‘Perfect opportunity’: Canadian scientists return to sea on US research vessel

Canadian scientists returned to the sea this spring to monitor ocean weather conditions on the east coast thanks to a data- and vessel-sharing agreement between the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

This collaboration will enable ship-challenged Canada to conduct the first spring survey of the Atlantic Ocean Watch Program in three years.

The twice-yearly expeditions measure biological, chemical and physical conditions from the Gulf of Maine to the Labrador Sea — information that tracks ocean climate change and helps manage fish stocks worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Ship, money, deal

Woods Hole is supplying the research vessel Atlantis and C$1.5 million in crew time as well as tools for survey work off Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador.

Canada is getting Atlantis through the end of May and will pay Woods Hole C$5.1 million.

The DFO will collect and share data for scientists at Woods Hole.

“This collaboration builds on decades of collaboration between American and Canadian scientists, trying to understand the massive fluctuations we see in the ocean environment outside our shores,” says Dennis McGillicudi, chief scientist at Woods Hole.

Atlantis was provided to Canadian scientists to observe the climatic conditions of the oceans from the Gulf of Maine to the Labrador Sea. (Lindsey Beasley/Department of Fisheries and Oceans)

For Canada, this arrangement solves an immediate problem caused by the sudden – though not surprising – retirement of the old Canadian oceanographic research vessel CCGS Hudson in January.

In recent years, the 59-year-old Hudson has been frequently unavailable due to mechanical issues.

A catastrophic engine failure last fall led the Canadian Coast Guard to shut down the Hudson rather than spend between $12 million and $20 million on renovations that could put it out of service through the end of 2023.

Bells and whistles

“We’ve been really fortunate to be able to have this collaboration with Woods Hole at such short notice,” said Lindsey Beasley, a DFO marine biologist at the Bedford Institution of Oceanography in Nova Scotia.

Last week, Paisley completed one of the mission stages aboard Atlantis off Scottian Shelf.

Atlantis has all the bells and whistles, including five labs and what’s known as the Imaging FlowCytobot.

The submersible instrument captures high-resolution images of phytoplankton from the water sample streams that are continuously fed to the ship. The images are then brought back to the beach where the software identifies the phytoplankton – doing what could take a person several hours into minutes.

“That was really an exciting aspect of the job,” Beasley said. “This system has opened a path for automated monitoring that we have not used within the DFO and in our surveys in the past.”

‘It’s a big deal’

Canada’s acquisition of the ship was fortunate. Atlantis was between a period of midlife renewal and his next mission.

“It was a really big deal,” McGillicudi said. “This kind of opportunity doesn’t come often. It was a perfect opportunity to partner with Canadian scientists.”

Imaging FlowCytobot sends automated data back to Woods Hole. DFO scientists are also collecting water samples that will be returned to Massachusetts for analysis.

“We will of course share this data directly with our Canadian colleagues,” McGillicudi said.

Next mission off Newfoundland

Atlantis arrived in St. John late last week on its next mission off Newfoundland and Labrador.

It will also monitor deep waters as part of the Maritimes’ Supplementary Atlantic Ocean Shelving Monitor Program.

The Spring Survey has not been conducted since 2019, leaving a gap in records that measure changes in ocean conditions.

“I think that’s what I’d like to convey,” Beasley said. “We have gaps in our chronology, and it’s really important to be able to conserve our ability to go out to sea and collect this data in order to report on climate variability.”

She hopes to see more of this kind of collaboration.

“We’ve been working with them for a very long time, but I think with this mission and with Imaging FlowCytobot on board, we both come back with ideas on how to strengthen that relationship in the future,” she said.

“So I feel really fortunate and very excited about what this opportunity has brought for DFO.”

DFO said it is studying domestic and international options to secure ship time for the remaining missions this year.

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