Scotian Chorale

Guest Contribution by Dr. Martin Willison

These days we don’t hear as much as we used to about Nova Scotia’s corals, but for a few years at the turn of the century they were the ‘talk of the town’. That was because many people were surprised to learn that there were corals off our coasts. The popular wisdom that extended throughout society in the 1990s was that corals were a tropical phenomenon. The tourism industry, understandably, magnified this misapprehension by playing on the wonder of beautiful coral reefs next to sun-soaked sandy beaches lined with coconut trees. That there could be anything similar hidden beneath the cold Atlantic depths close to home was not on anyone’s radar.

Coral specimen display, Clarkes Harbour, 2002. Photo by Derek Jones.

Coral specimen display at the Clarke’s Harbour Post Office. 2002. Photo by Derek Jones.

This began to change when the Ecology Action Centre (EAC) obtained a small grant from the Nova Scotia Museum in 1997 to study the distribution of corals off the province’s coast.  Their presence was known to natural history specialists, and to some fishermen, but there was no scientific consensus about where they were located, which species were present, or what roles they might play in ocean ecology.

Heather Breeze, who now works for Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), conducted the study to collect fishermen’s knowledge and integrate this with the limited amount of formally recorded scientific and historical information that was available.  Her report entitled “Distribution and status of deep sea corals off Nova Scotia” (Part 1 & Part 2)  was published in 1997 as the first Special Publication of the EAC’s Marine Issues Committee.  The work is now a classic example of how to conduct ground-breaking (and policy-shifting) research on a shoestring budget.

Coral specimen. Photo by Derek Jones.

Coral specimen. Photo by Derek Jones.

Prior to this relatively formal work, a group of fishermen from the Cape Sable Island region had created an organization called Canadian Ocean Habitat Protection Society (COHPS). COHPS was pronounced “cops” because they saw themselves entrenched in a battle with habitat robbers. They described the corals as “trees” and thought of them as providing essential habitat for fish. They had names for the different kinds of trees, all of which are found at depths too deep for a diver to observe. They had pieced together scraps of information gained mostly by careful observation of what sometimes came up to the surface attached to bottom longline gear. Many of their natural-historical observations and conclusions have since been confirmed by costly scientific surveys using remotely-operated vehicles, but it took some time and effort to get to the point where those costs could be justified by cautious public administrators.

The excitement generated by Breeze’s report led not just to more work, but to a movement. Protecting coral habitat became a rallying cry. Fishers, scientists and activists found common cause, but there were also critics and opponents, including those who complained that there was a dearth of adequate scientific literature. Indeed the absence of a strong body of scientific literature on cold-water corals became a tool used by opponents to block any chance of implementing measures to protect the coral-rich areas that had been mapped in the EAC study.

A strategy was born from the ensuing stalemate.  It was obvious that this stumbling block had to be removed, but how could the necessary body of scientific literature be created?  They key lay in realizing that this stumbling block was in place not only in Nova Scotia, but that marine scientists in Europe, the U.S. and Australasia were facing similar dilemmas. So the Ecology Action Centre took a bold step and organized the ‘First International Symposium on Deep-Sea Corals’. Held in August 2000, this meeting really was the first time that many scientists who had a common interest in corals that are widely distributed throughout the cold dark depths of the world’s oceans had met. The meeting led to lasting friendships.

Redfish nestles into Lophelia reef off Nova Scotia's Coast. Courtesy of DFO.

Redfish nestles into Lophelia reef off Nova Scotia’s Coast. Courtesy of DFO.

One of my interesting memories from that meeting was having an animated chat with André Freiwald, a prominent German scientist who later organized the second deep-sea coral symposium, held in 2003. He outlined his idea explaining the absence of Lophelia coral reefs on the Canadian side of the Atlantic Ocean. Lophelia pertusa is a true reef-forming ‘stony coral’ that has created huge reefs in waters off Norway. I forget the details of André’s hypothesis, but it was related to ocean currents, deep water refuges, and the ice age.  It was sophisticated and fun, except that (as we now know) there are Lophelia coral reefs off the coast of Nova Scotia. It is true that they are less abundant here than in the eastern Atlantic off the coasts of Norway and Ireland, but they are present here and Canadian scientists have still not done enough research to have mapped them adequately.  And, of course, this lack of mapping also means that all the important reefs are still not adequately protected. In fairness to DFO, one such reef has been protected, and it was done quickly under provisions of the Fisheries Act very shortly after the first Canadian Lophelia reef was discovered, but one is not enough.

There have been five international deep-sea coral symposia altogether, and there will be more in the future. The most recent one was held in Amsterdam in April 2012 and its proceedings will be published in the journal Deep Sea Research.  Deep-sea coral symposia are a lasting legacy of the scientific work initiated by the EAC’s Marine Issues Committee, spurred on by the good ‘cops’ of Cape Island. Keep up the good work!

Dr. Willison examines corals collected by Cape Sable Island fishermen, 1998

Willison examines corals collected by Cape Sable Island fishermen, 1998. Photo by Derek Jones.

Dr. Martin Willison listened to concerned small-scale fishermen on Nova Scotia’s south shore in the 1990s. He is one of the pioneers of deep-sea coral conservation, and helped organize the First International Symposium on Deep-Sea Corals in 2000.

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2 thoughts on “Scotian Chorale

  1. What a great post! This really tells a nice story of how a small group of committed folks can have a big impact – starting something that leads to a global, interconnected movement. Looking back also ties together the incremental, little steps that seem frustratingly small at the time into an arc that results in long term successes.

    • Thanks, Shannon. True- a story to keep us going when we’re mired in the little steps!

      For me, it is also refreshing to hear a story where scientists (and eventually government) respond to the informed concerns of small-scale fishermen.

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