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An ocean research powerhouse runs out of salt water

posted Dec 16, 2015, 7:52 AM by SOS SaveOceanScience   [ updated Dec 16, 2015, 8:01 AM ]
in the lab
   The Huntsman Marine Science Centre’s research program has expanded aggressively, taking on projects from the worlds of aquaculture, pharmaceuticals and oil and gas. The surprise is what they’re short on: salt water.

   Chris Bridger, the manager of the aquatic services department at the Huntsman, has been busy pushing his department into new areas of research and research services.

   “Our limiting factor at the Huntsman right now is salt water – we’re out of salt water.”

    In case you missed it, he repeats:“We are literally out of salt water.”

   It’s a little hard to believe, given the Huntsman is right beside the ocean. But when you do research on animals that live in the sea, you go through a lot of water to keep them happy and healthy. All that water must be pumped up to the labs and tanks that house aquatic life.

   The Huntsman may be more widely known in the province for its aquarium and educational programs. The organization is a not-for-profit, established in 1969 by a consortium of groups from academia, government and industry. There’s a thoroughly modern aquarium for the public to peruse. But behind the fence, past the aquarium facility, lie multiple buildings full of tanks, fish, lobster. The scientists and technicians who work there are conducting breeding programs, looking at fish health and toxicology and examining potential effects of climate change on sea life.

    As a research facility that receives no “core”funding – that is, no regular, reliable grants – the Huntsman relies on a lot of contract and project work from industry partners to generate revenue.

  
 One such project is looking at a proposed pharmaceutical treatment for sea lice, a parasite that can damage salmon. Aquaculture companies use these treatments from time to time to keep their fish healthy. The Huntsman is set up to do not only the clinical trials for efficacy – whether it actually works – but also to look at environmental effects: what problems might it create if a new treatment builds up in the wasted food or fish excrement under an aquaculture sea cage? How long before it starts affecting lobster – if ever it does?

   “We have a four-year project that’s looking at if there was an oil spill,”says Huntsman researcher Duane Barker. “What if a tanker went down, what if a drill site had a problem, what if a pipeline cracked, and there was an oil spill, what would happen to the larval stages of a lot of these commercial species, like cod? Could the eggs even be fertilized?”

   Barker holds the New Brunswick Innovation Research Chair in aquatic biosciences. He’s only been here a handful of months, but plans to do work on other projects, as well, looking into the role of parasites in disease transmission in fish.

   Everywhere you look when you visit the research buildings at the Huntsman, there are upgrades planned or in progress to support the team of 15 research scientists and technicians as they take on more work. Just three years ago, there were only five people working in the aquatic services department.

   There are upgrades in the levels of skills and data tracking required, too. “Cross your i’s and dot your t’s”is an old saying, but good laboratory practice includes crossing your zeros, to keep them separate from your O’s. Bridger says it can be“dictatorial,”but it’s part of what makes science, science.

   And, having high standards in the lab can attract more research money – and jobs – to New Brunswick.

   A bit about the economics: Half of the $2 million that aquatic services department’s research program brought in this year is from outside New Brunswick – direct investment from outside the province. The goal is to make that 80 per cent.

   “Our future could be into doing MSDS sheets,”says Bridger.

   (Material safety data sheets are documents that list the hazards of a given chemical.)

   “For large companies, chemical companies, every product needs to have exposures to daphnia, to rainbow trout. It’s on the MSDS sheet.

   “With Duane coming on fish health and toxicology, that’s another branch that we’re basically moving into as well.”

   Back to salt water for a moment: The Huntsman brings in 780-800 U.S. gallons per minute of saltwater, purchased from the pumping system of their neighbour, Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Saint Andrews Biological Station.

   Thanks to recirculation, they use even more than they pump: up to 1,500 gallons per minute. But they need more. 

  “We’re now in the process of proposing and trying to get funding to upgrade for our own salt water line, for redundancy,”he says.“And the upgrade is to 3,000 U.S. gallons per minute.”

   All that salt water supports very hands-on, fish-slime-covered, applied research.

   “One of the things that Huntsman does not do, is you won’t see technicians coming to work, wearing a lab coat all day long, playing around with knobs and boxes that have dials and spit numbers out,”says Bridger.“What we do here is waterworks, animals.”

   Martin wightman wightman.martin@brunswicknews.com   Science and research columnist, and copy editor at Brunswick News. In the Lab appears every other week in Innovate

Chris Bridger points to parts of a lab setup at the Huntsman. Bridger manages the aquatic services department, which has aggressively expanded its scientific research program over the past few years. Photo: MartIN WIghtMaN