Microbial Genomics for Oil Spill Preparedness in Canada’s Arctic Marine Environment

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GENICE activities have been summarized in this short animation!

Frames from a short animation describing the GENICE project.

GENICE addresses Canada’s pressing need to develop preparedness and response strategies for fuel spills in arctic waters. The broad impact of accidental spills is exemplified by the 2010 Gulf of Mexico Deepwater Horizon (DWH) blowout and more recently, the smaller 2015 Marathassa spill in English Bay, Vancouver. Both incidents highlighted a general confusion and the genuine concern associated with such events, and raised questions about oil spill preparedness in Canada. Appropriate preparedness and effective response strategies to manage a serious spill incident in the cold, dark, inaccessible regions of the Arctic and along transport routes adjacent to Canada’s northern coastal communities is critical.

GENICE scientists will study the DNA and other biomolecules of naturally occurring microorganisms present in Arctic environments (microbial genomics). In the aftermath of DWH and other spill events, it is generally well---known that naturally present microorganisms can rapidly mobilise to biodegrade the oil and mitigate some of the negative spill impacts but this promising response strategy is largely overlooked in Canada. Microbes hold promise as nature’s ‘first
responders’ in the event of a spill but the reliability of bioremediation (i.e. microbial biodegradation as a clean---up strategy) for mitigation under the cold and icy conditions of the arctic marine environment is unclear. GENICE will generate credible, science---based knowledge on the role of and potential for bioremediation under arctic marine conditions.

Reduced sea ice cover and increasingly ice---free summers have led to a rise of up to 166% in ship traffic through the Northwest Passage since 2004. Arctic cruise ship tourism alone has grown by 500% in the past 5 years. The US---based Crystal Cruises made history in the summer of 2016 when the mammoth Crystal Serenity ship made a voyage through the Northwest Passage
– the first ever attempt of this kind. More activity of this sort, including future offshore oil and gas development brings greater risk of accidental releases of diesel or bunker fuel and other transportation related contaminants.

Significant oil reserves are estimated to exist in the Arctic, however recent decisions by major oil producers signal that offshore drilling is at least a decade away. This “hiatus” in offshore petroleum exploration and production offers an important window of opportunity to develop new and effective spill mitigation approaches in Arctic waters. GENICE capitalizes on this opportunity to conduct the science needed in advance of arctic offshore oil production. Given the combined pressures of climate change and development on the Arctic, there is no better time or place to initiate this cutting---edge genomics---based investigation.

GENICE research will focus on the Hudson Bay corridor where current sea ice and ocean conditions are considered analogous to future conditions further north. This is a region experiencing intense and increasing ship traffic in close proximity to many coastal communities.

GENICE will deliver needed information in three areas: improved understanding of the marine ecosystem; the viability of microbial bioremediation in arctic waters; and the mobilization of knowledge. Specific outcomes include:

(1) Baseline microbial genomics data useful for assessing marine ecosystem resilience and response to hydrocarbon pollution;

(2) Bioremediation viability case studies;

(3) Recommendations on technology---based emergency spill response strategies;

(4) Best practices for successful knowledge transfer and sharing of diverse knowledge types;

(5) Mobilized sharing of genomics and bioremediation information for informed decision making and policy development.

GENICE connects a broad community of Arctic stakeholders – scientists, residents of northern communities, indigenous organizations, different levels of government, regulatory agencies, non---governmental, and private sector groups. All are potential contributors to and end---users of GENICE data and information and all are well positioned to share their needs and knowledge to shape and enact GENICE deliverables.

GENICE provides a pathway for engaging and partnering with non---specialists that want to use genomic and microbiological data to improve management of and response to spills in arctic waters. When combined with Indigenous Knowledge, and input from other end---user groups, GENICE outcomes will lead to informed and appropriately scaled plans for coastal and ocean management, spill mitigation strategies, improved risk management, and decreased environmental, social, economic and regulatory uncertainties associated with potential spills. GENICE will significantly enhance Canada’s oil spill emergency preparedness regime and provide new understanding around bioremediation as a means of safeguarding the natural environment.