Deepwater Mission Discovers New Species, Ancient Corals and More
Newly discovered species of sea life including corals, anemones, cylindrical glass sponges and sea stars, a volcanic seamount, and fossilized coral that holds clues to oceanographic conditions stretching back thousands of years — these are but a few of the findings of a deepwater mission led by Fisheries and Oceans Canada in July 2010. The goal: to explore and document the biology and geology of the ocean bottom surrounding Flemish Cap and Orphan Knoll, located in the Northwest Atlantic off the east coast of the island of Newfoundland outside the 200-mile limit.
On July 8, an international team of scientists and crew aboard the CCGS Hudson embarked on the 20-day mission. The multidisciplinary, international team of contributing science staff and students included biologists, geologists, biogeographers and hydrographers from eight different organizations. Under their direction, staff from the Canadian Scientific Submersible Facility deployed an underwater vehicle known as ROPOS (Remotely Operated Platform for Ocean Science) to depths up to 3,000 metres. Fitted with a movable arm, cameras and other scientific equipment, the vehicle collected biological and geological samples, high-definition video and digital photographs of life on the sea floor.
The mission encompassed fishery areas that have been closed by the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization to protect coral, sponges and other vulnerable marine ecosystems. Closure of these areas was based on bottom topography and bycatch data from research vessel surveys. The main goal of the mission led by the Department was to determine in situ coral and sponge density inside some of the closed areas for comparison with the survey estimates. The comparisons will be used to determine if the protected areas need to be refined or expanded when they are reviewed in 2011, and could determine future fishing policy in the regulatory area. Baseline information collected from outside of the closed areas and the fishing footprint, where fishing currently takes place, will be used to evaluate areas that are still too deep for existing fishing technologies but could be accessible in years to come and to inform exploratory fishing protocols in the future.
The biological and geological expertise on board allowed for a quick interpretation of mission findings, which included many potentially new and interesting species of corals and sponges as well as unique deposits of manganese nodules that are among the slowest growing geological phenomena on Earth; for each nodule, one centimetre of diameter represents several million years of growth.
Now that the mission is complete, scientists are also using the information collected for a variety of other research purposes including to:
- identify and define the newly discovered species and their role in local ecosystems;
- trace oceanographic conditions over thousands of years by analyzing the chemical composition of fossilized coral collected during the mission; and
- examine the impact of survey trawling gear on benthic corals and sponges (research by collaborator, the Spanish Institute of Oceanography)
Ocean Acidification — Researching Potential Impacts on Canada’s Fisheries
Ocean acidification is a significant international governance issue and the scientific community is now moving more quickly to investigate its implications. Each year, about one third of the carbon dioxide (CO2) in fossil fuel emissions enters the oceans. As the CO2 dissolves in surface waters it forms carbonic acid, increasing ocean acidity. Eventually this excess carbon will become more evenly distributed, but in the short term (roughly 100 years) its impacts will be intensified near the surface where much of the marine life that humans depend upon live.
Over the past 200 years, global ocean pH (a measure of acidity) has decreased by 0.1 units — about a 30 percent increase in acidity. By the turn of the next century, the pH is projected to decrease by another 0.3 to 0.5 units, raising concerns about the potential impacts on marine food webs, ecosystem productivity, commercial fisheries and global food security.
Department scientists are exploring ocean acidification in Canada’s three oceans and its potential impacts through two research initiatives: the Climate Change Science Initiative and the Science Program of the International Governance Strategy. Ultimately, this research will help predict how ecosystems and individual marine species will respond to increased acidification. There are particular concerns about the impacts on organisms that use calcium carbonate (CaCO3) to form solid structures such as shells and skeletons (called “marine calcifiers”) including shellfish, corals and some species of phyto- and zooplankton. The findings will also inform future fisheries management decisions.
In Canada, the mechanisms driving ocean acidification vary by region:
- In the Pacific, older sub-surface waters are naturally higher in CO2 due to biological decomposition. Upwelling in the summer brings this acidic water to the surface over the shelf. Ocean uptake of anthropogenic CO2 increases the acidity further.
- In the Arctic, cold and fresh water is inherently corrosive to marine calcifiers. Although ocean acidification is a global phenomenon, modeling studies predict that high-latitude surface waters will experience detrimental effects earliest, likely within decades, due to a variety of factors including sea ice melting. The pH of some Arctic surface waters is already at the level of possible corrosiveness to marine calcifiers.
- In the Atlantic, the threat of ocean acidification comes in two ways — the direct uptake of anthropogenic CO2 (the Northwest Atlantic is the largest storehouse of anthropogenic CO2), and the outflow of corrosive Arctic water through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago to the shelf regions of Canada’s east coast.
These acidification mechanisms potentially affect the high biological activity and important commercial fisheries in Canadian waters.
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