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Nimble vessel cruises as a complementary platform for Southern Ocean biodiversity research: concept and preliminary results from the Belgica 121 expedition

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 June 2022

Bruno Danis*
Affiliation:
Laboratoire de Biologie Marine, Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB), B-1050 Brussels, Belgium
Ben Wallis
Affiliation:
Ocean Expeditions, 2000 Sydney, Australia
Charlène Guillaumot
Affiliation:
Laboratoire de Biologie Marine, Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB), B-1050 Brussels, Belgium Biogéosciences, UMR 6282 CNRS, Université Bourgogne Franche-Comté, F-21078 Dijon, France
Camille Moreau
Affiliation:
Laboratoire de Biologie Marine, Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB), B-1050 Brussels, Belgium Biogéosciences, UMR 6282 CNRS, Université Bourgogne Franche-Comté, F-21078 Dijon, France
Francesca Pasotti
Affiliation:
Marine Biology Research Group, Ghent University, Ghent, B-9000 Belgium
Franz M. Heindler
Affiliation:
Laboratory of Biodiversity and Evolutionary Genomics, University of Leuven, B-3000 Leuven, Belgium
Henri Robert
Affiliation:
Marine Biology, Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), Pleinlaan 2, B-1050 Brussels, Belgium
Henrik Christiansen
Affiliation:
Laboratory of Biodiversity and Evolutionary Genomics, University of Leuven, B-3000 Leuven, Belgium
Quentin Jossart
Affiliation:
Laboratoire de Biologie Marine, Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB), B-1050 Brussels, Belgium Marine Biology, Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), Pleinlaan 2, B-1050 Brussels, Belgium
Thomas Saucède
Affiliation:
Biogéosciences, UMR 6282 CNRS, Université Bourgogne Franche-Comté, F-21078 Dijon, France
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Abstract

The western Antarctic Peninsula is facing rapid environmental changes and many recent publications stress the need to gain new knowledge regarding ecosystems responses to these changes. In the framework of the Belgica 121 expedition, we tested the use of a nimble vessel with a moderate environmental footprint as an approach to tackle the urgent needs of the Southern Ocean research community in terms of knowledge regarding the levels of marine biodiversity in shallow areas and the potential impacts of retreating glaciers on this biodiversity in combination with increasing tourism pressure. We discuss the strengths and drawbacks of using a 75’ (23 m) sailboat in this research framework, as well as its sampling and environmental efficiency. We propose that the scientific community considers this approach to 1) fill specific knowledge gaps and 2) improve the general coherence of the research objectives of the Antarctic scientific community in terms of biodiversity conservation and the image that such conservation conveys to the general public.

Type
Opinion
Creative Commons
Creative Common License - CCCreative Common License - BY
This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0), which permits unrestricted re- use, distribution and reproduction, provided the original article is properly cited.
Copyright
Copyright © The Author(s), 2022. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of Antarctic Science Ltd

The Southern Ocean is undergoing environmental change

The Southern Ocean (SO) ecosystems are exposed to a range of environmental stressors that act together and materialize as seawater temperature increases, salinity decreases, seawater acidification, UV-B radiation increases, sea-ice regime changes, ice-shelf collapses and coastal glacier retreat (Fabry et al. Reference Fabry, McClintock, Mathis and Grebmeier2009, Reygondeau & Huettmann Reference Reygondeau, Huettmann, Broyer, Koubbi, Griffiths, Raymond, d'Udekem d'Acoz, Van de Putte and et al2014, Gutt et al. Reference Gutt, Bertler, Bracegirdle, Buschmann, Comiso and Hosie2015, Menezes et al. Reference Menezes, Macdonald and Schatzman2017, Etourneau et al. Reference Etourneau, Sgubin, Crosta, Swingedouw, Willmott and Barbara2019). The intensity and pace of environmental change are not homogeneous across the whole SO: the western Antarctic Peninsula (WAP), for instance, is enduring the most intense changes (Kerr et al. Reference Kerr, Mata, Mendes and Secchi2018, Siegert et al. Reference Siegert, Atkinson, Banwell, Brandon, Convey and Davies2019). This has a potentially strong impact on the marine ecosystems of this region, as they are also facing direct anthropogenic disturbances such as through fisheries, tourism and scientific activities (Lenihan & Oliver Reference Lenihan and Oliver1995, Aronson et al. Reference Aronson, Thatje, McClintock and Hughes2011, McCarthy et al. Reference McCarthy, Peck, Hughes and Aldridge2019). There is, however, a general consensus regarding a number of unique physiological characteristics and life-history traits found in these organisms, including high levels of endemism (Griffiths et al. Reference Griffiths, Barnes and Linse2009, Kaiser et al. Reference Kaiser, Brandão, Brix, Barnes, Bowden and Ingels2013, Saucede et al. Reference Saucede, Pierrat, David, Broyer, Koubbi, Griffiths, Raymond, d'Udekem d'Acoz, Van de Putte and et al2014), high sensitivity to temperature increases (Cheng & William Reference Cheng and William2007, Pörtner et al. Reference Pörtner, Peck and Somero2007, Peck Reference Peck2016, Reference Peck, Hawkins, Evans, Dale, Firth and Smith2018) and the relative importance of brooding as a reproductive strategy (David & Mooi Reference David and Mooi1990, Hunter & Halanych Reference Hunter and Halanych2008, Sewell & Hofmann Reference Sewell and Hofmann2011, Moreau et al. Reference Moreau, Saucède, Jossart, Agüera, Brayard and Danis2017). Altogether, these characteristics are thought to contribute to the potential vulnerability of SO organisms, populations and ecosystems (Peck Reference Peck2005, Peck et al. Reference Peck, Webb and Bailey2004, Reference Peck, Morley and Clark2010, Ingels et al. Reference Ingels, Vanreusel, Brandt, Catarino, David and De Ridder2012, Lohrer et al. Reference Lohrer, Cummings and Thrush2013, Guillaumot et al. Reference Guillaumot, Fabri-Ruiz, Martin, Eléaume, Danis, Féral and Saucède2018b). Despite intense research efforts to gather the data required to understand ecosystem responses to environmental stressors, our knowledge of these responses remains patchy and so further investigation is required (Sen Gupta et al. Reference Sen Gupta, Santoso, Taschetto, Ummenhofer, Trevena and England2009, Constable et al. Reference Constable, Melbourne-Thomas, Corney, Arrigo, Barbraud and Barnes2014, Reygondeau & Huettmann Reference Reygondeau, Huettmann, Broyer, Koubbi, Griffiths, Raymond, d'Udekem d'Acoz, Van de Putte and et al2014, Bonsell & Dunton Reference Bonsell and Dunton2018, Le Guen et al. Reference Le Guen, Kato, Raymond, Barbraud, Beaulieu and Bost2018, Rogers et al. Reference Rogers, Frinault, Barnes, Bindoff, Downie and Ducklow2020).

Southern Ocean biodiversity and sampling

Many knowledge gaps (in terms of spatial and/or temporal coverage) regarding biodiversity in the SO remain (e.g. Hogg et al. Reference Hogg, Barnes and Griffiths2011, Schiaparelli et al. Reference Schiaparelli, Danis, Wadley, Stoddart, di Prisco and Verde2013). Various meta-analyses have revealed that published Antarctic biodiversity data are highly heterogeneous, with many sampling hotspots but also vastly under-sampled areas and life-forms (Barry & Elith Reference Barry and Elith2006, Griffiths et al. Reference Griffiths, Danis and Clarke2011, Guillaumot et al. Reference Guillaumot, Martin, Eléaume and Saucède2018a, Reference Guillaumot, Artois, Saucède, Demoustier, Moreau and Eléaume2019). Furthermore, the bulk of this biodiversity data concentrates on offshore collections from the Antarctic shelf gathered using large research vessels and on bird and marine mammal observations or tracking data (Griffiths et al. Reference Griffiths, Van de Putte, Danis, De Broyer, Koubbi, Griffiths, Raymond, d'Udekem d'Acoz and Van de Putte2014). Except in the direct vicinity of research stations, the paucity of detailed data from shallow, coastal areas (> 100 m depth) persists, including for the intertidal zone, which is an ecologically complex area at the interface between multiple terrestrial and marine processes and is directly exposed to changes induced by glacier retreat (Griffiths & Waller Reference Griffiths and Waller2016). Such biases highlight the need for complementary fieldwork approaches in order to address sampling gaps and to provide much-needed biodiversity data at a pace matching the rapid environmental changes occurring along the WAP.

An element of the solution: a nimble research platform

We propose that the use of nimble vessels with moderate environmental footprints (e.g. in terms of greenhouse gasses, microplastics or exotic propagule emissions) is a valuable approach to tackling the urgent knowledge needs of the SO research community in a complementary manner. In fact, some early Antarctic expeditions used nimble vessels very successfully for biological research at the Antarctic Peninsula, assembling the first biodiversity inventories for the area (Bagshawe Reference Bagshawe1938). Recent research has also employed nimble vessels, particularly for the study of Antarctic birds at the WAP and in the Scotia Sea (e.g. Lynch et al. Reference Lynch, White, Naveen, Black, Meixler and Fagan2016, Borowicz et al. Reference Borowicz, McDowall, Youngflesh, Sayre-McCord, Clucas and Herman2018). However, there is still untapped potential in the use of nimble vessels for Antarctic research, including marine biology operations at sea (e.g. dredge or SCUBA diving activities within no decompression limits). We therefore explore in this paper the concept of using a small research vessel for multifaceted, agile marine biodiversity research. More specifically, we tested the use of such a platform to focus on quantifying the levels of marine biodiversity in the shallows and the potential impacts of retreating glaciers on this biodiversity in combination with increasing tourism pressure.

While there are many advantages to expeditions that are carried out on large icebreaking research vessels (including ample laboratory space, the availability of heavy sampling machinery, ice-breaking capability and deep-sea sampling), there are also some limitations due to their cost and size, their substantial environmental footprint and sampling often being restricted to relatively deep, offshore waters. Furthermore, while large research teams on board icebreakers represent a great diversity of expertise and skill sets, ship-time allocation between projects can become a delicate matter. In this context, the Belgica 121 expedition (B121) commissioned the RV Australis, a fully rigged 75’ (23 m) motor sailor (Ocean Expeditions 2019) that can accommodate a small scientific team (nine individuals) together with the vessel's crew (three individuals). Small-scale expeditions may specifically target under-sampled areas and can access remote places distant from research stations where shallow-water environments have been little if ever explored. Furthermore, a collaborative research team focusing on a unique overarching project (in this case, a biodiversity census) with diverse subprojects may function very efficiently thanks to the mutual inclusiveness of the research activities. Finally, gaining access to large national oceanographic vessels is often a lengthy, competitive process. B121 was small and comparatively cheap and easy to organize and therefore our approach could help address urgent research needs in a timely fashion.

Aims of the Belgica 121 expedition

The aims of our study were two-fold:

  1. 1) A logistics-orientated facet focused on assessing the suitability, advantages and efficiency of a nimble research platform for complementing traditional approaches to conducting biodiversity research in the SO;

  2. 2) A scientific facet focused on carrying out a detailed biodiversity census near selected stations in the WAP using a wide variety of qualitative and quantitative methods.

Our expedition aimed to gather samples and data in order to establish baseline information on biodiversity so as to better understand the responses of such biodiversity to fast-paced environmental change. The expedition used an integrative approach including oceanographic measurements, habitat mapping, a biodiversity census, genomics, environmental DNA surveys and trophic ecology. Here, we describe the concept of our sampling approach with a particular focus on assessing its sampling potential and efficiency and its environmental impact.

Belgica 121 efficiency

The expedition took place on the RV Australis, a vessel that can accommodate nine scientists and three crew members and is equipped with two tenders (Ocean Expeditions 2019). Despite the relatively limited space available, the RV Australis can accommodate various sampling activities from gear deployment to sample processing (for details, see Danis et al. Reference Danis, Christiansen, Guillaumot, Heindler, Houston and Jossart2019). The B121 expedition lasted for a total of 28 days, with a total of 22 days spent sampling and 6 days devoted to crossing the Drake Passage. Sampling operations are detailed in Table I and a comprehensive description of each method has been published in the B121 cruise report (Danis et al. Reference Danis, Christiansen, Guillaumot, Heindler, Houston and Jossart2019). In total, we investigated 15 stations of which 7 were more comprehensively sampled (Fig. 1). In total, 51,210 organisms were collected from 201 gear deployments, which is comparable to some expeditions conducted from research icebreakers (Tables II & III). Over the course of the expedition, 3.56 T of fuel were consumed (including from steaming, energy generators and tenders; Table II), which is comparatively low-level fuel consumption (e.g. 54 T day-1 for a polar-class icebreaker sailing in open waters and 15 T day-1 when stationary in the case of the RV Polarstern; see, e.g., https://www.mosaic-expedition.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/mosaic-factsheet-facts-on-sustainability.pdf). The average total operating cost of the vessel per day came to €4570 (Table III).

Fig. 1. General map of the sampling area in the western Antarctic Peninsula. Red rectangles: complete stations (all sampling gear deployed); orange rectangles: partial stations; green rectangle: historical monument visit. See Danis et al. (Reference Danis, Christiansen, Guillaumot, Heindler, Houston and Jossart2019) for details. For station acronym definitions, see Table I. Modified after map ‘Brabant Islands to Argentine Islands', British Antarctic Survey, Edition 1, 2008. The insert displays the RV Australis track while in the Antarctic Peninsula.

Table I. Overview of the expedition sampling and operations at the different stations. A few examples of counts for gear deployment are provided (a full account is available from the cruise report; see Danis et al. Reference Danis, Christiansen, Guillaumot, Heindler, Houston and Jossart2019).

Table II. Non-exhaustive comparative list of research activities (as number of deployments of scientific gear) conducted during some recent Antarctic research expeditions on different platforms. Note that it is virtually impossible to fully quantify successful research activities.

Table III. Overview of the expedition efficiency. Total and daily figures provided for sampling efforts (number of stations visited, organisms sampled, gear deployments) compared to the time, fuel consumption and overall cost of the expedition.

Strengths and drawbacks of a small sampling platform

In general, we found this expedition to be highly efficient and extremely versatile (Table I). Nine scientists were able to work in parallel thanks to a well-organized research plan, a careful design of workspaces by the RV Australis skipper and also the complementary design of the research (sub)projects (for a comprehensive description, see Danis et al. Reference Danis, Christiansen, Guillaumot, Heindler, Houston and Jossart2019).

Strengths

The greatest strength of this research approach is its ability to investigate shallow and nearshore areas away from scientific bases. We were able to anchor in waters as shallow as 5 m depth where we could work from the ship or from any of the two tenders. This gave us easy access to many areas that are difficult or even impossible to reach from larger oceanographic vessels or established bases (which would always at least involve an extra trip by tender). This proved particularly convenient for conducting SCUBA diving operations in waters shallower than 20 m, as large vessels are not ideal for scientific diving. The flexibility of being able to start working or continue working into the night without hindering any other projects was a great advantage and a major contributor to the success of the expedition. Another strength of our approach was the great amount of control we had over ship time. A coherent research design allowed for adapting our sampling efforts to weather conditions as they changed during the expedition. Having a small team allowed for the selection of research projects that complemented each other and accommodated parallel sampling. This means that while on site each team member was constantly busy, with no single subproject hampering the progress of others. Another positive aspect of this expedition was its low cost and moderate environmental impact. During the International Polar Year that ran from March 2007 to March 2009, many research projects were under threat because of the steep rise in marine fuel costs, which had increased five-fold during the planning period between 2003 and 2007 (Schiermeier Reference Schiermeier2008). Even though large oceanographic vessels can have > 50 scientists on board (and therefore potentially have a five-fold greater output capacity per day compared to our expedition), our total fuel consumption over the whole expedition represented a small fraction of the daily fuel consumption of a large vessel at sea. This is also embodied in the economic cost of the 32 day expedition being far less than the operating cost of a polar-class icebreaker for 2 days. This reduced economic cost represents an opportunity for countries or institutes with limited budgets to be involved in Antarctic science without the necessity of building infrastructure on land or being a part of large expeditions led by other countries.

Drawbacks

We have experienced strong weather dependency during B121 regarding both the crossing of the Drake Passage and during our sampling time. While we consider ourselves to be extremely lucky not to have experienced any storms during the whole expedition, we acknowledge that adverse weather conditions could greatly hamper the work power of such an expedition. Furthermore, the indoor working space is limited, especially for wet sampling, and bad weather could significantly slow down the processing of samples. In contrast, larger ships and stations are less affected by the weather in terms of both transit time and the availability of indoor laboratories. In addition, the feasibility of using small vessels is dependent on the geographical area being considered. For example, areas such as the sub-Antarctic islands, South Georgia or the WAP are very appropriate for such vessels due to the absence or reduced ice cover in these areas during the summer months and the possibilities for shelter. In contrast, considering the very limited ice-breaking capacity of yachts, very remote Antarctic locations (e.g. Weddell Sea, Ross Sea) would inappropriate for such expeditions. The lack of heavy equipment on these vessels is another significant limiting factor. While this did not affect our type of research, it could restrict the kinds of projects that could be pursued on such a research vessel. Although we successfully deployed a conductivity-temperature-depth (CTD) sensor) and a Niskin bottle (for plankton and environmental DNA sampling) at 400 m depth, sampling at any greater depth would become impractical without larger winches. Furthermore, the inability to trawl and take advantage of dynamic positioning (for deployments deeper than 500 m) also shapes the kind of research that can be carried out.

Relevance of the concept

Using a nimble research platform for marine biodiversity studies in the shallow waters of the SO has proven to be efficient in terms of filling targeted knowledge gaps and being environmentally friendly and cost effective. Based on our experience, we would like to call for a more general mobilization of such platforms not as replacements for traditional oceanographic vessels or local sampling from research stations, but rather as a targeted effort to rapidly fill knowledge gaps from under-sampled areas, such as remote nearshore and shallow (< 100 m) shelf areas away from research bases. In terms of the potential for using other types of gear from a nimble platform, there is clearly a possibility for using remotely operated vehicles and autonomous underwater vehicles (for detailed habitat mapping and/or photogrammetry) and other types of equipment to carry out work on sea ice, oceanography, etc., providing that the vessel is adapted appropriately and in advance. We believe that special attention should be devoted to the intertidal zone, which is currently expanding due to glacier retreat and is bound to offer vacant ecological niches to potential invasive species in an area exposed to intense maritime traffic. More regular use of nimble vessels would also benefit from a concerted effort to develop standardized rapid assessment protocols, similar to the vision developed by the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research Antarctic Near-Shore and Terrestrial Observation System (SCAR-ANTOS). Several nimble vessel options exist for scientific expeditions in the SO. For example, it was estimated that ~50 yachts sailed to Antarctica from 2018 to 2019 and 43 did so from 2019 to 2020 (IAATO 2021). Not all of these vessels may be amenable to all types of research, but given the proof of concept presented here and other successful examples (e.g. Lynch et al. Reference Lynch, White, Naveen, Black, Meixler and Fagan2016, Borowicz et al. Reference Borowicz, McDowall, Youngflesh, Sayre-McCord, Clucas and Herman2018) it seems worthwhile for the scientific community to explore these alternatives more often. In the context of the B121, we have found that using a nimble research platform can yield large amounts of new knowledge and samples at a low cost and having only a moderate environmental impact. Finally, we believe that the Antarctic research community should also consider using nimble research platforms whenever possible to improve the general coherence of the ultimate research objectives of the Antarctic scientific community in terms of biodiversity conservation and the image that such conservation conveys to stakeholders and the general public.

Acknowledgements

We would like to thank the whole RECTO-vERSO Consortium and its partners. We also thank the fantastic crew of the RV Australis - Captain Ben Wallis, Katie Lucas and Ryan Houston - for their support during the expedition. We also thank André François for his help with obtaining all of the necessary permits. We finally thank the reviewers for their very valuable input in improving the manuscript.

Author contributions

BD led the Belgica 121 expedition, developed the expedition concept, performed data preparation and edited the manuscript prior to submission; BW skipped the RV Australis, developed the expedition concept and edited the manuscript prior to submission; CG collected subtidal (SCUBA) samples, performed data analysis and edited the manuscript prior to submission; CM collected intertidal samples, identified organisms, performed data analysis and edited the manuscript prior to submission; FP collected subtidal samples (SCUBA), performed data analysis and edited the manuscript prior to submission; FMH collected samples, performed data analysis and prepared and edited the manuscript prior to submission; HR collected samples, performed data analysis and prepared and edited the manuscript prior to submission; HC collected samples, performed data analysis and edited the manuscript prior to submission; QJ collected intertidal samples, identified organisms, performed data analysis and edited the manuscript prior to submission; TS developed the expedition concept, collected subtidal (SCUBA) samples, performed data analysis and edited the manuscript prior to submission.

Financial support

We are grateful to our funding agencies for trusting our team: the Belgian Science Policy Office (BELSPO, under the BRAIN (Belgian Research Action through Interdisciplinary Networks) funding scheme), the Federal Public Service Health, Food Chain Safety and Environment, Federation Wallonia-Brussels, the Fund for Scientific Research (FNRS), the Research Foundation - Flanders (FWO), the Leopold 3 Fund for the exploration and conservation of Nature and the Royal Belgian Society for Zoology. This research was funded by the Refugia and Ecosystem Tolerance in the Southern Ocean project (RECTO; BR/154/A1/RECTO) and the Ecosystem Responses to global change: a multiscale approach in the Southern Ocean project (vERSO; BR/132/A1/vERSO; http://rectoversoprojects.be), both funded by the Belgian Science Policy Office (BELSPO). This is contribution #21 to the RECTO project and contribution #43 to the vERSO project. HC was supported by a grant from the former Flemish agency for Innovation by Science and Technology (IWT), now managed through Flanders Innovation & Entrepreneurship (VLAIO, grant no. 141328).

Permits

This research falls under Permit No. 2018/03 issued by the Belgian federal government (Federal Public Service Health, Food Chain Safety and Environment) to the governmental scientific activity ‘Belgica 121’ (20 February–30 April 2019) in Antarctica.

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Figure 0

Fig. 1. General map of the sampling area in the western Antarctic Peninsula. Red rectangles: complete stations (all sampling gear deployed); orange rectangles: partial stations; green rectangle: historical monument visit. See Danis et al. (2019) for details. For station acronym definitions, see Table I. Modified after map ‘Brabant Islands to Argentine Islands', British Antarctic Survey, Edition 1, 2008. The insert displays the RV Australis track while in the Antarctic Peninsula.

Figure 1

Table I. Overview of the expedition sampling and operations at the different stations. A few examples of counts for gear deployment are provided (a full account is available from the cruise report; see Danis et al.2019).

Figure 2

Table II. Non-exhaustive comparative list of research activities (as number of deployments of scientific gear) conducted during some recent Antarctic research expeditions on different platforms. Note that it is virtually impossible to fully quantify successful research activities.

Figure 3

Table III. Overview of the expedition efficiency. Total and daily figures provided for sampling efforts (number of stations visited, organisms sampled, gear deployments) compared to the time, fuel consumption and overall cost of the expedition.