Some rarely-studied marine life from the coastal waters of Canada’s Western Arctic is the focus of a new research program led by the Canadian Museum of Nature.
The program kicked off in August in Cambridge Bay (Iqaluktuuttiaq) on Victoria Island, Nunavut. The community of 1,800 is home to the Canadian High Arctic Research Station, run by Polar Knowledge Canada (POLAR), which is collaborating with the museum on the research project.
“Seaweeds are marine superstars. They’re an important part of coastal ecosystems, providing habitat for other ocean life and energy as part of the food chain, but like many marine organisms they are vulnerable to the warming effects of climate change,” says the project lead Dr. Amanda Savoie, a Canadian Museum of Nature research scientist who studies marine macroalgae and is also the Director of the museum’s Centre for Arctic Knowledge and Exploration. “Getting scientific information about their diversity and their distribution in Canada’s Arctic will offer new knowledge that can help track the impacts of climate change over time.”
To date, an estimated 175 species of seaweed grow in the Canadian Arctic. Savoie says the project will almost certainly discover new records for seaweed in the Western Arctic. She and her collaborators will not only be collecting and identifying seaweed species but they also hope to map and study the ecology of Arctic kelp forests.
Savoie notes that there is evidence of kelp in the area from the Nunavut Coastal Resource Inventory and dredging of the seafloor, but no scientists have yet dived to observe a kelp forest. These habitats are like tropical rainforests—hotspots for biodiversity, hosting other plant life as well as providing food and shelter for fish and invertebrates.
Joining her as part of the research program is a team of scientists affiliated with the ArcticNet-funded project ArcticKelp, as well as others with Laval University and Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
Savoie visited Cambridge Bay this spring to meet with community members and the local Hunters and Trappers Organization, where she learned that some in the community are interested in seaweeds as a food source. She also plans to spend time learning from locals about their marine resources and incorporating Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (traditional knowledge) into the project.
During a spell of bad weather last week that kept the team off the water, we spoke to Dr. Savoie.
Mountain Life: Tell us what your days look like up there.
Amanda Savoie: Cambridge Bay is a very windy place and all of the best collecting sites to find seaweed and kelp are out of the bay, in Dease Strait, so our work is very weather-dependent. We have hired a local guide with an aluminum boat to take us out whenever we can. On an ideal boat diving day, we leave early in the morning and head out to a site where we want to dive. Our team is made up of myself and another diver from the museum, and collaborators from Laval University. We drop cameras into the water to see what the bottom looks like, and to check for seaweed. On some days, the water is so clear that we don’t even need a drop camera. We usually do a couple of dives at a site to collect seaweed and invertebrates and then head back at the end of the day.
Our dives are relatively shallow—20 to 40 feet deep. When the weather is good, we try to go out and dive as much as we can, and then when the weather is bad we spend our days in the lab at the Canadian High Arctic Research Station sorting and processing our collections. I am making herbarium presses of my seaweed collections and also taking DNA samples for analysis back in Ottawa. My collaborators are weighing and measuring kelp and sea urchins, to study the biomass and compare to other sites across the Canadian Arctic.
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ML: Could you talk about the dive conditions and the visibility? Is there more
biodiversity than people might think?
AS: The dive conditions are great, although it is very cold! The water is extremely clear and the visibility is really good. We have seen temperatures between 0 to 4 degrees Celsius. With a drysuit and lots of layers the cold isn’t too bad. There is definitely more biodiversity here than people expect.
We find lots of invertebrates like sea stars, nudibranchs, anemones, sea cucumbers, sea urchins, etc. There are also beautiful animals called pteropods floating in the water column—the common name is sea angels. We have found several sites with lots of colourful red, brown, and green seaweeds, including kelp. We have also been lucky enough to have a bearded seal swim around our boat on two occasions, which was very special.
ML: Have you found a kelp forest yet?
AS: So far we have found some nice patches of kelp but they are not quite big enough to count as a kelp forest. There are a few more spots that we still need to check where kelp was reported in the past with a drop camera study, but it takes perfect weather to get to them. So I would say we are still looking!