Oceanographers trying to figure out east-coast food chain

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HALIFAX - If you're a bottlenose whale in the Sable Gully marine protected area, squid is on the menu. But the question scientists want to know is what are the squid having for dinner?

HALIFAX - If you're a bottlenose whale in the Sable Gully marine protected area, squid is on the menu. But the question scientists want to know is what are the squid having for dinner?

A research team just returned from two weeks in the protected area towing nets at a depth of 1,700 metres to try and gain more information on that exact question. What researchers want to know is what keeps some 200 of the endangered mammals feeding on squid in one patch of the area that is roughly 21 kilometres long.

"They're a very unique, very localized population," said Trevor Kenchington, a research associate with the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Kenchington led the research team.

By learning more about the food chain, the scientists may also discover if human activity adjacent to the region might end up threatening the mammals' meal. That could lead to regulations impacting oil and gas development, commercial fishing and even shipping.

Hal Whitehead, a biology professor at Halifax's Dalhousie University, studies the whales. He calls Kenchington's research exciting and said the research could answer why the squid congregate in the gully.

"There's always this puzzle of what's going on down there," Whitehead said. "We know the whales are mainly eating at the bottom of the gully. We know they're mainly eating squid, but don't know how all this stuff got there and how it's set up ecologically."

The Sable Gully is the largest canyon along North America's seaboard and is located approximately 200 kilometres off the Nova Scotia coast.



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Besides catching whale food, the researchers snagged plenty of other creatures in their nets - many of them uncommon to Canadian waters. They included an ogre fish, a scary looking critter with a massive mouth and sharp teeth, but only the size of the palm of a hand.

The scientists may have found some new species of shrimp never seen before, but need to check before they are certain. They also captured deepwater strawberry squids that have spots that emit a red light, and fearsome looking viperfish, which can reach up to 300 millimetres in length.

Organizations: HALIFAX, Bedford Institute of Oceanography, Dalhousie University

Geographic location: Nova Scotia, Dartmouth, North America

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