Travis Gerwing and his wife Alyssa wade into researching intertidal communities at the Cassiar Cannery in Port Edward.

Worms, an ecosystem warning system

Worms can detect the health of an ecosystem and possible disturbances, which is why they’re being put under the microscope

Worms can detect the health of an ecosystem and possible disturbances, which is why they’re being put under the microscope along the shores of the North Coast.

Researcher and adjunct professor, Travis Gerwing, has set up his primary study site at the Cassiar Cannery in Port Edward, and on Dec. 8 he spoke about his preliminary findings at the Northwest Community College as part of the Vancouver Aquarium’s North Coast Marine Speaker Series.

“I was told I couldn’t do it,” Gerwing said when he first started studying worms for his PhD. That was 10 years ago, and he said he is still learning.

“It’s a different puzzle every day under the microscope. It’s ‘what is this’ and ‘what does that tell me about the ecosystem.’ It’s very addictive once you catch the bug.”

Studying intertidal communities is an under-exploited tool for monitoring the environment along the North Coast. Gerwing is two years into his work. Last summer, after speaking with First Nations, presenting his plan and asking for permission to do his work, he started poking around in the mud.

The mudflat at the Cassiar Cannery is his preferred site, mainly for convenience. He also has sites in Grassy Bay, Butze Rapids and he goes to a couple of mud flats up the Skeena River and some areas south of Kaien Island.

He explained the simplicity behind how he collects the information at each site.

“I take a red kidney bean can and I shove it in the mud and then I take out a sample and then I pass it through a 250 Micron sieve. I hose it down with water and then I preserve what’s left over in 95 per cent ethanol. Then I look at that under a dissecting microscope and you see all of the worms and anthropoids,” Gerwing said.

Based on the species he sees in the intertidal communities, and how dense they are, he can determine how healthy that ecosystem is. Some species are only found in disturbed, unhealthy systems.

“What I’m hoping to do is to use these tiny little worms almost as canaries in a coal mine,” he said.

If something dramatic happens either through human activities or even just natural changes, he can detect those disturbances in the worms long before the species that are commercially or culturally important, like salmon or shellfish, are impacted.

Before he can use the worms as an advanced warning system he has to calibrate the area and figure out what species are present and what their natural cycles are. However, he said his preliminary research has shown a surprisingly healthy ecosystem — but far from the pristine community it would have been before development.

The dominant species he’s observed in the mud is an evasive species originally from Japan. There are signs of intensive disturbances that have occurred in the area, which he said isn’t surprising based on the history and that Cassiar Cannery was a huge salmon cannery.

When he’s not researching on the North Coast for his postdoctoral fellowship, Gerwing is an adjunct professor at the University of Northern British Columbia. His early work will develop a baseline, before any major industrial developments, and he’ll steadily collect more information in the next couple of years to formulate the worm warning system.

 

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Skidegate Saints return to top of the Seniors Division with comeback effort against Metlakatla AK

Jesse Barnes wins MVP as Saints get revenge on Alaska side in All Native finale

Kitamaat women complete the three-peat at All Native

Haisla team unstoppable in final as they rout Hazelton; Adelia Paul back to back MVP

All Native Basketball: Women’s and Masters Finals all set for Saturday afternoon

Kitamaat vs Hazelton and Hydaburg vs New Aiyansh are the big draws

Wet’suwet’en return to camps near Houston, Coastal GasLink workers move through: First Nation

Opponents of a pipeline who support the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have reoccupied camps at centre of arrests

Northern Health recommends self-quarantine for people returning from Hubei

The healthcare provider said it isn’t neccessary for healthy children to wear face masks

VIDEO: Minister reports ‘modest progress’ after blockade talks with First Nation

Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs say Coastal GasLink does not have authority to go through their lands

Murder of sex worker exposes Canada’s hypocrisy on prostitution: advocate

A 2014 law made purchasing sex or benefiting from the selling of sex illegal

Over a dozen birds found mysteriously dead on rural B.C road

Ministry of Agriculture notified of the strange occurrence on No. 4 Road in Abbotsford

B.C. men arrested after theft of heavy equipment leads to highway blockade

One man surrendered to police while the other was taken into custody the next morning, RCMP say

PHOTOS: Trans Mountain hosts mock oil spill response practice in Kamloops

Practice comes after an excavator accidentally struck the pipeline near Jacko Lake in mid-February

Federal Indigenous services minister meets First Nation at rail blockade

Blockade on Tyendinaga Mohawk territory near Belleville, Ont., is in its 10th day

Canada’s flag was flown for first time 55 years ago today

The flag is used to celebrate wins in sports, honour Canada Day, and flown at half-mast after tragedy

No shirts, no city services: Firefighter calendar too steamy for Ontario officials

The city has never funded the calendars, but has OK’d photoshoots at city-owned properties

Most Read