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Clam habitat under microscope
Research will lead to better understanding of marine life and environment

Myles Dolphin
Northern News Services
Published Monday, September 9, 2013

Marine research in Qikiqtarjuaq could ultimately make it easier for divers to find and harvest clams.

NNSL photo/graphic

Graduate student Beth Cowan, left and Dr. Alec Aitken, from the University of Saskatchewan sieve seabed samples from Qikiqtarjuaq as part of a research project to understand the ecology of clam habitats. - photo courtesy of Trevor Bell

Trevor Bell, a geography professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland, is in the community with three other researchers to map the seabed and examine clam habitats in hopes of understanding how Northern communities in Nunavut are vulnerable to climate change.

Bell said he is building on work that has already been done by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), which did an assessment of the clam density in the area in 1997.

Based on that research, the number of clams in Qikiqtarjuaq was estimated at nearly 31,000 metric tonnes.

At the time, divers projected the value of a resource that size at nearly $675 million.

However, the clam industry in Qikiqtarjuaq has faced problems before.

The Qikiqtarjuaq Diving Group Inc. (QDG) was stripped of its experimental fishing licence in 2003 after the federal government withheld it because of food safety concerns.

Morris Kuniliusee, who was the QDG president at the time, said the group stopped operating after the Canadian Food Inspection

Agency shut them down.

"The QDG is no longer operating after the CFIA stopped us for not having a clam testing facility in or near Qikiqtarjuaq," he said. "Few scuba divers still harvest clams using scuba diving equipment to sell locally. There's still no lab for testing clams and it makes me wonder how clam harvesting would work."

Qikiqtarjuaq economic development officer David Grant said current regulations make having a clam fishery "too difficult to happen."

That may change depending on the results of the survey.

"We're interested in using new technology in trying to map where the best clam habitats in the area are," said Bell, who was on the multi-purpose vessel Nuliajuk last year doing exploratory fishing in the area to sample clams and assess their abundance and nutritional value.

"We're using multi-beam sonar, which allows us to map the seabed in one great swatch under the boat. It gives an idea of water depth and the shape of the seabed, based on how strong the signal is received."

This time around, Bell wants to put a camera on the seabed to try and identify which other species are co-existing with the clams.

The footage should give him information on how susceptible those habitats are to change, as clams are a good indicator of ecosystem health in the area.

"If they are doing well, it's a good sign for the marine habitat," he said.

"There is very little information available along the eastern Baffin Island coast near these shore habitats. This information will go back to the communities and the DFO so they can make decisions on the efforts and resources that they invest in future clam fisheries."

Bell is also interested in finding out how sea levels have shifted in recent times, as it would give community leaders important data when considering the construction of future port facilities.

He added it's important to consider the projected rise in sea levels due to climate change coupled with the ongoing rise due to the past legacy of glaciation.

"When you combine those two numbers you get the total amount of sea level rise over the next decade or century," he said.

"It's very important for these coastal communities to know. Oddly enough in Resolute Bay, the sea level has been falling gently, which will offset the projected rise due to climate change."

Funding for the research was provided by ArcticNet, a network that studies the impacts of climate change and modernization in the coastal Canadian Arctic.

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