Hot spot of ocean biodiversity discovered off coast of Makkovik, thanks to fisherman

Researchers found an underwater cliff covered in corals and sponges this summer during a scientific mission, after an unusual incident was reported by a Labrador fisherman.

Collaboration between fish harvester and scientists leads to underwater find

Joey Angnatok, centre, pulled up his nets a few years ago from an underwater mound to find corals, sponges and other sea life. (Rodd Laing)

Researchers have discovered what they're calling an underwater hot spot of biodiversity off the coast of Makkovik, but say without the local knowledge of a fisherman, they may have never known what lies beneath the surface of an unexplored part of the Labrador Sea.

It all began a few years ago. Joey Angnatok, a fish harvester from Nain, was fishing for turbot in the area about 50 kilometres offshore when things went awry.

Angnatok said he and his crew had put out roughly 400 fathoms — about 700 metres — of gear, but when they went to haul in their nets, they found half that length floating at the surface.

"We went to take it back and it was … hooked up on something on the bottom. It was like a mound of some sort," Angnatok said.

Angnatok made a note on his chart to never fish in that area again, but his damaged nets revealed an abundance of sea life.

"We did see corals and sponges and everything that was stuck to this mound on the bottom. And it was safe to say that it was at least 150 to 200 fathoms in height," said Angnatok.

Angnatok knew the coral find was likely significant. In the ocean, corals act similarly to trees, providing vital habitat for other animals to feed and rest and hide from predators. 

Dave Cote is a research scientist who studies unexplored areas of the Labrador Sea. (Submitted by Dave Cote )

An underwater mystery

It wasn't long before the story of the mysterious underwater mound reached the ears of research scientists with the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans in St. John's, where Angnatok's description fuelled a lot of excitement about a potential discovery in the ocean near Makkovik. 

David Cote, a DFO ecologist who studies largely unexplored areas of the Labrador Sea, said researchers had been partnering with the Nunatsiavut government to study areas off Labrador's north coast, and attempted to find the mound in the summer of 2020.

But the pandemic marred those attempts aboard the icebreaker and research vessel CCGS Amundsen.

A remotely operated vehicle researchers had hoped to use wasn't ready, and to adhere to physical distancing rules, there were fewer scientists on board.

But based on Angnatok's co-ordinates, the researchers were able to do significant habitat mapping with equipment already on board the Amundsen. 

"We looked really hard, and we were pretty disappointed that we didn't find anything because we knew Joey knows his stuff. And there was something there, but we just couldn't pinpoint it within the area," said Cote.

Corals and sponges discovered deep in the Labrador Sea

2 years ago
Duration 0:28
Research scientists with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada used a remotely operated vehicle to capture these images of a hotspot of ocean life in the Labrador Sea near Makkovik.

This past July, Cote and other researchers returned aboard the CCGS Amundsen, this time armed with a brand new ROV.

After three days of exploration in the area they had mapped the year prior, the ROV beamed up never-before-seen video from the depths of the Labrador Sea.

"We were really excited to come across this 200-metre cliff, which is about the height of a 60-storey building. And on this cliff were these beautiful hanging gardens of pinky-orange corals, called primnoa, that were hanging off it, mixed with a bunch of sponges," said Cote. 

The moment the tower of deep sea corals came into view on TV screens up on deck has stuck with Barbara Neves, a cold water coral research scientist with DFO.

"We saw one individual, one specimen, and then we started to see more and more and more, and then you begin screaming and you have a bunch of scientists that are very excited, and the ROV pilot is trying to stay focused. So yeah, it was quite exciting," said Neves.

Barbara Neves, a research scientist with DFO, specializing in cold water corals, holds a primnoa, or 'popcorn', coral that is common in the waters off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. (Jane Adey/CBC)

This type of primnoa coral is commonly known as "popcorn" coral. The species is common in waters around Newfoundland and Labrador, said Neves.

The tree-like animals can grow up to two metres tall and live for hundreds of years. 

While the coral is common, Neves said what is notable about this underwater cliff is the density of the corals living there.

"It's telling us that this is a highly suitable location for them to grow. They are thriving there," she said.

"But it's also in terms of the diversity itself, and all the different animals that are living around them and what they might be doing in the whole system where they live."

Undersea unknowns

The fact that this hot spot was discovered so close to Makkovik underlines how little researchers know about the Labrador Sea, Neves said.

It's highly likely there are other significant regions of biodiversity nearby, said Cote, and this discovery is just one of more they hope will come in the future. 

"It was pretty rewarding to see all this come together, this local knowledge and all the latest technology. And we needed every bit of it to be able to find the specific coral hotspots," said Cote. 

"It just tells us that we need to listen. Right? We need to talk with people and put that together with the other information that we may have," said Neves.

Primnoa corals can live for hundreds of years in the ocean. Researchers can determine their age and growth rate by counting the rings in the cross section of a coral. (Jane Adey/CBC)

As for fisherman Joey Angnatok, he's glad his experience on the water led to this focused exploration of the Labrador Sea and that scientists were eager to listen to what he had to say.

"I guess when it comes to knowledge, I always like to say that everything is 50-50. I mean, the information I have is just the same as what you have. So put the two together, it usually comes up with good results."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Jane Adey

CBC News

Jane Adey hosts CBC's Land and Sea. She formerly hosted CBC Radio's The Broadcast, and has worked for many other CBC programs, including Here & Now and On The Go.