Canada’s deep-sea science imperiled by outdated research ships, say scientists

Mark Lowey
January 6, 2021

Canadian scientists are no longer able to do cutting-edge deep-sea research off Canada’s coasts because of outdated and unreliable research vessels, says a group working to find a solution.

Insufficient federal funding means that scientists can’t even afford to lease other countries’ more modern research ships in order to lead research expeditions in Canadian waters, the three co-chairs of the National Research Vessel Task Team told Research Money.

“It’s just a slowly unfolding catastrophe that was predictable over a decade in advance and nothing was done,” said task team co-chair Douglas Bancroft, president and CEO of the Canadian Scientific Submersible Facility, based in North Saanich, B.C.

Canada has by far the oldest ocean research vessels in the world, with ships either at the edge of their lifetime or operating beyond their normal lifetime, he said.

The aging fleet lacks the equipment needed to do state-of-the-art deep-sea research, said task team co-chair Dr. Melissa Anderson (PhD), assistant professor of economic geology at the University of Toronto. “Canada has almost no capacity for this research and it’s incredibly frustrating,” she said.

The country has excellent researchers in areas such as deep-sea oceanography, ocean chemistry, marine biology and ecology, geology and geophysics, Anderson said.

But some geophysicists, for example, who have ocean-bottom seismometers funded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation aren’t able to use their equipment due to lack of access to modern research vessels, she said. “We’re no longer leaders in any deep-sea research anywhere in the world, even in our own waters.”

The Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada’s Ship Time program offers a total of $1 million per year for researchers holding an NSERC Discovery Grant to access research vessels.

But this amount of funding, which hasn’t changed in over a decade, isn’t enough to lease research vessels as well as pay for large-scale platforms such as remotely operated and autonomous underwater vehicles, Anderson said. “The choices are not doing the research, not driving the research, or leaving Canada.”

“Part of the problem is that people in Canada have not realized how bad the situation is, in relation to other countries,” said task team co-chair Dr. Douglas Wallace, PhD, scientific director of the not-for-profit Marine Environmental Observation Prediction and Response Network (MEOPAR), housed at Dalhousie University in Halifax, N.S.

Canada has the longest coastline in the world (243,000 kilometres) and an enormous seafloor under its extended continental shelf, Wallace said.

Deep-sea research is vital for major issues the country faces, such as climate change, plastics in the ocean, protection of marine areas, fisheries, and mapping the nation’s continental shelf economic zones, he said. “We need to have science capacity. Otherwise, nobody will pay attention to the Canadian voice.”

Experts warned about the problem years ago

A 2018 expert panel report by the Council of Canadian Academies noted that half of the Canadian Coast Guard-operated research fleet consists of ships built more than 25 years ago, leading to more breakdowns, higher costs and operational days lost to maintenance.

For example, the Hudson vessel on the East Coast is 56 years old, and the Amundsen, an icebreaker converted to an Arctic Ocean research vessel, is 40 years old.

Moreover, other countries have established more transparent systems of ship time allocation, which allow for more efficient use of ship time, and provide data to inform the planning of infrastructure investments, the expert panel noted.

“The ongoing renewal of the Canadian research fleet provides an opportunity not only to update aging infrastructure but also to improve the alignment of vessel specifications with science needs,” the panel said.

However, Canada’s National Shipbuilding Strategy currently doesn’t include any new large deep-sea research vessels dedicated to multidisciplinary research, or provide for designing new ships being built to include capability for such research.

“That was decided it wasn’t important, but nobody asked the scientists and the universities whether it was important,” Wallace said.

The strategy includes six new Arctic and offshore patrol ships for the Royal Canadian Navy, but none is being designed to accommodate scientific infrastructure for ocean research.

The government is reviewing the budget for a new oceanographic science vessel intended to replace the Hudson on the East Coast. But with the project on hold, the soonest the ship could be delivered is 2024.

Three replacement “offshore fisheries science vessels” have been completed for the Coast Guard. But they are designed for research on fisheries and marine species and have berths for only 13 researchers, precluding their use for multidisciplinary research, Wallace said.

For example, none of the ships has state-of-the art equipment such as multi-beam sonars for mapping the seabed and “moon pools” for lowering instrumentation through the ship’s hull.

In contrast, Germany – with a coastline less than 1/100th the size of Canada’s – has 17 dedicated research vessels in service, including a large icebreaker that can accommodate 50 scientists.

Modular solution proposed as stop-gap measure

The National Research Vessel Task Team has started discussions at the national level among multidisciplinary scientists, universities, federal departments and research funding agencies. The aim is to galvanize a community that can speak with one voice about the urgent need for modern offshore research vessels.

As a stop-gap measure, the task team is proposing a concept called “Modular Ocean Research Infrastructure” (MORI).

It involves deploying modular, portable scientific infrastructure temporarily on industry “workhorse” vessels and non-specialized vessels (such as two new Arctic and offshore patrol ships yet to be built), thereby converting them to capable research vessels. Such interoperable infrastructure would include sea-going containerized labs, accommodation “pods” and meeting rooms for scientists, remotely operated and autonomous vehicles, specialized sampling gear and other equipment.

“We’re looking for MORI to be the basis for a nationally shared infrastructure that would be available to all potential users: academic, government and the private sector,” Wallace said.

MEOPAR has contributed initial funding toward building MORI’s prototype infrastructure, but other funding partners will be needed to go to sea and test the prototype, he said. “We’re talking under $10 million to have a significant increase in capacity and use it within two years.”

Most new research vessels around the world are being designed to accommodate modular shipping container-based systems for doing science in a variety of forms and platforms, Bancroft noted. “It’s where the world is going.”

“I think the MORI concept is a great stop-gap but might also prove to be a great model, even if we didn’t have a shortage of research vessels,” said Dr. Casey Hubert (PhD), a marine and deep-biosphere microbiology researcher at the University of Calgary. “If you could do almost anything from any ship, it would alleviate a lot of pinch-points.”

The National Research Vessel Task Team hopes to secure time on a vessel this summer to demonstrate a prototype MORI system off Canada’s East Coast.

The three task team co-chairs and Hubert agreed that MORI doesn’t preclude the need for Canada to build its own dedicated research vessels. “But the one thing MORI will allow us to do is get back to sea and work together again as a [research] community,” Wallace said.


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