends, we can’t even get into the channel with passengers on board. When there’s too many boats, it gets dangerous.”
The more watercraft there are, the noisier the river gets. “Imagine a thousand cars driving past your home every day,” Marchand says.
The growing number of Jet Skis intensifies the problem, because they’re small enough to weave in and out of the remote swamps and marshes of the Sorel Islands. “When they speed by, they startle the birds and flood their nests.” Marchand chalks it up to a lack of awareness, rather than malicious intent.
The little-known consequences of noise pollution on marine life
The changes that Yves Marchand has witnessed over the course of his life are not just anecdotal: the data confirm his observations on a large scale.
The world’s commercial fleet has gone from about 30,000 ships in the 1950s to nearly 95,000 today. The ambient sound produced by all these boats has increased in turn, at a rate of three decibels per decade. This increased noise has measurable effects on ecosystems and wildlife, including marine mammals, fish, invertebrates, and sea turtles.
Lyne Morissette, marine mammalogist and associate professor at the Rimouski Institute for Marine Sciences (ISMER), is well aware of the potential consequences.
“Depending on what kind of sound it is and how loud it is, noise can cause physical, even internal, damage in marine animals,” she explains.
If an animal happens to be within a few metres of a seismic source or an explosion (such as those resulting from construction), the sound wave can be strong enough to cause hearing problems, destruction of tissue, or death. Even low-frequency sounds influence the development of scallops, mussels, and oysters.
The preferred scientific hypothesis is that maritime traffic is largely responsible for disruptions to the behaviour and acoustic communication of marine life. “It’s like losing your child at a rock concert and trying to hear them calling for you,” explains Morissette.
Understanding how whales interact with each other is a major challenge for researchers. Progress depends on hearing them accurately:
This is especially true for cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) who use sound to hunt and meet up on a daily basis. A recent study conducted in Vancouver is seeking to show the positive effect of the reduction of maritime traffic during the pandemic, during which time orcas’ physiological stress levels seem to have decreased.
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The MARS project: filling the data gap
“We’ve recently learned that marine mammals respond to noise much the way they do to an approaching predator,” explains Cédric Gervaise, director of the Chorus Research Institute and associate professor at ISMER. “But we need more rigorous, accurate scientific data to quantify it.”
Though researchers are making progress documenting the effects of noise pollution and implementing precautions, the exact impacts on marine life cycles remain unknown. How much noise is too much noise? Is the problem worse in some ocean zones in particular? Where should we take action first: freight transport, tourism, fishing, swimming, pleasure boating? What countermeasures are most effective?
The MARS project was created precisely to provide some answers to these big questions. Headed up by Gervaise, this applied research initiative is unique in the world and co-run by the University of Québec at Rimouski (UQAR) and Innovation Maritime (IMAR), a college centre for the research and development of maritime technology.
The MARS project relies largely on data collected from an underwater acoustic research station in the St. Lawrence Estuary, off the coast of Rimouski.
“MARS zeroes in on the noises coming from ships to pinpoint their exact sources, understand them, and work with our partner shipowners to find mitigating solutions,” says Gervaise.
Powered by solar panels, the system is made up of four vertical lines equipped with acoustic recorders running as deep as 300 m. The lines are connected to buoys that transmit the recordings to a processing centre in Rimouski. The complex device measures ambient noise created by both maritime traffic and marine mammals, as well as the individual acoustic signatures of ships in the area.
To assess the impact of a ship’s passage on marine ecosystems, researchers use sensitive equipment to make underwater recordings:
In parallel, the MARS project is installing vibration sensors on the vessels of four shipowners in the St. Lawrence: Algoma, Canada Steamship Lines, Desgagnés, and Fednav. This is the domain of Jean-Christophe Gauthier-Marquis, IMAR project manager, and his team. They recently boarded the Bella Desgagnés, a 6,655-ton cargo ship that supplies the isolated Basse-Côte-Nord region of Québec.
“Anyone who has set foot in an engine room will tell you it’s noisy,” he says. “It’s mainly the machinery and cavitation from the propellers.”
Boat engine rooms are famously noisy, points out Jean-Christophe Gauthier-Marquis, a project manager at Innovation Maritime (IMAR). Protective ear muffs are a must!
After attending each ship’s safety training, the research team meets the captain and crew, then installs the sensors. “The reality on board is always different from what we expected. Space is very tight, the hull might not be accessible, or we just don’t have enough time,” explains Gauthier-Marquis. “So we trust the people on board who know their environment and shortcuts. We become temporary crew members.”
He particularly appreciates the human aspect of this collaboration. Missions can last from a few hours to several days, and offer plenty of opportunities for conversation:
“The crews are very welcoming and often very interested. And without them, MARS would simply not exist.”
IMAR is currently working on developing its data acquisition systems, installing sensors on ships when they’re berthed. Crews will operate these sensors themselves, saving time and expanding data collection to cover more trips. This semi-autonomous system is being tested and is set to be used routinely next year.
Test, adapt, repeat
Gauthier-Marquis marvels at the diverse knowledge coming out of the MARS research initiative. “We’re learning about a lot of fields and are aiming to make a real, ecological difference in the long term.”
MARS is unique, and it has required a lot of experimentation and tweaking since its launch in 2020. “We’ve realized that it’s a challenge to keep the station running for six months, particularly because of the current,” explains Gervaise. “We’re constantly trying to improve the system.”
To ensure the recordings are high quality, they have to take their measurements deep enough to avoid echoes off the estuary floor. “It’s one of the most complex projects I’ve ever worked on,” confides ISMER director Guillaume St-Onge, who oversees MARS with IMAR executive director Sylvain Lafrance. “We had to deploy it quickly, develop new technologies, obtain all the necessary permits, and adjust as we went along.”
Multi-Électronique and OpDAQ, two local companies, are developing the platform’s technological instrumentation.
A model collaboration
The research teams insist that the project owes its existence to the remarkable collaboration between all parties, shipowners included.
Caroline Denis, senior project manager at Canada Steamship Lines, explains, “It’s just a little deviation for the ships, it doesn’t change much in terms of our operations, but installing the measuring devices takes time.”
Denis stresses that the shipping industry cannot continue with business as usual without trying to better coexist with marine mammals. “We want to learn how to reduce noise directly at the source to better protect marine wildlife. Our crews are really attached to these creatures; they work next to them on a daily basis.”
The data the MARS project collects will be used to develop innovative, sustainable solutions compatible with shipping operations—for example, decreased vibrations and fuel consumption. “Ideally, we want solutions that will reduce noise and greenhouse gas emissions,” she explains.
When economy and ecology work together
“Sustainable development issues are intrinsically linked to the economy these days, and the shipping industry is being very proactive about it,” explains Marina Soubirou, director of Technopole Maritime du Québec and MeRLIN. “Involving companies in the production of scientific knowledge improves our understanding of the stakes so that we can take more effective action.”
Once a researcher in sustainable business innovation, Soubirou is convinced that the maritime industry can offer many solutions.
Though the MARS project is slated to end in 2024, it is already laying the groundwork for longer-term collaboration and is set to become an internationally recognized centre for research and expertise.
Just one of the many ideas to come out of the project is a plan to link sensors directly to Rimouski with fibre optic cables. “It will be the ear of the St. Lawrence,” says Gauthier-Marquis.
The project is of paramount importance to Mathieu St-Pierre, president and CEO of the St. Lawrence Economic Development Council. “The St. Lawrence is a renewable resource. We need to learn more about it to take better care of it,” says St-Pierre. “We want to avoid making decisions based on unconfirmed perceptions, because they affect the whole industrial chain.”
This convergence of the scientific community and the business world promotes knowledge sharing and technological development. That’s why Novarium, a local innovation hub, aims to build bridges, so that collaborators can brainstorm new ideas for the sustainable management of ocean resources.
Photo: Jon Eckert
The Cousteau approach
The people who know the river best, those who live and work along it, are well aware of both the beauty and the fragility of the St. Lawrence’s ecosystems. This is what drives Yves Marchand to give tours of the Lake St-Pierre archipelago.
“I want to show people that we have to protect our environment and its extraordinary resources,” he explains from the helm of his ship. The sublime colours of the sunset reflecting off the river behind him offer a moving backdrop for his argument.
Lyne Morissette has always been fascinated by the living world around her, in part thanks to her summers spent along the Parc national du Bic with her uncle, a geomorphologist. She believes that it’s essential for people to reconnect with the environment:
“When nature sends us a wake-up call, like the beluga in the Seine or a whale off the shores of Montréal, we realize how interconnected everything really is. Everything in our lives is linked to water and the sea.”
In the face of the eco-anxiety and guilt paralyzing so many of us, Morissette believes that optimism can lead to action. “From a very young age, I was so awed by the beauty of nature that I wanted to protect it,” says the biologist. She argues for the Cousteau approach, citing the famous ocean explorer: “People protect what they love, and they love what they understand.”
Novarium is an innovation campus dedicated to accelerating the blue economy and the democratization of knowledge. Located in Rimouski’s city centre, the campus is a stone’s throw from its affiliated research institutions. Bringing together over 600 researchers, Novarium’s projects range from artificial intelligence and smart navigation to bio-foods, and go a long way toward building a sustainable economy—where the top priority is protecting marine ecosystems.
Pascaline David is a freelance journalist whose work has recently been published in La Presse, Le Devoir, and Le Monde. She specializes in climate change and the conservation of species and cultures. In her free time, you can find her 20 m below the surface of the ocean with her trusty scuba tank.
Benjamin Rochette is a self-taught cameraman who founded the surf and travel company OuiSurf in 2010. He is a former co-owner of a hotel in El Salvador, and it was there that he discovered his passion for surfing. A dedicated traveler, he strives to be open and curious about the cultures he encounters and the people he meets.
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