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Building blocks of ocean food web in rapid decline as plankton productivity plunges

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They’re teeny, tiny plants and organisms but their impact on ocean life is huge.​

Phytoplankton and zooplankton that live near the surface are the base of the ocean’s food system. Everything from small fish, big fish, whales and seabirds depend on their productivity.

“They actually determine what’s going to happen, how much energy is going to be available for the rest of the food chain,” explained Pierre Pepin, a senior researcher with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in St. John’s.

Pepin says over the past three to four years, scientists have seen a persistent drop in phytoplankton and zooplankton in waters off Newfoundland and Labrador.

“Based on the measurements that we’ve been taking in this region, we’ve seen pretty close to 50 per cent decline in the overall biomass of zooplankton,” said Pepin. “So that’s pretty dramatic.”

Measuring five millimetres or less, phytoplankton contain chlorophyll to capture sunlight and use photosynthesis to turn it into chemical energy, which is later eaten by ocean creatures. (Photo courtesy of DFO)

Scientists say local testing reveals half the amount of plankton in a square metre of water today. It’s not just a problem here, declining plankton numbers are a global phenomenon.

It’s a difficult idea to convey to the average person who might not understand the ocean ecosystem, but Pepin likens it to walking into a grocery store and instead of seeing the shelves full, they’re only half-full.

Listen to Jane Adey’s coverage on CBC Radio’s The Broadcast

Hear about the problems for plankton. Reaction time to an offshore oil blow out. Can it be improved? 23:16

“You know if you saw half the number of birds, if you saw half the number of fish in the water you’d pay attention. Well, this is a signal to say we need to pay attention.”

Alarm bells are going off 

So what’s causing this dramatic decline?

Scientists here haven’t detected anything in particular that can be linked to the plunge in productivity, but they are worried.

Phytoplankton are tiny plants and zooplankton are tiny animals. Zooplankton feed on phytoplankton near the surface of the ocean. (Photo courtesy of DFO)

“When it persists — for in our case now for three or four years — in the back of my mind, at the very least, little alarm bells start going off because it means that something fundamental may have changed in the food web.”

Pepin says it is difficult to understand how long it takes the effect of this lack of basic food to make its way through the ocean ecosystem.

Scientists have to advise managers on how to handle fish stocks but without clear evidence of causes and effects, it becomes a very difficult job.

“How do we act on this? This is a real challenge.”

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador 

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More groups join in support of women in STEM program at Carleton

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OTTAWA — Major companies and government partners are lending their support to Carleton University’s newly established Women in Engineering and Information Technology Program.

The list of supporters includes Mississauga-based construction company EllisDon.

The latest to announce their support for the program also include BlackBerry QNX, CIRA (Canadian Internet Registration Authority), Ericsson, Nokia, Solace, Trend Micro, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, CGI, Gastops, Leonardo DRS, Lockheed Martin Canada, Amdocs and Ross.

The program is officially set to launch this September.

It is being led by Carleton’s Faculty of Engineering and Design with the goal of establishing meaningful partnerships in support of women in STEM.  

The program will host events for women students to build relationships with industry and government partners, create mentorship opportunities, as well as establish a special fund to support allies at Carleton in meeting equity, diversity and inclusion goals.

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VR tech to revolutionize commercial driver training

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Serious Labs seems to have found a way from tragedy to triumph? The Edmonton-based firm designs and manufactures virtual reality simulators to standardize training programs for operators of heavy equipment such as aerial lifts, cranes, forklifts, and commercial trucks. These simulators enable operators to acquire and practice operational skills for the job safety and efficiency in a risk-free virtual environment so they can work more safely and efficiently.

The 2018 Humboldt bus catastrophe sent shock waves across the industry. The tragedy highlighted the need for standardized commercial driver training and testing. It also contributed to the acceleration of the federal government implementing a Mandatory Entry-Level Training (MELT) program for Class 1 & 2 drivers currently being adopted across Canada. MELT is a much more rigorous standard that promotes safety and in-depth practice for new drivers.

Enter Serious Labs. By proposing to harness the power of virtual reality (VR), Serious Labs has earned considerable funding to develop a VR commercial truck driving simulator.

The Government of Alberta has awarded $1 million, and Emissions Reduction Alberta (ERA) is contributing an additional $2 million for the simulator development. Commercial deployment is estimated to begin in 2024, with the simulator to be made available across Canada and the United States, and with the Alberta Motor Transport Association (AMTA) helping to provide simulator tests to certify that driver trainees have attained the appropriate standard. West Tech Report recently took the opportunity to chat with Serious Labs CEO, Jim Colvin, about the environmental and labour benefits of VR Driver Training, as well as the unique way that Colvin went from angel investor to CEO of the company.

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Next-Gen Tech Company Pops on New Cover Detection Test

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While the world comes out of the initial stages of the pandemic, COVID-19 will be continue to be a threat for some time to come. Companies, such as Zen Graphene, are working on ways to detect the virus and its variants and are on the forefronts of technology.

Nanotechnology firm ZEN Graphene Solutions Ltd. (TSX-Venture:ZEN) (OTCPK:ZENYF), is working to develop technology to help detect the COVID-19 virus and its variants. The firm signed an exclusive agreement with McMaster University to be the global commercializing partner for a newly developed aptamer-based, SARS-CoV-2 rapid detection technology.

This patent-pending technology uses clinical samples from patients and was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. The test is considered extremely accurate, scalable, saliva-based, affordable, and provides results in under 10 minutes.

Shares were trading up over 5% to $3.07 in early afternoon trade.

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