Shipboard Research Filling in Knowledge Gaps
By Taz Dhaliwal | April 19, 2023
© Michelle Valberg
By Taz Dhaliwal | April 19, 2023
© Michelle Valberg
In pursuit of cultivating a company that focuses on regenerative travel, Adventure Canada has multiple partnerships with organizations and experts that share similar goals, and one of those associations happens to be with Dr. Mark Mallory and the Mallory Lab at Acadia University, which has been ongoing since 2015.
Through this relationship, Adventure Canada has had researchers participate in the Researcher-in-Residence (RIR) program on ten expeditions. On board, the scientists have conducted research on plastic pollution along Arctic shorelines and surveys of seabird distribution at sea.
© Michelle Valberg
Mark Mallory aboard an Adventure Canada expedition
Plastic and other human waste studies are abundant in coastal areas around the world, though it is very limited in Arctic waters. Expedition travel provides the tools to gather critical data in those hard-to-reach and less-visited regions where it otherwise isn’t possible. Through this program, Adventure Canada has helped investigators to fill in the gaps where little to no research exists.
From 2015 to 2019, the Mallory Lab, in association with Adventure Canada, surveyed about 5,500 km of transects on nine expeditions, which has allowed for nearly 35,000 seabirds to be surveyed.
Results from the lab’s data collected on board have been used to create new procedures for sustainable fishing practices in order to reduce by-catch in some cases, build research methods, provide analyses in Canadian Arctic waters and coastlines, and more. In addition, it has helped amplify the message and spread awareness of plastic contamination in the Canadian Arctic.
Researchers are also able to identify seasonal hotspots, productivity in water, where wildlife are choosing to gather and have compared the marine distribution of seabirds over the last six decades. Further, they're even able to to predict where future hotspots might occur, given changing Arctic conditions.
With education at the forefront of all Adventure Canada expeditions, the SIR program provides guests with the opportunity to learn and participate in conservation.
© Michelle Valberg
Bald Eagle flapping its wings, while being in mid-flight
Carina Gjerdrum, who works as seabird biologist with the Wildlife Service has helped as a trainer with the SIR program since its inception and she explains that there are many components that go into studying seabird distribution. In order to do this, Carina said researchers study where birds are travelling, what kind of habitats they’re going into, what kinds of conflicts they might be encountering, whether they are feeding in the same place that fishing fleets are in, or in oceans where climate change is occurring and so forth. She adds that all of this monitoring is done by researchers at sea in order to inform the patterns they see occurring in bird colonies.
© Carina Gjerdrum
Carina Gjerdrum on one of her travels
Carina goes on to say that seabirds are much easier to monitor than fish, along with other oceanographic biology and chemistry that's going on under the surface.
“So, [seabirds] can be really good indicators of where the health of our oceans stand..and they can alert us to certain things before we detect them,” Carina stated.
© Victoria Polsoni
Gannets gathered on a rock
She goes on to explain that globally, seabirds are in trouble since populations are indeed in decline. Carina said much of this can be contributed to seabird by-catch.
“A lot of species are attracted to vessels and they interact negatively with the vessels and the fishing activity. There are also a lot of problems on colonies with invasive species, like rats and things like that,” she said.
Mark has noted that depending on who you talk to, there have been reports of 20, 000 to 100,00 seabirds being killed in the North Atlantic when they become by-catch. He adds, birds mistake hooks from fishers as feed, then get dragged down by them and drown. Moreover, this is also an issue for fishers, since by-catch reduces the amount of hooks they have and therefore the amount of fish they can catch. It's an issue Mark is addressing by sharing pertinent data, which he hopes will bring about legislation that can prevent such events from continuing to occur.
Fortunately, in breeding colonies in Canada, for most of the species, trends are pretty stable. Carina said there are a few that they’ve detected declines in over the last thirty years.
© Dennis Minty
A group of puffins on land and some taking flight
The ivory gull in the High Arctic, for example, has far fewer colonies and fewer individuals, hence their status stands as endangered in Canada.
Carina points out that one of the significant benefits of being able to collaborate with Adventure Canada and their use of small-ships is that the organization can take those involved with the SIR program to places they may not have been able to get to so easily. The style of travel the company uses also allows them to get into closer proximity with coastal communities.
Carina also notes that the program has been a big help for scientists who are in the early phases of their careers, are working on the ground as students, or individuals who still may be unsure about the trajectory of their career.
“This can sort of give them an opportunity to see what's it like to collect data, what's it like to go on some of these vessels,” Carina stated.
© Dennis Minty
She continued to say that it helps SIR participants become familiar with the more mundane parts of research, such as experiencing tracks of the ocean where they may not see anything.
All in all, she firmly believes it's a great opportunity for them to get that invaluable experience of being out in the field and collecting data that is part of a bigger project.
Carina adds, the other aspect she thinks is important to outline about SIR is the chance young scientists get to then be able to communicate the data they’ve collected to the guests on board. Carina says the guests are quite receptive to hearing about the work and its significance, especially when they get to witness firsthand how genuinely excited the young scientists feel about the research they’re conducting.
In addition to the seabird distribution research spear-headed by Mark, he is also in charge of plastic distribution tracking. He conducts citizen science activities on board the small-ship expeditions to track plastic distribution on beaches, the ocean and land-based sites. Mark has pointed out that studies have yet to establish the baseline of existing plastic pollution, such as density and distribution, in and around Canada. This kind of tracking and comparing it to other lands around the world could help distinguish just how bad the situation has become.
In 2018 and 2019, the SIR program sampled beaches and shorelines for plastic pollution in about twenty different areas across northern and Atlantic Canada, and found that every single spot except for one fjord in Labrador had plastic garbage.
“Unfortunately, balloons, plastic bags, lots of fishing gear—we see those kinds of things during our survey,” Carina explained.
“We do document all of that also, and they can drift from, you know, short distances to really, really long distances, depending on the currents and whether they stay afloat and so it’s just another data set,” she added.
Carina said their data has shown that the sort of plastic garbage they have seen in the ocean is far less common in some High Arctic locations compared to around Atlantic Canada, bigger city sites or some of the European countries that are visited. She also notes that where there's more marine traffic in general, more plastic waste has come to be expected as well.
© Trevor Wallace
Sample collection for research on microplastic presence in Arctic waterways
Of course, these plastics found at sea or on the land pose a threat to the wellbeing of birds and other species. Plastic can be dangerous on both a macro and micro level. Macro being through items such as balloons, plastic bags, straws, wrappers, cans, and so forth.
“We have, I think, all seen those images of when a bird sort of gets tangled in in a piece of plastic. So, that can happen, they can get entrapped and drown or be unable to feed and so starve,” Carina elaborated.
According to her, microplastics may be more ubiquitous, plastics that can’t be detected without specific analysis. Research shows that these plastics can be found in the stomachs of most birds, along with other species, and the effects of plastics on animals are still not completely known.
Carina reiterated that what scientists do however know is that birds are in fact getting plastics in their system and then feeding their chicks, when they regurgitate food back to their offspring at the nest. Although, in terms of exactly what kinds of plastic and chemicals they are ingesting is not certain in some cases. Although, microplastics may not be killing birds instantaneously, there are sublethal consequences.
“There may be effects either on their reproduction or growth. Some of those things we just haven't measured yet, but having a bunch of plastic in your body is most likely not a good thing,” she stated.
© Mark Mallory
Student Olivia Mallory photographing a quadrat for plastic pollution at the storm line
In terms of what can be done to mitigate plastic pollution in the environment, Carina says each individual must remember that they do indeed play a role within this cycle and can make active decisions to prevent pollution from worsening. This can be done through raising awareness, tracking and minimizing our own plastic use, and continuing to get updated information from citizen scientists.
Mark has noted that the expeditions with Adventure Canada have provided the team with excellent opportunities to be able to share this information with others. In recent years, plastic pollution in oceans has gained more acknowledgement, however many still think of particular areas, such as the Arctic has being very "clean and pristine," and it's a perception that needs to be corrected, according to Mark.
"Recognizing that there's plastic there, I think could amplify the message that goes to politicians that we've got to get on this and do something about this," he said.
The team is hoping to be able to track whether plastic levels are increasing or decreasing in coming years, and possibly be able to tell where the garbage is coming from by reading labels.
As a mother, Carina said she tries to teach her kids that every little decision we make can build upon the community and so on and that as consumers, we can choose to buy things that aren't wrapped in plastics. She is teaching her children to make decisions to try to minimize their carbon footprint by cutting back on usage of disposable or single use plastics.
She also believes governments have a pivotal and monumental part to play when it comes to enacting concrete legislation to make sure manufacturers and those responsible for polluting the environment, have less opportunity to do so.
“It really it has to be top-down approach as well,” Carina stated.