Food insecurity and Facebook

Things that usually clutter facebook newsfeeds: cat videos, instagram pics and party invitations. And increasingly, at least in Nunavut’s capital city, caribou carcasses.

In a startling shift away from the long-rooted Inuit custom of sharing food among families, a growing number of opportunistic northerners are instead using facebook to sell their traditional food.

 Iqaluit Sell/Swap, an open group on the popular social networking site, serves primarily as a convenient place to auction off old children’s clothes or fix-er-up cars. But lately, some members have been offering up bounty from their latest hunting trip such as caribou or arctic char – for a price.

 It’s an avarice born of desperation.

 Warmer winters have led to unpredictable and dangerous ice conditions, taking their toll on traditional hunting. For Inuit who don’t have the money to supplement the shortages with store-bought food this means long months of never-full stomachs and mental stress.
The winter of 2010/2011 was particularly hard. McGill graduate student Sara Statham, 24, wanted to find out how vulnerable the climatic changes (freeze-up came about two months later than average) would leave the impoverished neighbourhoods in Iqaluit. At the International Polar Year conference in Montreal this week, Statham presented her findings.

In addition to the strained sharing networks – which is the Inuit’s traditional way of dealing with food shortages – she discovered that 54 percent of publicly-owned households did not have enough money to buy store food and could not get country food. Previously, only 46 percent of households had reported the same.

“One week… we had no food. We only had one dried noodle pack for 4 people. We can’t live like that,” Statham recalls the mother of one young Inuit family telling her. However, Statham said she found that while environmental changes had some impact on the vulnerability of Iqaluit’s poor, there were larger socio-economic issues that were affecting food insecurity.
Food and water insecurity have been highlighted at the conference as one of the major issues facing northern communities.
Previously published on Canadian Geographic’s blog; April 27, 2012

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

NB’s hidden desalination company

Access to fresh water may not be a problem for most of New Brunswick, but the province does house a company that could help desert-dry countries around the world deal with their water issues.

CANDESAL is based in Fredericton and for years has quietly worked to desalinate the brackish waters produced by the Alberta oilsands. Using reverse osmosis, they’ve taken the salty brine and made 90 per cent of it good for reintegration into the environment or ready for reuse.

The company is an operating division of Atlantic Nuclear Services Inc. It was established in 2004 when ANS Technologies licensed the CANDESAL technology for sea water desalination.

The technology uses the leftover waste heat from a nuclear plant to increase the temperature of water waiting to be desalinated.

This quickens the desalination process, since warm water goes through reverse osmosis faster than cold water, CANDESAL president Keith Scott said. The radioactive energy itself is not used.

It’s this idea that has CANDESAL in the running for an international project contract. Jordan, an up-and-coming country in the world of nuclear power, put out a request for nuclear plant submissions about two years ago, with a request that desalination play a part in the system. CANDESAL partnered with one of the bidders, playing a relatively small part in the big picture, but contributing its technology of nuclear desalination.

Jordan is now evaluating the tenders, Scott said. A decision is expected next year, however, if the proposal is chosen, it would still be another six or seven years before the idea becomes a reality.

Scott said that while there are many places around the world turning to desalinated water to quench their national thirst, he said that it would not be realistic to imagine that New Brunswick could reap a profit by marketing desalinated Fundy water. The exorbitant transportation expense makes it cost prohibitive and Scott said the company is better suited to sell its technology.

In the past, the company has also worked with Egypt to evaluate its desalination setup and look for ways to improve its reverse osmosis process.

But the company also deals with water purification and has filtration units selling at Sears. There are even some plastic water bottles containing their product, Scott said.

The technology is designed to be able to handle ocean water and thus desalination could potentially be used in coastal communities dealing with wells that have been infiltrated with sea water.

However, while the company theoretically has the technology to supply potable water, Scott said there is not really a pressing need in Eastern Canada. Instead, the company’s future seems rooted in industrial remediation, such as their long-standing employment in Alberta, Scott said.

The World Congress on Desalination and Water Reuse will be held in Australia Sunday through Sept. 9, and the theme centres on sustainability. Since the last world congress in Dubai in 2009, the International Desalination Association estimates that more than a thousand desalination plants have sprung up around the world. For many, the next step beyond finding out how to do it, is making the system cost-efficient, which is perhaps why this year’s congress theme focuses on sustainability.

Previously published in the Telegraph-Journal; Sept 1, 2011

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

True Spectacle: Cirque du Soleil’s Quidam

Not many people get to peek behind the heavy black curtain hiding the mysterious backstage world of a circus. But beyond the glitzy costumes and expert acrobatics, there is a spectacle of a different kind.

Mireille Goyette was 17 years old when she started working for Cirque du Soleil. It was 1998 and by that point she’d been a competitive gymnast for 10 years. She said as a child she spent her days hanging off stairs and climbing anything vertical, so perhaps it is not surprising that her mother enrolled her in gymnastics at the age of three.

It wasn’t until three years later she realized she wanted to devote her life to the circus. During summer camp she’d gone to see the Cirquedu Soleil show Cirque Réinventé and emerged astounded. Afterwards, she recalls saying to her parents, “that’s what I would like to do when i grow up.”

Now she performs in front of wide-eyed audiences around the world, living out of hotel rooms with her 51 fellow nomad cast members.

Right now, they are making their way across Canada with one of Cirque’s classics: Quidam. They perform in Saint John from July 13 to 17 at Harbour Station.

Goyette is part of a couple acts, but her most elaborate is the Spanish Web. This involves five performers who are suspended high above the stage, connected to each other by ropes, which are in turn attached to a giant mobile machine called a téléphérique.

The téléphérique moves the artists left, right, upstage and downstage, even out over the audience. Dangling above the void, they manoeuvre the rope with arms, legs and toes, twisting themselves into acrobatic positions and elegantly tumbling through the air.

Behind the scenes, it’s a lot of hard work.

“It’s not your normal nine-to-five,” Goyette said.

Performers arrive early in the day to do their daily cardio, and practise their acts on the “blue carpet” (backstage area) up until about two hours before showtime. Then it’s makeup time.

Goyette said it takes her about 45 minutes to apply hers but other characters can take up to three hours. During this time the “techies” check lights and sound cues. The band arrives and warms up its instruments. The performers have one last warm-up.

Then, the show is on.

If it’s a Sunday, there’s even more hustle going on backstage. During the last show, the crew is busy “loading out.” Everything is packed and shortly after curtain call everyone boards a bus or plane, en-route to the next city. They arrive in the middle of the night and take Monday off. Tuesday they set up the tiled stage and the 120-foot long téléphérique. On Wednesday, the cycle begins again.

The audience doesn’t see any of this. Goyette said even if there is a tiny mistake – a dancer misses a beat or a toe isn’t perfectly pointed – the audience usually doesn’t catch it. Instead they see the special lighting effects (a rubbery mat on the stage is perforated with 200,000 tiny holes so light can pass through from beneath) and the synchronized choreography.

But Quidam is more than just colourful costumes and wow-factor, said artistic director Fabrice Lemire, who often works 65 hours a week. It has a plot. This, he said, is what makes it different from the typical Cirque show.

The story follows a young girl, Zoé, as she deals with her distant and apathetic parents. To escape her boredom, she slides into an imaginary realm of her own creation, into the fanciful world of Quidam.

According to the show’s overview, Quidam “could be anyone, anybody. Someone coming or going at the heart of our anonymous society. A member of the crowd, one of the silent majority. The one who cries out, sings and dreams within us all.”

Lemire said he likes to interpret it as a young girl trying to distinguish her individual self as she becomes a teenager, with all the “turmoil, action and beauty” that involves.

Since Cirque du Soleil started in 1984 in the small Quebec town of Baie-Saint-Paul, the company has exploded worldwide. Close to 100 million spectators have seen a Cirque du Soleil show and the company has 5,000 employees.

Goyette said sometimes it can be hard being a part of one of their travelling arena shows. But the camaraderie among the cast makes it like a second family, she said. They are constantly pranking each other, hiding hats and pre-dusting blush brushes with the wrong colour. Never going so far as to compromise the show, but Goyette said you never know what’s going to happen.

Despite everything, she said the stage is her home.

“Being onstage to me is where I belong.”

As the shows draws to a close Zoé reunites with her parents, and the characters of her imagination fade back to fantasy, behind the heavy black curtain.

Previously published July 2, 2011; the 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