By Dariya Baiguzhiyeva
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
For the first time in decades, an oceanographic expedition is exploring James Bay’s unique marine ecosystem.
With 14 members of the science team and six crew members on board, the 65-foot-long William Kennedy ship is out on the water collecting scientific data on James Bay.
The chief scientist and a biological oceanographer at the University of Manitoba C.J. Mundy said the research will allow for a better understanding of the bay’s physical, chemical and biological features.
The research is looking at the structure of the food web, particularly the benthic organisms that live on the ocean’s floor, and where the nutrients come from.
The expedition will also look at how much blue carbon the bay stores and how much primary production there is.
“The kind of questions we’re trying to ask is what is running the system. And while doing that, we’re also trying to lay down a new, I don’t want to say baseline, but the starting point of observations because this hasn’t been studied for almost 50 years,” Mundy said.
The research science team includes professors, researchers and students from the University of Manitoba as well as researchers from Fisheries and Oceans Canada, a specialist from Oceans North and a student from L’Universite de Sherbrooke.
Owned by Arctic Research Operation and retrofitted by the University of Manitoba, the vessel left Churchill, Man., on Aug. 1 and is expected to return to the port on Aug. 17.
Last October, Mushkegowuk chiefs approved a motion to have nation-to-nation talks with the federal government about establishing the National Marine Conservation Area (NMCA) project.
Mushkegowuk Council is working on the project with Oceans North, Wildlands League and Oceans Collaborative. In addition to Mushkegowuk’s seven First Nations, Weenusk First Nation and Fort Severn have also joined the project.
Next Monday, Aug. 9, Mushkegowuk Council and Parks Canada are set to sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU).
The signing of the MOU will launch a three-year feasibility study in the western James Bay and southwestern Hudson Bay region.
“It’s been pretty amazing because in the planning stages we got to really work with the governing bodies around the Bay,” Mundy said. “Having governing bodies and being told what people want to see being done for research, it’s not often we get to do something like that. And with the extra year from COVID, it was pretty incredible to have that dynamic and almost build a relationship over Zoom.”
The vessel is equipped with two zodiacs (inflatable boats) and a rosette sampler among many other scientific instruments.
The vessel stops every five nautical miles to do a profile of the water using a sensor that measures the ocean’s salinity, temperature, depth and other variables.
“That’ll give us an idea of what the circulation of the ocean is because it will probably change from one side of the base to the other in terms of salinity and temperature,” Mundy said.
One of the challenges is having to follow the tracks in a “largely uncharted ocean” and not being able to go too fast when the vessel gets off the tracks.
“Because you never know if there’s going to be a shoal or something that’s unmarked,” Mundy said.
The area is home to polar bears, beluga whales, walruses and over 170 species of geese, ducks and shorebirds. The bay is also unique because it’s shallow and low in salinity.
“There’s a need really to understand and provide more information because we’re in an area where the people that live here don’t really reach that much. So it’s really been untouched in terms of research,” Mundy said.
This year, the team is focused on deploying oceanographic moorings, which are sensors that are moored to the bottom of the ocean with weight. The sensors float along the line and measure various aspects of the ocean’s physics, chemistry, and biology up to about 15 metres.
When part of the team returns to the bay next year, they’ll retrieve the moorings. An acoustic release at the bottom of the mooring will release itself from the weight upon the command from the surface.
“This year is more about exploring because nobody has been here for almost 50 years,” Mundy said. “Just to get an idea to help us better plan for next year where we’ll come and do a bit more detailed data collection as well as, I really hope, we could do more community interaction than we’re able to this year because of the COVID restrictions.”
Dariya Baiguzhiyeva is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the TIMMINSTODAY.COM . The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.