Collaborative research in Nunatsiavut leading to biologically-rich discoveries.

During the 2022 Amundsen Expedition, a multidisciplinary team of scientists guided by local Nunatsiavut knowledge has observed a high-biodiversity region along the Labrador Coast. The site, an underwater cliff named “Joey’s Gully” (according to the name of the local fisherman Joey Angnatok who surmised its presence), was explored using the Amundsen Science’s ASTRID Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) deployed from the Canadian Coast Guard Ship (CCGS) Amundsen.


Oceanographers, ecologists and biologists have benefited from working with local communities as they conduct collaborative research along the Labrador coast. David Côté is an ecologist at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada who leads scientific projects such as ISICLE and ICECOLD to characterize and understand coastal and offshore ecosystems of the Labrador Sea. His colleague Barbara de Moura Neves is a research scientist who studies benthic ecosystems and especially corals and sponges. During both of their careers, they have worked in partnership with Nunatsiavut Government representatives and local communities, including fishermen. Important components of their research have been conducted on board the CCGS Amundsen over the past years.

In recent years, research programs aboard the CCGS Amundsen have notably focused on exploring the diversity of species living at the bottom of the ocean, which are referred to as benthic species. Some research programs have shed light on sensitive and fragile habitats across the coastal and deep ocean realm, while other programs have focused on better understanding the different characteristics of the marine organisms living at the surface and all the way down through the deep ocean. David and Barbara have joined a team of scientists on the CCGS Amundsen for the 2021 Expedition managed by Amundsen Science and have worked with local community members to locate areas in the northern seas where they might find sensitive coral species. The scientific team was able to identify new areas where benthic species of interest and maybe biodiversity hotspots could be found, thanks to discussions with local fish harvesters, and several rounds of planning using combination of local knowledge and scientific measurements. Multiple dives in the Labrador Sea and Baffin Bay where then schedule this year of 2021. Other dives have been postponed for the following year, as part of the 2022 Amundsen Expedition.

Committed to support the implementation of the National Inuit Strategy on Research (NISR), Amundsen Science has partnered with the Nunatsiavut Government and Nunatsiavut Research Centre to help better understand the marine and coastal environment along the Nunatsiavut Coast.

In fact, two Nunatsiavut Research Centre’s employees and scientists, Michelle Saunders and Carla Pamak, joined the multidisciplinary team of scientists on board during the first Leg of 2022 Amundsen Expedition. Their presence provided input on scientific operations but also opportunities to consolidate Inuit-led research, knowledge co-production, and Inuit community engagement. They organized cultural sessions on board the vessel to raise awareness and share cultural stories and the importance of ongoing work in the Labrador Sea and coastal Nunatsiavut. These efforts culminated in a tour of the Hebron Mission National Historic Site for the CCGS Amundsen scientists and crew members.

This partnership was integral to directing scientific teams to specific locations along coastal Nunatsiavut to investigate areas of cultural and potentially ecological significance. In fact, Michelle and Carla were very well acquainted with local fisherman Joey Angnatok, who advised the Amundsen’s scientific teams for several years and recommended that they study one of his former fishing sites, which the scientists later named “Joey’s Gully”.Map of Nunatsiavut with the transect made by the CCGS Amundsen in 2022, including the Makkovik hanging gardens diving site, Joey’s Gully diving site and Labrador Sea

This map of Nunatsiavut shows the transect made by the CCGS Amundsen in 2022, including the Makkovik hanging gardens diving site, Joey’s Gully diving site and Labrador Sea

Working with ASTRID and contributing to local Knowledge

The scientific team, that included Nunatsiavut Research Centre scientists, Amundsen Science’s skilled technicians, and the CCGS Amundsen’s officers and crew members, organized multiple dives at Joey’s past fishing site. Due to the rough bottom, potential for sensitive species, and the depth and of the site located at several hundreds of meters below the sea surface, they used flagship equipment from Amundsen Science to explore the area: the Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) called ASTRID.

ROV surveys play a crucial role in the investigation of sensitive benthic communities. They aim to contribute to data collection related to existing or planned marine conservation initiatives and to find and describe areas of high ecological importance that may be difficult to explore using other methods. Importantly, the ROV is less invasive than traditional sampling methods (e.g., trawls), which often can harm fragile benthic environments. Since the main goal of this project was to investigate potential areas of high conservation value along the Nunatsiavut Coast, the ASTRID ROV and its non-invasive instrumentation, including High-Definition subsea cameras, was an ideal fit for the mission. ASTRID is also equipped with two robotic arms that can retrieve samples, providing the ability to handle live organisms and other fragile samples with high precision.

A dive at Joey’s Gully (September 12, 2022)

On September 12 of 2022, ASTRID undertook its first dive of the expedition and was deployed at depth for more than four hours recording images and collecting samples. At 379 metres down, in a soft sediment area, ASTRID was able to collect several sediment samples and a deep-sea sponge in support of a PhD project. As the dive continued, the ROV video-surveyed a large underwater wall where a rich community of benthic fauna was thriving.

As ASTRID reached the seafloor and the exploration proceeded as usual, there were no exceptional indications of biodiversity. It wasn’t until an hour into the dive that we unexpectedly hit a cloud of bright red shrimp and a wall of Atlantic cod. One after another, scientists would identify sea anemones, soft corals and encrusted sponges as we navigated the water column thick with cod and krill at some locations

Christopher Morrissey

Marine Robotics Professional at Amundsen Science

In addition to the specific high diversity, Joey’s Gully, was noteworthy for the great abundance of some species (e.g., sea stars). From the clouds of krill to the dense schools of hungry Atlantic Cod, this dive was a highlight for the research team.

We were not sure what we would find during this dive. We planned the dive to survey areas with an intricate seafloor and likely a rich benthic habitat, but we were captivated with how Joey’s Gully teamed with marine life. It was one of the highlights of the mission

Bárbara de Moura Neves

Ph.D. Research scientists, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO)

In total, four ROV dives were conducted at three locations on Joey Angnatok’s past fishing sites during Leg 1. High-Definition footage as well as 38 biological, sediment, and seawater samples were collected during the dives.

Joey’s Gully’s dive is an example of many special moments that were experienced during the 2022 Amundsen Expedition. The mission brought together local community knowledge, technological innovation and biological science, not only to raise awareness on the significance of local community knowledge, but also to build on this knowledge to better understand the ecosystems in Canada’s northern oceans.