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Canada-U.S. Atlantic ocean science mission scrubbed due to COVID-19

Tuesday, March 24th 2020, 12:40 pm - The program measures climate change in the ocean through twice-annual surveys

A joint Canadian-U.S. science mission to monitor ocean climate on the east coast this spring has been scrubbed because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Scientists from both countries were scheduled to leave Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts last Thursday for a three-week cruise before the trip was cancelled.

The mission would have measured a wide range of physical and biological conditions.

"Given the precautions implemented to curb the spread of COVID-19, it was determined that the mission would not go forward," Department of Fisheries and Oceans spokesperson Barre Campbell said in a statement to CBC News.


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CANADIAN INSTRUMENTS SITTING ON A U.S. DOCK

In fact, instruments from Halifax were trucked down to Woods Hole in containers.

They were on the dock awaiting the arrival of Canadian scientists when the Americans called down all at-sea research trips, including this one, said DFO research scientist Dave Hebert.

CBC: The Canadian Coast Guard Ship Hudson is stuck in a St. John's shipyard while a maintenance refit runs months longer than expected. (Robert Short/CBC) The Canadian Coast Guard Ship Hudson is stuck in a St. John's shipyard while a maintenance refit runs months longer than expected. (Robert Short/CBC)

Hebert is principal investigator of the Atlantic Zone Monitoring Program (AZMP) — a twice-annual survey that measures ocean conditions on Canada's east coast.

He was disappointed but not surprised to learn the mission was cancelled.

He said he hopes the researchers can team up in future.

"There was a lot of effort by both sides to build up the collaboration on projects," Hebert said.

"While we did informal work together in the past, to have a kind of agreement that actually says we're working together on this project, understanding the Scotian Shelf and the Gulf of Maine is of interest to both countries," he said.

AMERICANS HELPING CANADA OUT OF A JAM

For Canadian scientists like Hebert the cancellation is doubly disappointing.

Not only will survey sampling data be missed, but the mission was a lost opportunity to work on an advanced research vessel.

The Canadian Coast Guard Ship Hudson usually carries out this research but the offshore oceanographic vessel is unavailable — again.

The 57-year old ship is stuck in a St. John's shipyard as a maintenance refit runs months longer than expected.

In its place, DFO chartered the 75-metre U.S. navy research vessel Neil Armstrong.

A COLLABORATION AGREEMENT

The charter was the result of a signed collaboration agreement between DFO and Woods Hole, an internationally recognized private research facility in Falmouth, Mass.

The Americans were also providing scientists, sharing data and paying for some of the ship's time.

Hebert said the R/V Neil Armstrong carries some of the same equipment that will be on board Hudson's replacement when it arrives in 2024.

"What we're planning to get, they have, we would have got to see that firsthand," he said.

MISSION HELPS MONITOR CLIMATE CHANGE IN THE OCEAN

The AZMP survey is one way Canada measures climate change in the ocean.

With this trip cancelled and Hudson's prolonged refit, Canada will miss a year of data.

DFO says other sampling methods provide data, including ocean gliders, remote sensing platforms, fixed moorings and other cruises that monitor conditions.

WATCH BELOW: CORONAVIRUS LOCKDOWNS ARE HAVING A SERIOUS EFFECT ON EMISSIONS

NO COAST GUARD SAILINGS IMPACTED BY COVID-19

No sailings involving Canadian Coast Guard vessels have been impacted by coronavirus, the department said.

"It is difficult to stay a prescribed distance away from your colleagues on a ship," Campbell said in a statement.

"Marine search and rescue is an essential service and often a matter of life and death, and during a search and rescue response our crew members are required to work in very close proximity to each other."

The statement went on to say that crew members are taking precautions to work at greater distances from each other, and anyone showing symptoms of COVID-19 will be asked to stay home and get tested for the virus.

"We are prepared to reprioritize people and assets as needed to maintain operational readiness," said Campbell in the statement.

"Emergency situations in Canadian waters are a reality, and the Coast Guard stands ready to respond when they arise."

This article, written by Paul Withers, was originally published for CBC News.

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