Research and Monitoring

Researchers in the Gully MPA

Decades of scientific activity in the Gully were instrumental in its designation as a marine protected area (MPA). These activities continue in the MPA and they play a critical role in its management. Research increases our understanding of the physical, chemical and biological processes important for the Gully ecosystem. Research also contributes to our knowledge of the human history and socio-economic importance of the MPA. Monitoring is conducted to provide managers with accurate and timely information on the state of the ecosystem and related threats.

Research and monitoring efforts in the Gully MPA are collective and involve universities, government agencies, industry and non-government organizations. Researchers are encouraged to communicate the results of their MPA work to a broad audience including the Canadian public and the international community. Here we profile some of the research and monitoring that has occurred in the Gully. To learn more about these and other scientific undertakings, see our list of publications.


Foundation Science

When the Gully was being assessed as an MPA candidate, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) coordinated a compilation of existing knowledge. The resulting Science Review was published as a Research Document and summarized with a Habitat Status Report in 1998. Some information gaps were filled by research projects conducted at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography between 1999 and 2001. These and other ongoing studies confirmed the Gully’s significance as a diverse and highly productive ecosystem with a remarkable variety of habitats for fish, mammals, seabirds and bottom dwellers. The Gully Ecosystem report captured the state of knowledge in 2002 and made the case for special protection under Canada’s Oceans Act.

Seabed Mapping

The Canadian Hydrographic Service and the Geological Survey of Canada undertook multibeam surveys in the Gully between 1996 and 2006. Depth measurements are now available for about 90% of the MPA. Geologists used additional data sources to interpret and classify seabed characteristics. Three map sheets were produced: one each for topography, surficial geology and slope. All are available for online viewing and download. These maps reveal the true size and shape of the canyon. They also depict structural seabed features and the composition of the seafloor. For additional information on Gully maps and their applications, see a brief habitat mapping profile published in Marine Ecosystems and Management.


Scientists at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography have been studying the physical, chemical and biological properties of seawater in the Gully for decades. Much has been learned about circulation patterns, chemistry, nutrients, microbes and plankton. Water characteristics are now sampled twice a year in the Spring and Fall at fixed stations in the MPA during the Atlantic Zone Monitoring Program. In addition to these ship-based measurements, water column data for temperature, salinity and current were collected by sensors deployed in the Gully for 15 months during 2006-7.

Benthic Research

Marine scientists started documenting seabed organisms in the Gully as early as the 1880s when deep-water coral catches were common in the offshore fishery. Contemporary benthic ecologists study seabed communities using cameras and sampling instruments lowered from ships. Researchers employ systems like CAMPOD and VIDEOGRAB to study the floor of the Gully. Access to sophisticated underwater vehicles like ROPOS (Remotely Operated Platform for Ocean Sciences) has extended optical surveys and specimen sampling to canyon depths reaching 2.5 kilometres. A 2007 video collection of Deep Sea Discoveries includes bottom footage recorded in the Gully. The MPA also features in Oasis of the Deep: Cold Water Corals of Atlantic Canada.

Whale Studies

Researchers in the Biology Department at Dalhousie University began studying whales of the Gully in 1988. The resident population of endangered Northern bottlenose whales has since become the focus of cetacean research in the MPA. Academic and government scientists monitor population trends and study the behaviour of these beaked whales using photo-identification techniques and acoustic recorders. We now understand that these animals spend much of their lives in complete darkness near the bottom of the canyon where they hunt and feed on squid. An award-winning student video explains how researchers place hydrophones on the seabed to capture the echolocation clicks made by these deep-diving specialists.

Multispecies Bottom Trawl Surveys

Government research vessels have undertaken trawl surveys in the Gully for more than 25 years as part of a region-wide fish and invertebrate monitoring program. The survey protocol for each station involves towing a trawl net along the bottom for 30 minutes. On average, each tow travels 3.3 linear kilometres sampling an area roughly one-tenth of a square kilometre. Everything caught in the trawl is identified, weighed and measured. Sex, age and condition are recorded and stomachs are routinely collected for prey analysis. Additional tissue samples support genetic and contaminant studies. The Gully was withdrawn from the regional survey plan in 2008 pending a review of fragile habitats and the development of a protocol to meet specific MPA monitoring needs.

Multispecies Pelagic Trawl Surveys

Beginning in 2007, scientists made 4 trips to study the animals living in the water column of the Gully. Samples were taken at depths between 250 and 1750 metres using a midwater trawl with a mouth opening of 6 by 12 metres. These were the first Canadian deep-water surveys in over twenty years and some of the first globally to sample at such depths within a canyon. Catches were dominated by small non-commercial species such as lanternfish and krill. Juvenile squid were also collected amongst the 500-plus species sampled. Specimen photos from this relatively unknown realm are displayed in our Photo Gallery. Ongoing analysis is expanding our knowledge of the food chain that supports the canyon’s large predators.

Seabird Surveys

The Canadian Wildlife Service places biologists on research vessels to survey birds on the open ocean. Many scientific expeditions to the Gully have benefitted by having a seabird specialist aboard. Observers with the Eastern Canada Seabirds at Sea program keep watch in the wheelhouse and follow a monitoring protocol during transits and oceanographic transects. Visual scans for birds are also conducted when vessels are stopped or station keeping. Since 2006, over 1500 kilometres have been surveyed in the MPA. The data indicate that 24 bird species use the MPA. Observations confirm the Gully’s national importance as an offshore foraging area.

Hydrocarbon Exploration Monitoring

Applied research and monitoring have been prompted by uncertainty surrounding the environmental impacts of oil and gas exploration near the Gully. The Centre for Offshore Oil and Gas Environmental Research coordinated an interdisciplinary study in 2003 as part of an effects monitoring program for a pair of nearby seismic surveys. As reported in the study published by the Environmental Studies Research Funds, this major collaborative project involved mammal observations as well as underwater measurements of exploration noise and biological sounds. Year-round monitoring of ambient canyon acoustics has continued under a partnership with Dalhousie University.

Contaminant Monitoring

Oceanographic processes and retention within the Gully may make it susceptible to the accumulation of contaminants that can cause negative impacts. Government, industry and academic sampling programs have targeted various components of the Gully ecosystem over the years. Water samples, sediment grabs and animal tissues have all been examined for a variety of chemicals. The Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat convened a series of workshops to examine what was known of the potential risks. That process resulted in a Research Document and a Science Advisory Report addressing the state of knowledge and monitoring needs.

Ecosystem Monitoring

Monitoring a range of indicators and threats is necessary to ensure the MPA is meeting its stated conservation objectives. A recommended approach to ecosystem monitoring was prepared by the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat in 2010. A Research Document formed the basis for a peer review workshop where a suite of indicators, strategies and protocols were examined. Twenty-nine indicators were recommended for the ecosystem and an additional 18 were advanced for pressure monitoring. The workshop and its major recommendations are summarized in a Science Advisory Report.

Vessel Traffic Monitoring

Threats posed by shipping activities have been a longstanding concern for management of the MPA. The remote offshore location has made monitoring a particular challenge. Monitoring and surveillance is being undertaken in partnership with the Canadian Coast Guard and Transport Canada. Aerial patrols have been supplemented in recent years by mandatory ballast water exchange reporting and positional data collected from satellites. A retrospective of vessel traffic in Atlantic Canada presents monthly maps and statistics for Gully transits.

A series of tools used for Monitoring and Surveillance


Oceans and Coastal Management Division
Fisheries and Oceans Canada (Maritimes Region)
Bedford Institute of Oceanography
PO Box 1006
Dartmouth, Nova Scotia
B2Y 4A2
Phone: (902) 426-9919
Fax: (902) 426-2331