“We know more about the surface of the Moon than we know about the deep sea,” says Cherisse Du Preez, manager of DFO’s deep sea ecology program. A local expedition hopes to change that.
Deep below the surface of the ocean, off the west coast of Vancouver Island, lies a mountain range of about 50 submarine volcanoes ranging from 1,000 to 3,000 meters high.
These seamounts, as they are more accurately called, are here for the same reasons there are earthquakes and tsunamis along the coast of British Columbia, says program manager Cherisse Du Preez. Department of Fisheries and Oceans Deep Sea Ecology.
“We have very active tectonic activity very close to shore,” she said. “It’s like the Rocky Mountains there.”
On June 16, Du Preez and a team of researchers embarked on an ambitious three-week deep-sea expedition to study and monitor these ecosystems.
The collaborative expedition between DFO, the Council of the Haida Nation, the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council and Oceans Network Canada will provide baseline data for scientific monitoring and research for a number of existing marine protected areas and planned.
“We’re going to habitats that nobody’s mapped before, that nobody’s seen before – and we see animals that science didn’t know existed,” said Du Preez, the ship’s lead ecology scientist. great funds.
About 75% of Canada’s seamounts lie within the expedition study sites, which extend from 200 kilometers west of the northern tip of Haida Gwaii to the southern edge of the Vancouver Island, an area about four and a half times the size of Vancouver Island.
When you approach seamounts by boat, Du Preez said, whale sightings become more frequent and seabirds more abundant.
The research vessel’s echo sounder – which calculates the depth of the water – will start to sound shallower and shallower, she said. Suddenly it will go from a reading of three and a half kilometers deep to only a few hundred meters deep.
“And you realize that this mountain has just risen from under you and you’re sitting on top,” she said. “And the reason there are animals everywhere is because there is so much life on this mountain that would otherwise be like a desert of water.”
Seamounts provide habitat for animals that typically have to compete with humans for resources, Du Preez said.
“There’s just this island oasis where they can exist away from us,” she said. “We find corals and sponges and fish and sharks and octopuses all living on seamounts.”
Outside of this region, seamounts are most commonly found in the open ocean, which Du Preez has described as “the wild, wild west”.
But because these seamounts are in Canadian waters, Du Preez said this multi-nation partnership with the federal government has the power to protect them.
“If you want to protect a place in the ocean, why not protect where everything comes to feed or nurture their young?”
Like a ‘fire hose’ springing from the ground
What makes study sites even rarer is that they contain 100% of Canada’s hydrothermal vents.
Typically, the water at the bottom of the ocean is around 3°C, but Du Preez said hydrothermal vents erupt water that can reach 400°C.
“This geothermally heated water is coming out of the ground like a fire hose all the time,” she said. “Not your average seawater. It’s like super-enriched seawater.
A multitude of animals depend on these hot springs, which are very rich and only exist in hydrothermal vents, Du Preez said.
These chemosynthetic animals live in the absence of sunlight and depend on chemicals produced by hydrothermal vents for food.
“It’s like a slightly alien world that we didn’t know existed because we thought everything on the planet needed sunlight,” she said. “It’s this amazing, weird place where life can only exist if you are these specialized life forms.”
Hydrothermal vents were only discovered 30 years ago, and the first seamount was identified about 90 years ago, Du Preez said.
“We know more about the surface of the moon than we know about the deep sea,” she said. “We joke in deep sea science that it’s not rocket science – it’s harder.”
130 countries listening
A team of approximately 15 experts from diverse backgrounds – including two representatives of the Haida Nation – was tasked with exploring, documenting and providing scientific solutions on how best to manage and monitor these environments.
Irine Polyzogopoulos, Uu-a-thluk communications and development coordinator, said no Nuu-chah-nulth representatives are on board this year’s expedition, but they hope to have someone on board. next year.
“The timing just wasn’t right,” she said.
But Polyzogopoulos said he will be holding virtual student and public “ship-to-shore” outreach events, as well as sharing information via social media to keep people connected to the work happening at sea.
The public can tune into these online events and virtually ask questions of crew members in real time, Polyzogopoulos said.
Joshua Watts was a Nuu-chah-nulth representative aboard the 2019 Deep Sea Expedition. At the time, he was studying Ocean and Atmospheric Science at the University of Victoria, so the experience “fitted perfectly,” he said.
Including a Nuu-chah-nulth worldview as part of the conversation is “invaluable,” Watts said.
“Responsible decision-making is at the forefront of our concerns,” he said. “We think 10 generations later. How will our decisions affect our descendants? »
When Watts thinks of the different species found in the deep sea, he says the Nuu-chah-nulth teaching method comes to mind.
“It’s always been done through experiential learning,” he said. “Through first-hand knowledge.”
Because of this, Watts said a big part of his role is to share what he learned on the expedition with his community and the younger generation.
“My experiences may not go far, but if I share them they reach other people,” he said. “And I think that has a lot more impact.”
Du Preez said one of the main goals of the expedition was to determine the importance of these “very localized points of increased diversity and biomass” to the overall health of the ocean.
To do this, they rely on a submersible – a robot the size of a small car with cameras, sensors and arms – which will be sent about three kilometers deep in the ocean to explore and collect samples.
On board the ship, the team of experts operate the robot from a control room while broadcasting the images live around the world.
In previous expeditions, Du Preez said, up to 130 countries were connected to the live stream at the same time.
Through live chat, researchers and scientists around the world can help identify animals that have never been seen before, Du Preez said.
“We rely on this connectivity with the world because we need people watching in real time to help us,” she said. “This is an investment in global biodiversity.”
Federals assume exclusive jurisdiction
The expedition is supported by the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development and funded by DFO, with resource support from Ocean Networks Canada.
Although only recently discovered, these underwater environments are already being affected by climate change, Du Preez said.
Over the past 60 years, the ocean has lost 15% of its oxygen, she said.
“And because these animals are so fixed in space [with] where they can exist, they don’t have the ability to migrate as easily as other animals,” Du Preez said.
Sometimes, Du Preez said, it feels like she’s just watching the decline of these ecosystems.
“But then I remember if we have a marine protected area, we can mitigate,” she said. “We can stop anything under our control.”
The federal government has pledged to conserve 25% of Canada’s land and oceans by 2025 and continues to advocate internationally to protect 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030, according to DFO.
One of the expedition’s study sites includes a large block off western Vancouver Island that was identified as an area of interest in 2017, beginning the process of designating the area as a marine protected area, titled Tang.ɢwan-ḥačxʷiqak-Tsig̱is.
Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council Chair Judith Sayers said the decision was made without any input from First Nations whose territories fall within the proposed Marine Protected Area, including the Tribal Council and the Haida Nation. , as well as the Quatsino and Pacheedaht First Nations.
” We said [DFO] from the beginning that if they want to have this marine protected area, we must have co-management of [it]”, said Sayers. “This [MPA] is in our territories and we really need to be able to protect them.
Conversations between the nations and DFO have been ongoing since 2018, Sayers said.
“We’re trying to define collaborative governance and management,” she said.
According to Sayers, DFO argues that because the proposed marine protected area is in an international economic zone, “it must be under the sole jurisdiction of the federal government.”
A DFO statement said it is “committed to working with partners to provide the best science available, to achieve national and international biodiversity conservation goals through co-management and science-based decision-making.” .
Limiting boat traffic to reduce noise pollution and potential oil spills, as well as limiting fishing, is a way to “give these environments the best chance of surviving that we can,” Du Preez said.
While they help, Du Preez was careful to note that marine protected areas don’t “solve everything.”
“Despite our best efforts, despite everything we try to control, climate change is still going to take that biodiversity into the ocean,” she said. “If we’re not going to do something on a larger scale against climate change, that’s what we have to be prepared to lose.”