Tristan and Courtney's 2019 Central Coast Marine Science ExpeditionLatest update May 6, 2019 Started on March 18, 2019
We sail the central coast of BC studying rockfishes, herring, and climate change. Working with the First Nations communities that have lived here for 700 generations, we combine TEK with modern science methods and cool maps.
We just wrapped up our first dive survey trip of the year, surveying fish out of the Wuikinuxv Village. Wuikinuxv (or Oweekeno) is at the head of Rivers Inlet on the Central Coast of British Colombia, home to the Wuikinuxv Nation with around 80 people living in the village at times.
Rivers Inlet is a gigantic fjord, with beautiful crumbly islands exposed directly to ocean swell at its mouth, and crazy deep fjords as you head further inland. The further inland we sailed really hit home just how tiny our 29’ sailboat Great Blue Heron is. We’ve learned so much from surveying the different habitats found on BC’s central coast, working with the First Nations that have lived and fished here for millennia.
We are surveying rockfishes and lingcod as part of a research project looking at the effectiveness of Rockfish Conversation Areas (RCA’s). These protected areas were implemented 10 years ago by the Canadian Government with the goal to protect big old rockfish, who produce exponentially more successful offspring than their younger compatriots. This project is done by the Central Coast Indigenous Resource Alliance (CCIRA), working with our partners at Stormcoast Dive Services and West Sea Otter Watertaxi.
I’ve been lucky enough to work on these surveys since 2015, and they’re some of the coolest and most challenging survey dives I’ve ever been a part of. Our team of skilled research divers are comparing fish sizes and biodiversity at sites inside and outside of the conservation areas. If you’re interested in reading some of our scientific publications, they can be found here (https://www.ccira.ca/reports/).
There are 39 species of rockfish found in British Colombia water, and each species of rockfish has a special life history and behaviour that they're okay with. Some species prefer deep dark caves to hide in and refuse to come out to get surveyed. Some are real skittish, and will flee as soon as they see a diver. Some don’t mind noises, like a diver exhaling, whereas others are totally cool with you until you exhale and then they freak out and run! We’ve found that how each species is approached determines whether we’ll be able to get a good total length measurement or not.
While a lot of rockfish species prefer depths beyond those available to no decompression diving, we’ve found that a huge amount of biodiversity is found in the top 60 meters of the water column. Skilled divers have been the most effective and reliable way to collect fish size data down to 30m, but as small ROV’s become more available that may help us uncover things about rockfishes in British Colombia that have evaded our dive surveys.
Stay tuned for more updates as the research continues throughout our 2019 field season! We’ll be continuing this research throughout the summer, diving in all four central coast nations traditional territories.
How will consumer ROV's change the science landscape?
I've been working as a field technician for 8 years, and in that time I've seen a lot of changes in the technology used for scientific research. Aerial drones have drastically changed what fieldworkers are able to do and see, and I believe a similar renaissance is imminent with underwater drones (ROV's or Remotely Operated Vehicles).
Pacific Herring (Clupea pallasii) are incredibly important to both ecosystem function and First Nations communities on the Central Coast of British Colombia. Every spring these fish migrate into the shallows to lay their eggs, an event monitored by the air because it's relatively easy to spot. These areas are then surveyed by SCUBA divers down to 20 meters; believed to be the lower limit of their spawning range. Surveying beyond 20m is challenging on SCUBA as the deeper you go the less available bottom time you have for working. But what if the herring are spawning in areas where you can't observe it from the air?
Since 2016 we've been working with the Central Coast First Nations to identify areas where herring spawn occurs deeper than 20m. Using the local traditional knowledge and a handful of skilled scientific SCUBA divers, we've been able to document 3 areas that regularly have herring spawning down to 40 meters and beyond. This is the limit of what we can survey using SCUBA, but the herring clearly don't mind depositing eggs at deeper depths. This has changed the way we look at where and how herring spawning happens.
Having a tool like a SoFar Trident Underwater Drone and it's 100m tether would allow us to survey more areas to depths much further than we're able to go using SCUBA divers. These tools also would allow for groups like the Coastal Guardian Watchmen, who act as the eyes and ears for their communities, to conduct their own survey work independently.
How am I going to use a Trident ROV?
We're going into our 5th year of dive surveys looking at rockfish populations on the Central Coast of BC. This work is being used to measure fish sizes and populations, which in turn helps with the optimal placement of new marine protected areas, and evaluating the efficacy of current rockfish conservation strategies.
These dives take place in remote areas, with very little information available on what is underwater prior to jumping in and seeing. We work with the First Nations communities on the Central Coast of BC and often survey traditional fishing grounds, looking at what habitat features large, old rockfish prefer.
I had purchased a Trident ROV for the 2019 field season, with a plan to conduct surveys to inform our dive work. I was going to use the ROV to investigate areas before bringing in our scientific dive crew, which lets us be more efficient with our diving efforts. Another way the Trident can help us is that it can dive deeper than a person on scuba, which means we can collect data that we wouldn't otherwise have access to without a tool like the Trident.
Unfortunately, there was an accident involving the ROV and a boat propeller, that resulted in the startling and tragic death of our first Trident (RIP Trident Mk I)
These things happen when you're working on/in the ocean, but it doesn't make the loss of a key research tool any easier. Despite our loss, we will soldier on and continue our dive surveys throughout the 2019 field season; but a tool like the Trident ROV would allow us to do a better job on the recon of potential survey sites and make us more efficient when we have divers ready to splash. A Trident ROV would also allow us to involve community members in our surveys. It lets us show people on the boat, people who may never get to dive, to see what's in the water of their traditional territory.
Tristan Blaine is a scientific diver and biologist working with the First Nations communities of the Central Coast of BC since 2015. Courtney Edwards has been a field-cartographer, GIS tech, and sailing our boat since 2015 as well.
2019 is the culmination of our field and sailing skills: cruising the Central Coast, known to some as the Great Bear Rainforest. This geographically diverse area has been home to the First Nations communities for over 700 generations, with limited access to more modern scientific researchers. By combining our love of exploration and ground-truthing with the local ecological knowledge, we are able to work with these communities to expand their governance and scientific knowledge of their traditional territories.
Topics researched to date have included: ground-truthing ecologically important habitats like glass sponge reefs and corals, spawning behaviour of Pacific Herring, and surveys of the size and age structure of rockfish populations.
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