Marine Biology at the Top of the World

Pictures by James Morgan, Words by James Simpson

Fulmar gulls fly around the north tip of Prins Karls Forland island, West Svalbard, Norway.

Svalbard. 78° north. Only 750 miles from the North Pole. We join Knut Sunnanå, chief scientist, and his team aboard the RV Helmar Hanssen for the first few days of a research cruise in the waters around Svalbard.

Knut Sananna, expedition leader.

The ship is a 63m converted prawn trawler, part laboratory and part university. There’s even a tiny lecture theatre built into the cramped accommodation deck.

Helmar Hanssen, a converted trawler, now being used as a research ship in Svalbard, Norway.

The crew is a mixture of fishermen, PhDs and masters students. Each has a different role in finding out about Svalbard’s delicate ecosystems and the fish that rely on them.

Knut Sananna, expedition leader, talks to students on the Helmer Hanssen research ship.

In Marine Stewardship Council assessments, Norway is consistently the highest scoring nation for its management. Something that helped the Barents Sea cod and haddock to win MSC certification five years ago. Each batch of fish comes with a certificate showing where it was caught, and those certificates show a trend. While there’s evidence of occasional trawling north of Svalbard as early as the 1970s, it’s becoming increasingly common as warmer winters mean less ice and more fish.

The Barents Sea is the source for nearly two thirds of the UK’s cod. It’s about 200 metres deep and almost all of the ocean floor is dull mud.

Almost all. In a few pockets, particularly in the north around the islands of Svalbard, there are cold-water corals, sponge gardens, and extraordinary animals called sea pens. Looking like ferns and strange fractal tulips, these filter feeders are easily damaged by trawls. In the process, they ruin nets and spoil catches. So the fishing industry is understandably keen to avoid them and skippers keep maps of any encounters.

We’re there to find out more about how Norwegian scientists work to understand the Barents Sea ecosystem and the myriad strange creatures that call it home.

Crew of the Helmer Hanssen lay out a trawling net.

The plan is to conduct an ocean transect, a series of short mid-water and bottom trawls at set points around the Svalbard archipelago. The catch is tiny—this is a research boat not a commercial trawler. The students joke about a small lunch tomorrow as a few cod come aboard along with smaller fish and debris from the bottom trawl.

Students sift through fish and marine species bought up by a bottom trawl on the Helmer Hanssen Research ship. Svalbard, Norway.

Below decks in the first of three labs, students sort the catch. A dozen large fish are followed by a few dozen smaller ones and a selection of rocks, hermit crabs and starfish.

CTD measures salinity, temperature and acidity and life at regular intervals, looking for changes. Barents sea water has a different salinity to atlantic water.

They’re followed by the CTD (Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth), a strange device originally developed by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. It looks more suited to a Mars mission than a mission to the bottom of the sea. My guide points at the screen as the instrument drops 193 metres, to hover 17 metres off the sea bed. As it sinks, it samples the water, testing salinity, temperature, pH and CO2.

By testing ocean salinity and temperature Sunnanå’s team can see where the water came from. In this area more often than not, that means the Atlantic.

Atlantic zooplankton moving northwards with the increasing warm water have far less fat than their northern cousins. Three times less. And while low fat foods may be good for overeating humans, they’re a real problem for the seabirds here. Low fat plankton means smaller birds and chicks maturing later. So the water’s plankton content is hugely important for Sunnanå. For him, it provides a measure of the changes happening as well as a measure of how strong the cod stocks will be.

Kittiwakes on top of an iceberg in Kongsfjorden bay outside Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard.

“We are mostly concerned with the fact things are changing and can change very quickly. Although we have a long-term trend that is quite clear, the big changes also take place in just a few years. And on some occasions there can be a substantial lack of food in the system, probably due to some mismatch during the spring… or predators.”

And there’s the irony. Those predators eating Sunnanå’s Atlantic plankton include Atlantic cod, increasingly found further and further north. And while the warming seas and Atlantic plankton spell trouble for seabirds and polar cod, they’re great news for the Atlantic cod. These fish, beloved by Brits for our fish and chips, are thriving in the Barents Sea with 80cm to a metre-long specimens now commonplace.

A barents sea cod, bought up from a bottom trawl on the Helmar Hanssen research vessel. Svalbard, Norway.

Good fisheries management is about having a system to monitor changes and adapt to them quickly to protect stocks, ecosystems and livelihoods. With the rapid, and increasing pace of change in this part of the arctic, it’s of some comfort to know the Norwegians are in charge.

“Norway recognises that we need to protect fishing as a viable industry for the future. That means looking after the fish stocks, looking after the fishermen and looking after the environment.” Explains Norwegian Seafood Council’s UK Director, Jack Robert Moller.

James Morgan is an Associate Fellow with iLCP (International League of Conservation Photographers). He is a multi award-winning photojournalist and filmmaker based in London. For more of James’ work visit his website: