N.L. Ecosystems

Gatekeeper to the Arctic

Jacques Yves Cousteau was a naval officer, filmmaker, scientist, explorer, photographer and researcher.

His focus and passion was on the sea. He once said, “The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.”

That net of wonder caught hold of a young man named Mariano Koen-Alonso, who grew up in Buenos Aires, Argentina. When he was 18-years-old, he went to Patagonia to attend university where his love of the sea grew.

“I had the opportunity of going to places like secluded sea lion haul outs and rookeries, seeing things from a right whale swimming by you, to the sight of a mass stranding of hundreds of toothed whales in a lost inlet far away from everywhere.”

Koen-Alonso moved to Canada in 2000 and he has worked at Fisheries and Oceans Canada for almost 14 years.

“My job title is Research Scientist — Ecosystem Modelling,” he says, “In practice, I do ecosystem research.” An ecosystem consists of all the living things like plants, animals and organisms in a given area and their interactions with their non-living environments like weather, earth, sun, and atmosphere.

Now as for modelling, Koen-Alonso remembers the time he told an agent at the U.S. border that the purpose of his trip was to attend a modelling workshop.

“The agent slowly looked at me from head to toe, obviously assessing my modelling qualifications, at which moment I started uttering ‘mathematical’ in between every other word. I was allowed to cross the border — it seems I look more mathematical than model.”

In Newfoundland and Labrador, although the entire region constitutes one large marine ecosystem, there are distinguishing subcomponents within it. For example, the southern Labrador and Northern Newfoundland shelves have different features than the Grand Banks proper. The Grand Banks are a group of underwater plateaus southeast of Newfoundland on the North American shelf. An example is the sand lance, also called sand eels, while they’re a dominant forage fish species on the Grand Banks, but are virtually absent in the northern areas.

Koen-Alonso’s area of expertise is community ecology with an emphasis on food webs.

“This means I study how the fish community is organized: which functional classes of organisms dominate the community? For example, ground fish or shellfish? Among fishes, which ones? The predatory piscivores that eat other fish? Or the little ones that eat small things from the sea floor, the small benthivores?”

He studies how things changes over time and how the environment affects the fish community and its processes. He looks at ocean temperatures, ice conditions, and the relationship between predator-prey. Who eats whom, and how much? He also studies how humans impact the ecosystem: are we fishing too much? Can the ecosystem reasonably function with the current level of exploitation? And what the expected changes associated with climate change may mean for ecosystem functioning.

“In the case of Newfoundland and Labrador’s ecosystem, it is the ecosystem in North America with the oldest record of continuous European exploitation. It’s a place where the transition between Arctic and temperate ecosystems actually happens. We have both: the Labrador current, flowing south from the Arctic, which defines many characteristics of the system, but we also have, off the southern Grand Banks, influences from the warmer North Atlantic current coming out from the Gulf of Mexico. So along the Newfoundland and Labrador coasts, we have both the southern extreme of the distribution of cold-water species and the northern extreme of the distribution of warm and temperate water species. In southern Newfoundland, ecosystems resemble temperate ones, and in the north, with the major effect of sea ice, we have a virtual Arctic ecosystem,” he explains.

This virtual Arctic ecosystem can help forecast the changes ahead for the Arctic.

“Because the Newfoundland and Labrador shelves are sitting in between the temperate systems and the Arctic systems, any changes that happen in either one of these regions will have to move through the Newfoundland and Labrador shelves to affect the other, so we will see those changes here first. Also, because we have within our region ecosystems that resemble more Arctic or more temperate ones, by studying the changes happening here we can develop ideas on what those changes may mean for northern (or southern) ecosystems.”

While climate change will change the ecosystem structure around our province, Koen-Alonso notes “this does not mean that all current species will be replaced by others. It means, quite likely, some species will change their distributions, making them more or less frequent than seen today and their relative abundances will likely change, too.”

Koen-Alonso explains, “Our challenge is to balance human activities with environmental stewardship. We need the resources and services the ocean provides, and we also need a healthy ocean capable of continuing to provide those resources and services. It is not one or the other, we have to have both.”

He explains his work like this, “Scientists are detectives, we get clues from the ecosystem, and it is our job to put them together and see if we can use them to solve the big puzzle. The pieces never fit perfectly, and most of the time the butler didn’t do it.”

Jacques Cousteau believed, “For most of history, man has had to fight nature to survive; in this century he is beginning to realize that, in order to survive, he must protect it.” This is also what Mariano Koen-Alonso believes.

“The sea is a place which fascinates me; it has always brought me inner peace. With its vastness and detachment from mundane things, it puts me in my place — it shows me how ephemeral things really are. As a scientist, I want to understand it, but as a human being, I am also attracted to its dualities, its immense power, but also its fragility. The sea gives, but also takes, and it is neither good nor bad, it simply is.”

Mariano Koen-Alonso is a Research Scientist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada and studies how ecosystems change over time and what causes those changes.

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