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The plainfin midshipman helps researchers see what’s going on far below the surface, without having to go there themselves. The latest findings give ecologists reasons to worry

Shane Gross is a marine conservation photographer and co-founder of the Canadian Conservation Photographers Collective (CCPC).

As I carefully moved from rock to rock along the beach, the stench of death was putrid in the air.

It was 45 degrees, a new record for this part of Vancouver Island, and the heat of the day coincided with an extreme low tide. With every couple of steps, I found another dead crab, sea star or fish. In between, hundreds of barnacles were starting to rot. I took pictures, but none did the scene justice. “So,” I thought to myself, defeatedly. “This is climate change.”

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A billion animals died of heat exposure that week in June 2021, according to Christopher Harley, a professor at the University of British Columbia.

Among the dead fish were plainfin midshipman, a curious little fish I’d planned to photograph that day, long before I knew a record heat dome was coming. I brought a special probe lens that would allow me to see into their dark nests, which they build under rocks in the intertidal zone, where ocean meets land.

As humans stress the ocean with climate change, acidification, overfishing, plastic and other pollutants, the amount of prey available to midshipman will likely decrease and lead to a population decline, according to Dr. Sigal Balshine, a professor and director of the Aquatic Behavioural Ecology Laboratory at McMaster University. For scientists, studying the midshipman is a unique opportunity to discover the secrets of the deep sea.

Open this photo in gallery:

The midshipman is a noisy fish, or at least males are when they want to attract mates. In the player below, you can hear a chorus of grunts and hums recorded in Marin, Calif., in 2015.

What’s interesting about plainfin midshipman? Where should I begin? This is a venomous, deep-sea species that can emit their own light, and swims all the way up to the shore each spring to spawn. Males dig out the sediment under flat rocks, preparing their nests and then sing to attract females.

Yes, the fish sing. To us the singing sounds more like a low hum which has, historically, irritated and confused people living on houseboats – but to a female midshipman a good song is irresistible. She will choose her mate based largely on his singing prowess and lay her eggs in the nest he built. Once her eggs are laid, the singer (a.k.a. guarder) male has a chance to fertilize the eggs.

But there is a twist. A second type of male may beat him to the punch. He is called a sneaker male and he will hang out at the edge of the nest looking like a female, (smaller and more slender than singer males). When the opportunity arises, a sneaker male will sneak in to fertilize the eggs before the guarder male does.

The guarder male will then take care of and defend the eggs for months until they are ready to swim off on their own. Guarder males may not realize many of the babies are not his own.

At top, a guarder male protects eggs attached to the underside of a rock. The yolk sacs have all the nutrients babies need to develop into juveniles like the one Dr. Sigal Balshine is collecting here.
On a June day, researchers turn over seaweed-covered rocks in search of midshipman nests. Vancouver Island's recent summers have been hotter than average, which takes a toll on spawning grounds like this.
The heat was so intense that this ochre sea star, Pisaster ochraceus, boiled to death on the shore, a fate that has befallen billions of animals as climate change warms the ocean.
Container ships like these are another hazard to the midshipman, because noise stresses them out and makes it harder to communicate.

To us, finding out a fish sings is just another fun fact, but for the midshipman it’s survival. Our ocean is becoming a noisier place from marine vessels, sonar, deep-sea mining and resource extraction.

According to Mackenzie Woods, an MSc student at the University of Victoria, noise pollution potentially increases stress on midshipman, reducing their ability to care for their young, which can last for more than four months.

When it’s not breeding season, the fish can be found at great depths, deeper than 200-400 meters (650 – 1,300 feet) feeding on crabs, squid and krill.

“Midshipman can teach us so much about the deep sea without the expense and risk of physically going down there. They are the ocean’s canaries in the coal mine,” explained Dr. Balshine.

That’s because on a biochemical dietary level the fish bring some of the deep sea with them to the intertidal zone. What they bring up in their tissue gets passed on to the seals, sharks and even terrestrial animals such as eagles and herons who then feed the fish to their chicks.

Bald eagles in some areas depend heavily on the fish, as nesting time for the birds coincides with midshipman spawning time. How much contamination is transferred between species is an area currently studied by Dr. Balshine and her team.

Bald eagles hunt for midshipman at low tide. The nutrients that birds, seals and sharks consume can give researchers an idea of what is happening to species in inaccessible parts of the ocean.
Dr. Balshine looks out for eagles as they hunt for fish, while volunteer Spencer Kirk helps the researchers with a seine net. Dr. Balshine considers the midshipman to be ‘the ocean’s canaries in the coal mine.’

When Dr. Balshine was asked about the 2021 heat dome she was cautious: “My guess is populations got decimated by it, but we weren’t there to observe because of COVID travel restrictions.” She was quick to add, “but their populations appear to have recovered.”

Still, according to her, as these heat events become more common, they may not be able to recover and all the other animals that depend on them will also suffer. It’s like a game of Jenga. A putrid-smelling game of high-stakes Jenga.

As I looked under rocks for midshipman nests in the extreme heat, I wondered if my efforts to raise awareness about the issues facing a fish species very few have heard of is a waste of time and energy. Maybe it is – after all I’m not going to solve climate change. However, I think there are things we can do to help.

You can advocate for coastal marine protected areas, and for better waste management. If you find a midshipman nest under a rock be careful to not harm the fish or eggs as you put the rock back. If you notice declining conditions or dramatic changes to a coastline near you, report it to DFO (Department of Fisheries and Oceans). And even if you don’t live anywhere near the ocean, you can vote with your wallet and with your ballot for those who will fight for the rights of nature.

Evolving oceans: More from The Globe and Mail

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The Coast Salish woman protecting the North Pacific’s orcas

As the world weighs the perils of deep-sea mining, a Vancouver-based company is forging ahead

UN ‘High Seas Treaty’ good news for oceans, but finer details not yet clear

Canada’s sustainable seafood is top notch. These three recipes prove it

Four eco-tourism experiences for ocean-lovers

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