Marine ecosystems are globally important regions of the world that provide a number of essential ecosystem services. Human activities are affecting marine ecosystems in a number of ways that affect ecosystem health, and the communities that depend on them. Importantly for coastal communities, numerous contaminants bioaccumulate and biomagnify, making coastal ecosystem health directly tied to human health both directly and indirectly. Fisheries also play an important role both in supporting communities and influencing ecosystems. Marine birds provide an opportunity to study drivers, vectors, and effects of contaminants within an individual, through food webs, and across landscapes. Similarly, insights into changes in fisheries with altered climatic conditions, as well as fisheries bycatch and competition with fisheries can be gained through working with marine birds.
My work primarily focuses on assessing how marine ecosystems are impacted from human related activities, such as climate change, pollution, shipping, and fisheries. This includes micro- and macro-pollutants, with a focus on plastics, cumulative effects, and fisheries bycatch in the Arctic region. Through the combination of cross-disciplinary approaches and themes my work aims to examine how perturbations like contaminants affect different levels of ecosystems, and potentially affect biota in relation to other environmental factors that are potentially confounding factors. My collaborative approach with both northern communities and research groups allows me to undertake state-of-the-art approaches to toxicology work, and deliver research that has meaningful implications for conservation of ecosystems and biota. Additionally, I lead an international team interested in how growing Arctic fisheries are currently affecting marine birds, and how these emerging fisheries will affect the marine ecosystems more broadly as fishing effort increases with reduced summer sea ice. Importantly, my work also focuses on harvested species, with the objective of informing both conservation and human health research.
Diversity and patterns of parasitism in marine birds
My PhD involved examining endo-parasites in common eider ducks. I am continuing to build on this through co-supervising undergrad students. In collaboration with partners from Carleton University, Greenland and Aarhus University we are examining how parasite diversity in migratory and non-migratory eider ducks differs through their annual cycle. Parasites are expected to increase in Arctic ecosystems, but little work has been done to record current parasite diversity in many northern ecosystems. Thus, we are working to examine how parasitism in marine birds may change under different climatic patterns. This will involves working with local hunters to collect birds to examine both endo and ecto-parasites across a latitudinal gradient of sites to examine how parasites may be increasing in abundance and/or diversity.
Parasites and contaminants as interacting confounds in wildlife
Building on my published PhD work I am working with partners at Carleton University to explore how multiple burdens can influence the survival, health and reproduction of migratory and non-migratory marine birds. In the Arctic where both contaminants and exposure to parasites are being altered due to changing climatic conditions, examining how different environmental stressors may influence wildlife is critical to managing biodiversity and populations. Our current work focuses on exploring how lead uptake by parasites may affect host survival.
Macro-pollutants (plastic) and micro-pollutants (contaminants)
Plastic pollution has become one of the largest environmental challenges we currently face. In Canada, systematic assessments of ingested plastics by seabirds using recognized standard protocols began only recently in the mid-2000s. In order to assess how plastic pollution in the Canadian Arctic will change in the coming decades, and assess the potential impacts on seabirds and marine mammals, my research program continues the work I have been leading to develop a Canadian ingested plastic research framework in Canada. This framework is used to monitor plastic ingestion in seabirds, and investigate research questions related to the impacts of ingested plastics. This includes assessing what species are most vulnerable to ingestion plastic pollution, how chemical contaminants are passed through Arctic marine food webs, and how plastic pollution may affect biota at the population level. This work is funded by MEOPAR and the Northern Contaminants Program.
Incidental bycatch of seabirds in fisheries
Global fisheries are estimated to kill hundreds of thousands of seabirds every year. There is a concern particularly in the northern hemisphere where climate change is allowing northern fisheries to expand, and where millions of seabirds migrate to breed each year. I am currently leading a team that is undertaking an assessment of incidental bycatch levels in northern fisheries in Canada, and the potential demographic and genetic impacts the fisheries may have on seabird populations. Importantly, this project is a priority under the Arctic Council’s Arctic Migratory Birds Initiative, and I am working with both federal and NGO partners (BirdLife International, Bird Studies Canada) to apply existing knowledge in this field to the Canadian context on all three coasts. This project involves collaboratively working with northern fisheries organizations and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to improve the data collection on seabird bycatch. Photo courtesy DFO.
Assessing how we can better educate students about contaminants
Since 2007 I have initiated and led an interdisciplinary team from a number of institutions to carry out comprehensive training to help prepare the students in the Nunavut Arctic College’s Environmental Technology Program for the challenging roles and responsibilities that await them when they enter Nunavut’s research community. This workshop takes place over a one-week time period in the fall of each year. I am also working with the teaching team and collaborators from Trent University to develop and deliver curriculum that teaches students about northern contaminants research, and help them to develop appropriate laboratory skills needed in northern research. This program has been funded since 2014 by the Northern Contaminants Program under Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC).
Utilizing Traditional Knowledge and Science to help inform wildlife disease and contaminants
This project addresses a shared interest among northerners and scientific researchers to enhance communications and community capacity building related to contaminants research on ringed seals. The project engages youth, elders, community members and scientific researchers in learning about ringed seals from both Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit and scientific perspectives. This project is a complimentary component to the ringed seal research that NCP researchers carry out in four communities each year. We also are exploring how to deliver this type of program to other communities that contribute to national monitoring programs focusing on other marine vertebrate species.This workshop is funded by the Northern Contaminants Program (NCP) and (ECCC).
Impacts of illegal harvest, taking and trade in migratory birds
Through my involvement in the Arctic Migratory Birds initiative (AMBI), a project under the Arctic Council’s Conservation of Flora and Fauna (CAFF) working group, I am working with partners on assessing the impacts of illegal killing, taking and trade of migratory waterbirds in the East Asian Australasian Flyway. In January 2017 at the recent Meeting of the Parties of the East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership we proposed a task force be formed on this issue. The task force terms of reference were accepted by all the parties, and we are now working to assess how illegal killing, taking and trade of migratory waterbirds may be affecting populations at the flyway level.