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 there for the same reasons there are earthquakes and tsunamis along the coast of British Columbia, said Cherisse Du Preez, chief of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) Deep Sea Ecology Program.
“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 Marine Protected Areas (MPAs ) existing 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, who is the lead scientist on board for the ship. deep-sea ecology.
About 75% of Canada’s seamounts are contained within the expedition study sites, which extend approximately 200 kilometers west from the northern tip of Haida Gwaii to the southern edge of the Vancouver Island – an area approximately four and a half times the size of Vancouver Island.
As 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 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?” she asked.
Like a “fire hose” coming out of the ground
What makes the study sites even more unique is that they contain 100% of Canada’s hydrothermal vents.
Typically, the water at the bottom of the ocean is around 3 degrees Celsius, 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 host of animals depend on these hot springs which are very rich in materials and exist nowhere else on the planet except 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 underwater science that it’s not rocket science, it’s harder.”
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 will be aboard this year’s expedition, but they hope to have someone aboard l ‘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-nuth method of teaching 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 – which is 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 will operate the robot from a control room while broadcasting the images live around the world.
During previous expeditions, Du Preez said up to 130 countries were connected to the live stream at the same time.
Through live chat, Du Preez said researchers and scientists around the world can help identify animals that have never been seen before.
“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 is funded by DFO, with resource support from Ocean Networks Canada.
Although only recently discovered, Du Preez said climate change is already impacting these environments.
Over the past 60 years, the ocean has lost 15% of its oxygen, she said.
“And because these animals are so fixed in the .125 with .375 space where they can exist, they don’t have the ability to migrate as easily as other animals,” Du Preez said.
At times, Du Preez said she felt like she was just watching these ecosystems decline.
“But then I remember if we have a marine protected area, we can mitigate,” she said. “We can stop anything under our control.”
The Government of Canada has “committed” to conserving 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 an area. marine protection, entitled Tang.ɢwan-ḥačxʷiqak-Tsig̱is.
Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council Chair Judith Sayers said this decision was made without any input from First Nations whose territories are within the proposed MPA area, including NTC, the Haida Nation, as well as as the Quatsino and Pacheedaht First Nations.
“We told DFO early on that if they want to have this marine protected area, we have to co-manage it,” Sayers said. “This MPA is on 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 since the proposed MPA is in an international economic zone, “it must be under the sole jurisdiction of the federal government.”
A statement from DFO says it is “committed to working with partners to provide the best available science, achieving 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 that helps, Du Preez was careful to note that MPAs 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.”