NB researchers monitor invasive tunicates

Lurking just across the St. Croix River, an invasive species with a deceptively innocent name has slowly been making its way toward New Brunswick, and it has some researchers worried.

The pancake batter tunicate, which resembles its namesake, blankets everything from docks to sea floors and poses a threat to the local ecosystem’s diversity, Jennifer Martin said. She is the lead researcher on a team of scientists and divers that will head to Campobello Island and Deer Island at the end of the month to spend two days monitoring the spread of the species that has been causing problems for north-eastern American states since it first snuck into the area aboard a mussels ship from Japan.

Tunicates, also known as sea squirts, are invertebrate filter-feeders that can largely carpet ocean floors. They usually move around by hitching a ride on something faster, such as a boat.

“It can smother and out-compete anything that is in our natural environment,” Martin said.

The researchers at the St. Andrews Biological Station have been monitoring the spread since 2009. At last inspection it was growing on pontoons and wharves in Eastport, Maine. They haven’t yet seen it in New Brunswick waters.

But Martin said it wouldn’t be a big jump to make. The two sides have nearly identical environments.

In late September, St. Andrews researchers will lead a diving expedition to Eastport, where they will study the invasive species to determine if there has been any progress since last year.

The researchers from St. Andrews Biological Station will be joined by counterparts from Halifax, Montreal and P.E.I., as well as some partners from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Maine.

This year will be their biggest team yet, at about 14 people in total, Martin says.

While species that get buried beneath its quarter-inch shell still seem to be able to breathe, the tunicate impedes growth. It can also latch itself to and weigh down fishing gear, aquaculture structures and buoys.

Unfortunately, Martin said there’s not a lot people can do once it’s there. They can scrape it off surfaces with a paint chipper, but this poses possible threat of spreading it further.

On Sept. 27 and 28, divers will go down during low tides, when the current is calm, to take photographs of the species and retrieve samples, which will be taken to the lab for study. They will also drag for scallops, which will likely haul up some of the tunicates at the same time, if present.

Tunicates can also be monitored by deploying collectors (plates) attached to floating docks or buoys.

In recent years, there has been increased efforts to study the invasion of aquatic species, as international trade expands and more vessels enter the Bay of Fundy.

To date, the Bay of Fundy tunicate monitoring program has provided evidence that the golden star tunicate, and the vase tunicate are present in the Bay of Fundy.

The pancake batter tunicate has been observed on the U.S. portion of Georges Bank and in northern Maine, including Eastport in Passamaquoddy Bay. But as Martin said, nature knows no political boundaries.

Previously published by the Telegraph-Journal; Sept. 1, 2011

East N.A. coast among places that merit protection

The waters around New Brunswick and along the northeast American coastline have been cited in a new study as being among the top nine marine places in the world that merit protection.

The study criteria looked at how many marine mammal species are there, how rare they are, and how at risk they are from human influence.

While 20 sites were highlighted worldwide, the report’s authors determined that by preserving just 2.5 per cent of the ocean, they could protect the vast majority of marine mammal species.

“We’re in a very important species extinction crisis,” researcher Gerardo Ceballos said in a telephone interview.

Like all the hot spots, eastern Canada is at a medium to high level of dangerous human impact, Ceballos said. He and Sandra Pompa Mansilla co-authored the study from the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

They worked on the study for four years with a fellow researcher at Stanford University and published the paper in the Aug. 16 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The key sites seem to congregate in upwelling oceanic areas, where cold currents meet warm ones. These often produce areas of high primary production, which are good feeding grounds for marine mammals.

Southern New Brunswick, which is known for its whale-watching industry, serves as the summer home of the right whale, an endangered species that was pinpointed as one of the animals of particular concern by the scientists. Other species frequenting the Fundy area are the minke whale, the humpback whale, the finback whale and white-beaked Dolphins, among other species.

Although they are known to visit, it’s considered rare to see a blue whale, sperm whale, killer whale or beluga whale.

Marine mammals provide some of the best-known cases of population and species extinction through overexploitation, the study states.

For the North Atlantic, the study lists the whale-watching industry, toxic waste dumping and vessel collisions with whales as the most dangerous threats to the rich marine population in the North Atlantic.

The researchers are the first to combine various habitat maps of marine mammals around the world into an all-inclusive map showing the hot spots, Mansilla said from her university office in Mexico.

But Ceballos said their study “is a guideline for some of the most important places … but it doesn’t mean that the rest of the areas shouldn’t be taken into account.”

The other nine sites are located off the coasts of Baja California in Mexico, Peru, Argentina, northwestern Africa, South Africa, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

Of the 129 species of marine mammals on Earth, including seals, dolphins and polar bears, approximately 25 per cent are facing extinction, the study said, ranging from being considered vulnerable to critically endangered.

Previously published by the Telegraph-Journal; Sept. 6

Oak Island treasure: the search renews

Click to Enlarge
Photo: Archives of Nova Scotia This 1938 photo shows one of the treasure dig pits on Oak Island, off Nova Scotia’s south shore. A group is using technology on the island to locate secret underground tunnels that may lead to fabled pirate’s treasure.

In a renewed bid to uncover the elusive and mystical treasure believed by man to be buried deep within Oak Island off Nova Scotia’s south shore, a group of treasure hunters is using electrical currents to detect secret underground tunnels

For the past six years, Rick Lagina and four others – including Dan Blankenship, whose lifetime dedication to the island is almost as legendary as the place itself – have been searching for the hidden treasure.

This summer, they put their hopes in technology.

On a hot, cloudless day in early July, they placed a device in the middle of the island that miners, archeologists and environmentalists often use to map underground structures.

Powered by a car battery, the square, greyish-green box zapped 800-volt bursts of energy through attached cords to various points on the island, to depths sometimes the length of a football field.

The method, called electrical resistivity, pulsed electric currents through the earth and recorded how much each area repelled the charge.

Lagina said he hoped to pinpoint spots that were particularly resistant or unexpectedly conductive compared to their surroundings – anything out of the ordinary.

Lagina has been dreaming about the fabled Nova Scotia island ever since he was an 11-year-old living in Michigan. He read a magazine article about the 200-year-old search for the fabled money pit some believe was buried on Oak Island by pirates.

Now 59 years old, Lagina is still dreaming.

After two weeks of gathering data, the team sent the numbers to a geological analyst in Montreal. Lagina said he got the results back three weeks ago.

When asked if there was anything interesting, he paused.

“There are interesting anomalies, yes,” he said. He later added, “There are more than several sites that we are very excited about.”

But the island has a well-documented history of thwarting discovery efforts, Lagina said.

While they were cutting through the brush to make way for their line grid, everything that could go wrong did, he said. The truck’s engine blew, tools went missing, and the resistivity device itself stopped working more than once.

When they phoned the manufacturer in France, the woman on the line said, “‘Can’t happen, never happened, not in the history of the instrument. The unit is incapable of shutting down.’

“Five times it shut down,” Lagina said.

Legend has it that the Oak Island treasure will not be found until seven humans have died trying to find it and all the oak trees on the island are gone. So far the island’s native umbrella oaks have all wilted away, and the treasure hunt has claimed six lives – none of them from Lagina’s crew.

For the rest of the summer, Lagina said he and the others will assess which anomalies show the most promise and warrant further investigation with drilling. They have to be selective because wherever they drill needs to be worth the cash, he said.

They’ve already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, exploring Oak Island (Lagina’s brother Marty – who’s also in on the search – did well in the oil and gas industry). Each new drilling venture costs about the same as a water well, foot for foot.

However, they must do the drilling soon, though; their government-granted treasure trove licence expires in December.

“I wish I had an X-marks-the-spot, but alas, I have no ‘X’.”

While Lagina acknowledged they might not find anything, he said they’re excited about their chances.

“I believe that it will be a fairly rich, to use the word, story of what happened there.”

However, not everyone is so sure.

Alex Storm got into the Nova Scotian treasure hunting business in the 1960s and has had substantial success, finding famous wrecks, such as the French treasure ship Le Chameau. He said he bases all his searching on documentation and verifiable data – something he said Oak Island lacks.

“I don’t think it will work out to anything. It’s just people keeping busy and trying to keep a dream alive.”

But that hasn’t stopped people from trying. Ever since a teenaged Daniel McGinnis came across a curious depression in the ground in 1795, there have been many excavations of the Money Pit – all of which have been fruitless except for the discovery of various booby traps and suggestive bits of metal.

Theories abound as to what might be hidden there, from pirate booty to knights Templar treasure to Shakespeare’s manuscripts.

But Lagina said that for him, it’s more about filling in the blanks of the story and solving the mystery.

“What really happened on Oak Island?”

 

Previously published in the Telegraph-Journal, Aug 22, 2011

Hospitals reuse medical devices to save cash

In a bid to save cash and reduce landfill use, New Brunswick’s largest health network has started reusing medical equipment originally meant to be trashed after first use.

The process though, is completely safe, Nancy Parker said. She is the administrative director for the surgery program at the Moncton hospital.

In the past few months, the Moncton hospital has piloted the initiative, which entered the planning stages about a year ago, she said.

“Patient safety is certainly a priority … we’re confident that every measure and precaution is being taken to lessen any risks for patients.”

The single-use medical equipment, which had been originally labelled as such by the manufacturer, is sent to certified reprocessing companies in the United States. The practice is stringently regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

“Reprocessing” means taking all the necessary steps to ensure the device is safe and ready for another patient. This could include cleaning and sterilizing, functional testing, repackaging and relabelling. The companies are held to the same standards as the manufacturers, Parker said.

The hospital can then buy back the items at a fraction of the original cost – from 30 to 50 per cent less. When a hospital is stocking up on $5,000 ultrasound catheters, the difference can be substantial. The savings can be upward of $100,000 for a single hospital, Parks said.

An added perk, she said, is the “greening effect” of less medical waste gets tossed into landfills.

Other hospitals in the provincial Horizon Health Network will soon be jumping on board and, as far as she knows, Vitalité Health Network has also been working towards third-party reprocessing, Parks said.

Canada has no federal regulation when it comes to reprocessing single-use devices. But some provinces create their own policies. New Brunswick Health did this almost four years ago, when the department sent a bulletin to all of the hospitals in the province indicating they had a year to change their practices.

The new policy, which still stands today, states that only “non-critical” single-use devices can be reprocessed in-house. Hospitals can only reuse a device that has been cleaned at that hospital if it has not been inserted in a body. One example, Parker said, is a compression sleeve, which is fastened around an arm or leg to increase blood flow.

It is the critical and semi-critical single-use items – such as surgical saw blades or the pricey ultrasound catheter – that they must send to third parties for appropriate care.

Until there is Canada-wide regulation, New Brunswick will keep this policy, said Tracey Burkhardt, a communications officer for New Brunswick Health.

A report released in 2008 by the Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technologies in Health, stated that New Brunswick hospitals held the Canadian record for most widespread single-use item reprocessing, at 57 per cent. In comparison, the national average was just over 25 per cent, the agency stated.

Parker said she doubts that statistic still holds true today.

Reusing medical devices labelled as single-use by manufacturers is a common practice in hospitals all over the world. Most of the hospitals in Spain and Japan do it (80 per cent and 80 to 90 per cent, respectively), according to a 2010 report in the International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Science.

Advocates say it is safe if done properly and is good for both the environment and hospital budgets, but there is still controversy surrounding the ethics of it, the journal stated.

Previously published Aug 2, 2011; Telegraph-Journal

Scientists try to breed better bees

After suffering hard losses during the worldwide colony collapse, New Brunswick’s bee population seems to be on the mend.

This trend will continue if researchers in Manitoba and Ontario get their way.

Robert Currie is an entomologist at the University of Manitoba. He has partnered with the Ontario Beekeepers Association to breed a better bee. Specifically, a bee with a higher immunity to one of the principal causes of bee colony collapse – the varroa mite. Currie’s lab has been working toward this for the past seven or eight years, he said in an interview.

The theory is simple. Find bees that have particular resistance to the mites and the parasites that go with them, and breed them to pass along and strengthen those characteristics.

When a progress report was done two years ago, researchers found that their selected brood had a higher chance of living than a bunch of regular honey bees that hadn’t been specially bred.

While only 40 to 45 per cent of the unselected stocks survived the winter, about three quarters of Currie’s selected stocks made it through.

In about five years they should have significant overall resistance in Canada’s bees, Currie said. And while he said these bees should be able to integrate into New Brunswick colony’s, Richard Duplain has his doubts. Duplain is the vice-president of the New Brunswick Beekeepers Association and said that what might work for one region might not work in another.

To breed a bee that is completely resistant to the mites is a “laudible goal,” he said, but the chances of it happening are unrealistic.

Currie agrees to an extent.

“If you’re trying to find the silver bullet and trying to say that this is the end-all be-all?…?I think that’s probably not going to be the case,” he said. “But I think what we can do is make significant progress in reducing a lot of the chemical treatment that we’re putting in place and also increasing the survival rate of the bees.”

New Brunswick’s boost in survival rate since 2010 could be due to a favourable position in a cycle of good and bad years, but it’s also partly because many commercial apiarists use Apivar. Apivar is a varroa mite treatment in the form of a rigid polymer strip impregnated with the antiparasitic drug amitraz. It is registered under the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and has no effect on the bee, honey or wax.

Other more labour-intensive methods (and thus less popular among commercial apiarists) include wafting the hives with vapour from organic formic and oxalic acids, which are found naturally in honey. This from Fletcher Colpitts, the chief inspector at the New Brunswick Beekeepers Association.

But the mites aren’t the only cause of failing bee colonies.

Other likely factors include increased pesticide use, air pollution and a possible interference of cell phone towers into the bees’ ability to navigate their way home.

It’s normal for some bees to die over the winter, but Canada (and the world) have been dealing with above-average colony losses since 2006. Bees are important because farmers rent them to pollinate their crops, usually blueberries and cranberry fields.

Previously published July 25, 2011; Telegraph-Journal, Times & Transcript

NB med school top of its class

It may just be a year old, but New Brunswick’s medical school already has some of the most advanced technology on the continent. Or at least they’re using it in a most advanced fashion.

As per the usual classroom setting, a professor delivers a lecture and students take notes, ask questions which the professor then tries to answer. The thing is, more than 400 kilometres separate pupil and teacher.

The school is being hosted at the University of New Brunswick’s Saint John campus, but is actually an expansion of the medical school in Halifax, and is formally called Dalhousie Medicine New Brunswick. The goal is to give New Brunswick students an opportunity to learn medicine in their own province, but without sacrificing quality of education. By using the high-definition video-conferencing equipment, students get the exact same education as their colleagues in Nova Scotia.

And now they’ve installed the equipment at four hospitals across the province so students completing their clerkship can be equally linked to their peers.

“It’s just a real tremendous improvement,” Pamela Bourque, Dalhousie Medicine New Brunswick’s program manager, said of the new installations, which took place in June. The four hospitals are located in Saint John, Fredericton, Miramichi and Moncton.

Each video-conferencing classroom is identical, with grey walls and light grey wall-hangings, medium brown tables, pleasant lighting and carpets with a grey-toned, geometric design. This way, the two parties feel more like they’re in the same room. At the front of the room are three large flat screens. During class, one displays the professor, the second the material, and the third screen shows the other students sitting in Halifax.

Sheldon Wood is going into his second year – or M2 – at the Saint John location. After next year, Wood will start his clerkship at a New Brunswick hospital, where he will be able to take advantage of the new equipment expansion. He admits that he was at first skeptical about not having the professor in front of him, but said he didn’t notice a difference. He said there is no noticeable time gap between a student asking a question in Saint John and a professor responding in Halifax – the broadcast transmission is that instantaneous.

The professor can even see the student, thanks to a table buzzer. There’s one for every two student seats, and when pressed, a camera at the front of the room swivels to point there and the student appears on the screen in front of the professor.

Representatives from other medical schools across the country have already visited Saint John to see and possibly copy the set-up. Ken Lerette is the technical operations manager at Dalhousie Medicine New Brunswick and said they’ve given tours to representatives from the University of Toronto and even Saudi Arabia.

The pilot year passed virtually flawlessly, Bourque said. She estimates that if you added up all the time that was used to fix technological problems, they probably only lost about 17 minutes of class time, over five incidents. Two impressive, futuristic central command centres in Saint John and Halifax handle all the troubleshooting and maintenance.

While similar video-conferencing equipment has been used for long-distance education, this is the most advanced system for medical education.

Previously published July 25, 2011; Telegraph-Journal

Prof pans taking obese kids from parents

In the wake of a Harvard researchers’ recommendation that parents of severely obese children lose custody of their kids, a New Brunswick child obesity specialist says it shouldn’t – and won’t – happen.

In the July 13 issue of the Journal of American Medical Association, Lindsey Murtagh and David Ludwig wrote a commentary that urged action on the childhood obesity pandemic that is sweeping the continent. They argue that, in the same way that feeding a kid too little is considered neglect, so too should feeding them too much.

“In severe instances of childhood obesity, removal from the home may be justifiable … because of imminent health risks and the parents’ chronic failure to address medical problems,” the article states.

“State intervention may serve the best interests of many children with life-threatening obesity, comprising the only realistic way to control harmful behaviors.”

But Gabriela Tymowski thinks it’s an extreme measure. She is an associate professor of kinesiology at the University of New Brunswick and was the founding director of the university’s 2004 Learning Eating Activity Program, which worked with families and children who were dealing with obesity.

Tymowski said the suggestion reflects the growing concern that childhood obesity rates are not abating.

“I think a lot of people … are just unsure of what to do,” she said.

Murtagh and Ludwig – who Tymowski said are two of the world’s leading researchers on the subject – acknowledged the possible legal problems, genetic exceptions and controversial ethics tangled in the idea.

“Where would we send those kids?” Tymowski said.

When more than half of New Brunswick’s adult population is overweight, she doubts foster families would be better equipped than anyone else to care for a morbidly obese child.

In New Brunswick 34 per cent of children are overweight or obese, she said. In comparison, the Canadian average for overweight or obese kids is 26 per cent.

“And overweight kids become overweight adults,” Tymowski said.

Obesity is not only linked to depression and stigmatization, but it can also have real and significant impacts on the health care system.

Tymowski said obesity-related chronic health problems will bankrupt the province if something doesn’t change.

The article, which spawned a flurry of passionate debate within the American media, states that, if implemented, this measure would affect only severely obese children. That is to say kids with a body mass index at or beyond the 99th percentile.

Tymowski said some 60 families who were dealing with obese children participated the Learning Eating Activity Program, which was discontinued after five years of operation.

Of those, she said maybe one or two might have been classified as morbidly obese.

These individuals are largely invisible to society because they aren’t as mobile. While Tymowski can’t think of any Canadian cases in which a child was removed from a family, there have been a few extreme cases in the United States and the United Kingdom, she said.

But, even though it would affect a miniscule fraction of the population, Tymowski said that taking a child from their family isn’t the best way to tackle the problem.

There are social and economic factors to account for, among other considerations, she said.

“It’s far more complicated than we ever thought.”

Previously published July 29, 2011; Telegraph-Journal

Seven’s a crowd for Fundy tourism

As Bernard Weber counted down from seven, the crowd lowered their umbrellas, threw their collective hands into the air and looked skyward.

Rain had been falling on and off for about an hour, but cheers still rang out from a crowd assembled in a number 7 formation when Weber got to “one.”

The Giant 7 event, held Wednesday evening on the Saint John Waterfront, was designed to promote the Bay of Fundy for the New7Wonders of the World.

Terri McCulloch, the executive director for Bay of Fundy tourism, said afterward that she was very pleased with how it went.

“We were aiming for 777 people and I think we got that,” she said.

The outline of the giant seven, which she estimates was about 200 feet wide and 300 feet long, was fitted for about that many people she said, and it was pretty full.

In the hour leading up to an official photo session, passersby were stopped on the boardwalk and recruited, offered free New7Wonders t-shirts. Three-year-old children ran around on the dock as the Black Eyed Peas blared from the speakers. Two teenagers, 13 and 15-years-old, stashed their bmx bikes against the lighthouse and walked through the gates.

Seven members of the Daley family were there too (an unplanned numeric coincidence). As Patti watched her four-year old son Sebastian dance to Kenny Loggins’ Footloose, with his t-shirt fluttering about his ankles, she said they were there to support the Bay of Fundy.

As frequent visitors to the bay, she said they would love to see the site instated as one of the new wonders of the world.

“It’s just a special place to be,” Daley said.

Weber, who founded the New7Wonders foundation and is now travelling around the world to encourage people to vote, said he hoped the event would spread that passion to the rest of Canada.

Fundy is Canada’s only entry in the event. And while he said he doesn’t like to dwell on this aspect of the contest, he acknowledged that being one of the seven could bring huge economic return for a country.

Weber said seven is the number that most people can remember. The seven sites that get the most votes will be in the global memory forever, he said.

Before the event started, Weber pulled from the inside pocket of his jacket five old photographs. They were from his first visit to the Bay of Fundy 20 years ago. As his fingers glazed the faded photographs he said he remembers the daily tidal phenomenon being incredible.

“It’s like the heartbeat of the world,” he said.

People can vote for the Bay of Fundy online for free at http://www.votemyfundy.com . They can also vote from their mobile phones by texting FUNDY to 77077 ($0.25 per text vote). Voting continues until New7Wonders of Nature declaration day on Nov. 11, 2011.

Previously published June 30, 2011; Telegraph-Journal

Research project to test viability of on-land salmon farming

Salmon farming is moving on land.

The Atlantic Salmon Federation and the Conservation Fund are joining forces in a research project that will try to rear salmon in a freshwater closed-containment system.

“It’s huge, it’s groundbreaking,” Bill Taylor, the federation’s president, said. “Hopefully it will help us move towards much more environmentally friendly and wild-salmon friendly aquaculture.”

Over the next year, the federation plans to grow 10 tonnes of salmon in a circular, stainless-steel tank that is slightly larger than an Olympic swimming pool.

The Conservation Fund, an American non-profit organization, has successfully conducted similar trials with St. John River salmon in smaller qualities, but Taylor said this project is the first trial of this magnitude. Taylor said the project’s budget is $120,000.

Jonathan Carr, the federation’s director of research and environment, said the goal is to provide an environmentally friendly solution to the growing global demand for salmon.

He said there has been concern in recent years about farmed salmon escaping their confines and contaminating wild fish stocks. The on-land, closed-containment system would eliminate this risk, Carr said.

It would also result in a better product for consumers, since pesticides and harsh chemicals would no longer be necessary to raise the fish to maturity. And farmers would be able to charge more for the higher quality, making it cost competitive, Taylor said.

He added that commercial salmon farming is on the brink of maxing out its growth potential. On-land fish farms could be the answer to global demand for salmon, which continues to rise, he said.

But this may be a pipe dream, according to some. Pamela Parker is the executive director for the Atlantic Canada Fish Farmers Association.

“Closed containment is not the magic bullet that some people make it out to be,” she said.

There are significant questions surrounding energy usage and the amount of water that a large-scale operation would use, she said.

Every minute, 5,000 litres of water would pass through the system. However, Taylor said 99.8 per cent of it would be recirculated into the ground, just as clean as when it entered their system.

While Taylor said he couldn’t see closed-containment farms replacing existing fish farm operations, he said it would be great to see in the future. But what may work on a small scale doesn’t always translate to a functional, large-scale operation, Parker said.

To be economically viable, Carr said they would need to grow two to three thousand tonnes. In comparison, Parker said, New Brunswick fish farmers produce a total of 35 thousand metric tonnes of salmon.

To match that output, the tanks would need to cover the space of about 8,000 football fields, Parker said.

“we’re very supportive of new research,” she said, “we’re just not convinced … (this) could be justified.”

The project will be housed in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

Taylor said, “there’s certainly risk but we think it’s very low.”

Previously published June 24, 2011; Telegraph-Journal