Beluga algorithms

Since the earliest days of his career, Clément Chion has been combining engineering and ecology. To do so, he specializes in modelling the interaction between humans and the ecosystem. But why whales?

“I came to the Tadoussac region several times in the early 2000s and fell in love with the area, but beyond that, it’s the chance opportunities and meetings in life that led me to the cetaceans of the St. Lawrence,” recalls Clément Chion. In 2006, Professor Lael Parrott, a specialist in human-environment systems, was already laying the groundwork for a project to simulate whale movements and maritime traffic when Clément Chion came on board as part of his PhD at the Université de Montréal’s complex system laboratory.

A virtual laboratory for the St. Lawrence

The 3MTSim simulator (Marine Mammal and Marine Traffic Simulator), resembles a video game if one takes a look at Clément Chion’s computer, with “whale points” and “ship points” sharing the waters of the Saguenay and St. Lawrence. But what is of interest to the researcher is what lies behind the screen. The researcher develops algorithms to test different scenarios involving marine mammals and the various components of navigation: “It’s a virtual laboratory that allows me to explore how whale-boat interactions will be affected if we modify parameters such as vessel speed. What effect does it have on marine mammals – including the beluga and on industry operations?”

3MTSim simulator © Clément Chion

Perfecting the simulator

Since an initial version of the 3MTSim simulator was completed in 2012, the understanding of marine mammal issues is improving with each passing year. To reflect this evolution, Clément Chion has been working since 2014 on a new version that integrates the acoustic dimension. Beginning in the summer of 2018, his team will work on developing an individual-scale model of St. Lawrence beluga movements, as well as perfecting and adding modules representing the various components of shipping and the impacts thereof.

“The simulator is not magic: you can’t just press a button and miraculously know what the best decision is for the St. Lawrence,” he notes. The St. Lawrence is a complex system. Even with huge amounts of data, the simulator, like any other model, generates estimates and predictions – with a certain level of uncertainty – that can guide managers and stakeholders in their decision-making.

In 2013, the various evaluations made by the 3MTSim model opened the door to the introduction of voluntary measures (speed reductions, off-limit areas and recommended routes) in sensitive ecological zones of the Lower St. Lawrence Estuary.