Ocean expedition creates powerful connections for conservation efforts

Submitted photo Christina Carr, a marine scientist at the Huntsman Marine Science Centre, on Layboldt Island.

SAINT ANDREWS – A group of scientists, students, ocean experts, artists, Indigenous community representatives and an array of other diverse participants embarked on a 22-day ocean conservation expedition throughout September.

The journey took those on board through the Bay of Fundy and along the Atlantic Coast of Nova Scotia.

Though the expedition is not the first nor the longest for Students on Ice (SOI), it is their first centred around ocean conservation.

In 2017, SOI completed a coast-to-coast-to-coast, 25,000-kilometre, 150-day expedition known as the C3 expedition to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday.

“The goal (of the recent expedition) was to connect all the different people and organizations connected to the ocean,” said SOI founder Geoff Green. “I think that’s where the magic happens.”

For many years, humanity believed the oceans would provide society with endless resources. Since then, the oceans have been continuously abused and exploited, leading to near irreparable damage.

“We haven’t treated it very well,” said Green. “Now we understand the impact.”

As the country with the longest coastline connecting three different oceans, Canada’s oceans have been deeply rooted in culture throughout history. Not only are the oceans an important part of history, but they are vital entities to sustain life on Earth. Half the oxygen people breathe is generated from the ocean and the coastal ecosystems support marine and land species, among the many other purposes it serves.

This decade, the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, is critical for ocean conservation. As society moves closer towards 2030, it has become progressively apparent that action must be taken, and it must be taken now.

“As the country with the longest coastline in the world, we should be a leader,” said Green.

Today, Canada has protected 14 per cent of its oceans, nearly halfway to the vowed 30 per cent by the end of the decade. Protection in reference to conservation is vastly different for every scenario – what makes a protected area is always different.

“I think there’s a lot of hope in the sense that everyone wants a healthy lake, and ocean,” said Green. “Clearly people love the ocean … it’s a matter of collaborating.”

The ocean conservation expedition involved 22 days of constant, active collaboration, unlike any other setting could possibly provide, among the more than 100 participants aboard the Polar Prince.

“Sharing and learning and listening is really what it’s about,” said Green. “I’ve always been a strong believer in the power of partnerships.”

Leaving emails and phone calls behind, the diverse group aboard the ship connected through in-person conversations that stretched past their normal 30-minute meetings.

“I learned a lot from listening to the perspectives of the diverse participants in the voyage. I’ve made contacts with different organizations that hopefully the Huntsman can work with in the future to contribute to marine conservation,” said Claire Goodwin, scientist at the Huntsman Marine Science Centre, in an email to The Courier.

The Indigenous-owned Ice breaker MV Polar Prince is the same vessel that carried participants of the C3 expedition. Having the opportunity to utilize the ship again was exciting for Green.

“We use the ocean as a classroom,” he said.

Nova Scotia’s Department of Resources and Renewables’ Lisa Doucette and her colleagues covered six islands in three days on this expedition. Within that time, they collected 17 samples and placed 16 cameras, which will assist them in furthering their knowledge of invasive species in the area.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada provided funding so the team from the Huntsman could create a genetic barcode library of Atlantic Canadian Marine Life. Barcodes, or small fragments of DNA, allow Goodwin’s team to identify species. Having as many species in the library as possible is beneficial for others to compare their samples to.

“Currently a comprehensive barcode library for this area is lacking,” Goodwin said. “We will identify our specimens from the Polar Prince expedition using traditional taxonomy and genetically sequence them. We can then add sequences for the species we obtained to our library. We sampled several locations during the trip so hopefully obtained representatives of many species.”

Goodwin says expeditions she participates in normally focus on data and sample collection for science.

“Usually, only scientists and the boat crew are on board. On this expedition there were a wide variety of participants, including students, artists and musicians, and policy makers,” she said.

Fifty per cent of youth participants (aged 18 to 25) on the ocean conservation expedition were Indigenous, nominated by their communities. Eighty-five per cent of all students who participate have their fees covered.

“They take the knowledge they gain and then use their voice,” said Green. “We won’t get to 30 by 30 without the Indigenous community … we are so blessed with these partnerships with governments, philanthropists and companies who believe in what we’re doing.”

Conservation is not a linear endeavor. There’s no standard, or model to follow, and it’s ever-changing. Though the damages done to the planet are devastating, there are people like those aboard the Polar Prince actively working to continuously learn about and maintain ecosystems.

It’s a big year, and decade, for conservation in Canada. Organizations like the Canadian Ocean Literacy coalition are advocating to improve our education of the planet, including the blue planet.

“You won’t have a green economy without a successful blue economy,” said Green. “Humans are strange creatures who don’t always make the right choices … but the number of conservation efforts we came by was incredible.”

heatherknight@stcroixcourier.ca