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The Interconnected Northwest Atlantic, Part III: The Sea Ahead

In the fall of 2021, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter (USCGC) Healy completed a historic scientific expedition in the Northwest Passage and Baffin Bay, before continuing around Atlantic Canada and into the Gulf of Maine. Inspired by and connecting with Healy’s voyage, the Northeastern Regional Association of Coastal Ocean Observing Systems (NERACOOS) and Canadian Integrated Ocean Observing System Atlantic (CIOOS Atlantic) hosted “We’re All in the Same Boat”, a virtual engagement program focused on challenges and interconnectedness across the Northwest Atlantic region. As we close out 2022, with Healy recently returned from another historic voyage to the North Pole, we reflect on the insights and ideas that emerged during the program to help chart new directions in 2023 and beyond. Part I examines the changing ocean and its ecosystems, Part II highlights interwoven human interactions and policy priorities, and Part III considers directions we might travel on the sea ahead.

The scope of the virtual engagement program was broad and aimed to illuminate a variety of scientific, social, economic, and policy issues facing the Northwest Atlantic region at multiple scales. The diverse perspectives shared during the program pointed to a number of worthwhile directions in which we might travel to meet these challenges. Here, we highlight four emergent themes from the program identified by the organizers, attention to which can shape more effective responses to complex changes in coasts and the ocean. The first two themes relate to the scale and resolution of new initiatives, highlighting the need for perspectives that provide breadth and depth, while being attentive to both the commonalities and uniqueness of issues faced across this vast region. Addressing these multi-dimensional, and sometimes conflicting, themes will be enabled by continuing to build and evolve modern information systems. Moving in all of these directions, the ocean-dependent community of the Northwest Atlantic should seize the Decade as an unprecedented vehicle for convening, knowledge sharing, resources, and scaling.

Expand Collaborations with Breadth and Depth

Programs such as this that span large geographic scales and a wide variety of issues are important in identifying shared challenges and emphasizing linkages across geographies and sectors. These challenges and linkages might be overlooked when the focus is narrower and more in-depth, which can mean missing important drivers and opportunities for knowledge transfer, collaborative development of solutions, and creating economies of scale. Breadth of focus helps to articulate the context in which specific challenges are faced and programs like this should be replicated periodically to keep the big picture fresh.

At the same time, the complexities and unique properties inherent within any given community, industry, or ecosystem necessitate deeper dives to most effectively diagnose and address challenges. Moving toward improved understanding and solutions will require targeted partnerships, projects, and policies that drill into the relevant social, economic, ecological, and governance intricacies. Therefore, programs such as this should serve as a springboard from which to launch more targeted initiatives that are nestedwithin and mindful of the broader national and international context.

Embrace Commonality and Uniqueness

The program sought to identify shared challenges facing communities, industries, and governments from the Arctic to the Gulf of Maine. Many challenges are linked to climate change, such as ecological shifts in habitat and species composition. Among other impacts, these shifts have important implications for fisheries, so strategies for adaptation by fishing fleets, scientists, and fishery managers is a common need. However, the nature of change will vary along latitudinal gradients. In particular, there will be generally northward shifts in the range of many species as waters warm, which means Arctic fisheries could benefit from more species to harvest while lower latitude fisheries could experience net loss. Amidst these ecological changes, fisheries in the region are also navigating new interactions with energy development. However, there is a greater focus on offshore wind in the south as opposed to oil and gas further north. Different energy sources present different types of infrastructure and impacts, as do different fishing fleets, potentially calling for unique management approaches tailored to the particular combination of uses in any given area.

Similar challenges with important local differences can also be found along the coast. Inuit communities in remote Arctic areas and Wabanaki communities in more developed temperate areas are both closely tracking ongoing changes in the landscapes that have been their ancestral home for millennia. For the Inuit, dynamics of ice sheets shape the ways people live, hunt, and travel, in the past and today. For the Wabanaki, rivers were once central arteries of commerce and convening, and today provide spiritual and cultural connections to the natural world and their past. Ice sheets and rivers both influence oceanography and marine ecosystems, and are both in flux due to climate change and other impacts. However, the nature of these influences and capacity to shape these systems at the local level are rather different. Still, Indigenous peoples across the Northwest Atlantic can benefit from exchange of ideas and experiences in how to understand and adapt to changes in the foundational natural assets of their homelands, whether river, ice sheets, or other coastal features.   

Build Modern Information Systems that are Streamlined, Shared, and Scaled

The program underscored the many ways that human and natural systems are interconnected across coastal and ocean areas of the Northwest Atlantic, while helping to prompt new conversations about ways to span sectoral and disciplinary divides. For example, a topic of energetic discussion among the panelists sharing perspectives on the state of marine ecosystems in the Arctic region during the opening webinar was ways in which the local ecological knowledge captured by SIKU can inform conventional research endeavors. Drawing upon community science, private sector data and platforms, and other non-traditional sources not only has the potential to advance scientific understanding, but also to channel that understanding more directly into solving problems faced by communities and industries in a changing ocean. Indeed, the growing importance of a firm information base and common understanding among different users underlies the concept of the New Blue Economy and was underscored by policymakers during the program. The program was organized by partner organizations – NERACOOS and CIOOS Atlantic – that focus on ocean observing, so the lessons learned about the essential attributes of effective information systems was of particular interest. Speaker perspectives and panel discussions illustrated that modern information systems will increasingly need to be streamlined, shared, and scaled. 

Changes underway in both ocean ecosystems and human uses are increasing the types and resolution of data needed for all levels of decision-making, from individuals to international policy bodies. It is no longer the case that temperature is seen as the dominant driver of species composition and resultant food web dynamics, with salinity, dissolved oxygen, pH, nutrient levels, soundscapes, and other physical and chemical properties rising as issues of concern. Similarly, monitoring commercially exploited fish stocks and other megafauna is no longer sufficient to understand biological systems as changes unfold in planktonic and even microbial communities. Furthermore, there is increasing need for collection of physical, chemical, and biological data at finer spatial and temporal scales given the pace and uncertainty of ecosystem change, and the fine-tuning of management measures. At the same time, socio-economic data are also becoming more important to understand and manage the complex interplay between human and natural systems. These multifaceted demands means that data collection need to be as streamlined as possible, eliminating redundancy wherever it is not intentional (e.g., to ensure continuity of the most critical data streams) and collecting multiple types of data from any given platform wherever resources and logistics allow. Coordination is becoming more important than ever, and every dollar spent collecting data that are already being collected elsewhere misses an opportunity to develop new data streams needed to make headway on vital challenges.

Maximizing the utility of data collection systems will also require that data be shared to the widest extent possible, recognizing that decision-making improves with a stronger information base. Working with common understanding will also help to reduce, although not eliminate, conflicts among competing interests while cultivating the development of new approaches to shared challenges. After all, clear problem identification is an essential first step in solution co-development. However, expanding the reach of data must also be mindful of and protect confidentiality and important sensitivities where appropriate. The private sector can be a valuable source of funding, platforms, and data, but those contributions will only be sustained if legitimate proprietary concerns are addressed. Indigenous data sovereignty is another important consideration in light of the exploitation and marginalization suffered by Indigenous peoples. Although bringing data and data products from Indigenous communities into science and policy processes can amplify their efforts, goals, and concerns, doing so without the right consultation and collaboration can perpetuate historical injustices.

Some data needs will be unique to the issues and attributes of particular locations, such as the importance of ice cover to Inuit people and river flow to Abenaki people discussed earlier, and therefore should be developed and tailored locally. But other issues are shared across the ocean-dependent community from the Arctic to the Gulf of Maine, and beyond, calling for information systems that are scaled. The oceanographic and ecological attributes of the major current systems that connect the region is a shared interest, one that is most effectively addressed by observing systems that span international boundaries. Satellite remote sensing is an important tool in this regard, as are long-distance scientific voyages like that of Healy and the ships of opportunity that feed data to SAMOS. Scaling can also improve understanding of processes operating at smaller scales when they are replicated across the wider region. For example, tracking, predicting, and responding to sea-level rise and coastal inundation is a common concern in coastal regions the world over. Monitoring these changes takes place locally, but sharing experiences with technologies, emergency protocols, data management and delivery, and long-term planning across the region can improve local understanding and response. This type of scaling can be achieved through workshops, communities of practice, shared platforms, and other tools that promote interaction and exchange.

‘Carpe Decennium’ – Seize the Decade

Meeting the challenges facing the Northwest Atlantic will require new ways of thinking and new resources applied at an international scale. The importance of information systems and other prominent themes raised during the program are at the heart of what the Decade aims to achieve (Fig. 3), so the ocean-dependent community of the Northwest Atlantic should engage in and embrace opportunities emerging through the Decade in the years to come. A number of pertinent workshops, webinars, and virtual laboratories, including this program, have been held over the first year of the Decade. These aim to cultivate new partnerships and programs needed to meet the ten challenges being confronted by the Decade to reach the seven outcomes that define “the ocean we want”. Funding is a particularly pressing need given that funding for sustained international collaborations are limited relative to funding for work at the national scale. As scientists, community leaders, industry members, and policymakers work to collaborate more on shared issues of concern from the Arctic to the Gulf of Maine, we should also look to opportunities for engagement at the global scale as a means of access to ideas, partners, and resources. After all, the Northwest Atlantic is part of the global ocean, so ultimately our region affects and is affected by changes taking place across its extent.   

Summary and Conclusions

The historic 2021 voyage of USCGC Healy provided a unique focal point for considering the complex and interconnected oceanographic, ecological, social, economic, and policy systems along its route through the Northwest Atlantic Ocean. Despite the constraints imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, a virtual engaged program proved to be an effective vehicle for convening a diverse group of 31 expert speakers with more than 200 audience members from across the region. Indeed, it is unlikely that an in-person forum with this scope would have brought together Inuit leaders from Arctic Canada and municipal leaders from Cape Cod. As we build from the connections made among communities, institutions, and individuals during the program to address the issues identified, deeper and sustained person-to-person interactions alongside additional virtual engagement will enable continued collaboration and scaling. As the steward of ocean observing systems in the Northeastern U.S. and Atlantic Canada, respectively, NERACOOS and CIOOS Atlantic will continue efforts to expand and integrate data and modeling systems across our domains, and connect with those in the Arctic. In parallel, ocean users across the Northwest Atlantic should work to create communities of practice, learning networks, integrated data and modeling systems, training and capacity building programs, and other tools for collaboration and scaling need to meet the challenges before us. 


Generous support was provided by the U.S. Embassy & Consulates in Canada through the Arctic Region Virtual Grant Program. Sustaining support for NERACOOS is provided by the U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System, and for CIOOS Atlantic by Canada’s Department of Fisheries & Oceans and Marine Environmental Observation Prediction & Response Network. The program was also endorsed as an official activity of the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, which helped with promotion and participation. We are grateful to all! 

  • Jake Kritzer, Executive Director, Northeastern Regional Association of Coastal Ocean Observing Systems (NERACOOS)
  • Shayla Fitzsimmons, Executive Director, Canadian Integrated Ocean Observing System (CIOOS) Atlantic Regional Association

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