Vessel shortage forces Canada to scrap key climate change research mission
Expedition measures details such as temperatures throughout water column, microscopic organism blooms
Fisheries and Oceans Canada was forced this fall to cancel a core oceanographic survey to monitor climate change because it could not find a ship capable of handling ocean conditions in the North Atlantic.
The scrapped mission is another example of fallout from Canada's aging fleet.
The 56-year-old Canadian coast guard science ship Hudson normally carries out offshore Atlantic Zone Monitoring Program (AZMP) surveys, but Hudson was unavailable this year because a refit aimed at extending the life of the vessel is taking longer than expected.
For 2019, Fisheries and Oceans Canada hired a private research vessel, Coriolis II, but the Rimouski, Que.-based vessel was deemed unable to carry out the Maritimes region survey and a replacement could not be found.
"Although the private vessel is a highly capable marine research platform, the conduct of the AZMP Maritimes region monitoring program in the spring of 2019 led us to conclude that the vessel might not be able to fulfil all fall monitoring program needs," Robin Jahn, spokesperson for Fisheries and Oceans Canada, said in an email to CBC News.
"The department was unsuccessful in its search for another available research vessel to fulfil the fall 2019 program when weather and ocean conditions are more variable."
What the survey does
Since the 1990s, the Atlantic Zone Monitoring Program has sent scientists to sea twice a year to gather biological, chemical and physical data off Canada's East Coast.
The offshore cruises measure everything from temperatures throughout the water column to blooms of microscopic organisms at the base of the food chain.
This is the first time the Maritimes fall survey has been cancelled.
Why the survey matters
With decades of survey data, the AZMP provides a baseline to measure changing ocean conditions.
For example, a survey in 2012 documented record-high ocean temperatures in the Maritimes.
"One of the issues is to determine whether or not it's a long-term trend or just year-to-year variability," said Dave Hebert, a Fisheries and Oceans Canada research scientist.
"There could be, like, a decade of really warm weather and so the question is, is that continuing on or is it changing back to sort of what we call normal conditions? And so these programs help us do that."
What they can do about it
As a physical oceanographer, Hebert said he's not in "as dire straits" as colleagues who monitor life forms in the ocean.
Remotely operated platforms like ocean gliders will provide some data this fall, but plankton sampling for half the year will be missed, hampering year-to-year analysis and making it more difficult to detect if anything unusual is going on.
"When there is a gap in long-term monitoring data, the department takes account of the increased scientific uncertainty when making related management decisions," said Jahn.
Hebert has been taking the cancellation in stride, and said they have to do the best they can with what's available.
"We're just in a holding pattern, waiting to get a decision made about what the next plans are."
Contingency planning underway
The Hudson is scheduled to be back in service by April 2020 and available for the spring Maritimes region survey. Fisheries and Oceans Canada is developing contingency plans in case the Hudson isn't available.
"These contingency plans include investigating options within the Canadian Coast Guard fleet, as well as other research vessel service providers," said Jahn.
Other vessel woes
While this is the first time a fall Atlantic Zone Monitoring Program survey was scrapped, other Fisheries and Oceans Canada science missions have been impacted by fleet unreliability:
- In 2018, a mechanical breakdown on the coast guard research ship Needler ended a 48-year streak of completed summer groundfish surveys off Nova Scotia. The information is used to predict commercial fish stocks.
- Earlier in 2018, the same vessel missed a winter survey off Georges Bank because it was stuck in an extended refit.