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  • Writer's pictureKristina Barclay

Scientist Spotlight: Ellie Simpson, Ph.D. Candidate (SFU), Oceanographic Data Manager (DFO)

Ellie Simpson is a Ph.D. Candidate at the School of Resource and Environmental Management in the Climate Oceans and Paleoenvironments Lab at Simon Fraser University. She is also an Oceanographic Data Manager with Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Ellie shares with us her background and expertise in ocean acidification and carbonate chemistry research.

A white woman in a purple parka with the fur hood pulled over her head smiles at the camera.
Ellie Simpson

What is your background?

I am currently working towards my PhD in Resource and Environmental Management at Simon Fraser University, working with Dr. Karen Kohfeld (SFU) and Dr. Debby Ianson (DFO). I am originally from the UK, where I studied Environmental Science at the University of Reading. Following my Bachelor’s degree I did my Masters in Renewable Energy, hoping to work towards tackling climate change. I worked as a project manager for three years, developing wind farm and solar farm projects, before deciding to do my PhD. I have been working part time at Fisheries and Oceans Canada for the past year (while trying to finish the PhD!), initially in the Fish and Fish Habitat Protection Program, but recently I have moved to the Science Branch where I quality control and format ocean carbon data.

A woman wading into the water with a Niskin bottle used to collect water for sampling.
Wading into the water with a Niskin bottle used to collect water for sampling. Photo credit: Marty Davelaar.

What is your interest or background in OA?

I was very lucky to grow up in a rural area where I spent a lot of time outside, which fostered a love for nature and the outdoors. I have always wanted to pursue a career where I could be outside and work towards protecting and improving the environment. I have been interested in the effects of climate change, on both the environment and on people, since first learning about it in high school, and was excited to find a PhD project which combined the two - looking at nearshore coastal acidification in BC and the vulnerability of BC communities to ocean acidification. My PhD has been funded through the MEOPAR Integrated Coastal Acidification Program, and my research focuses on the drivers and variability of nearshore carbonate chemistry in BC, specifically in the Salish Sea.

A woman in a red jacket wearing a toque taking discrete samples from a Niskin, at Evening Cove Oysters’ lease.
Taking discrete samples from a Niskin, at Evening Cove Oysters’ lease. Photo credit: Nathan Habren.

Can you tell us about your past or current contributions to OA research?

I am researching nearshore carbonate chemistry variability in the Salish Sea and the vulnerability of BC communities to ocean acidification. Many calcifying species live and are farmed in nearshore estuarine environments where carbonate chemistry is highly variable. There are unfortunately, little baseline carbonate data collected from nearshore areas in the Canadian portion of the Salish Sea, as OA has typically been studied in the open ocean, using large research vessels which are not suitable for use in collecting nearshore data. I have collected carbonate data from nearshore locations in the Salish Sea from 2015 - 2018, either by wading directly into the water from the shore, or by small skiffs. I have been working in partnership with shellfish growers in BC, collecting discrete samples from their shellfish leases in Okeover Inlet, Baynes Sound, Maple Bay and Ladysmith. I aim to establish a baseline of the pH and calcium carbonate saturation state (an indicator of stressful conditions to shellfish) conditions in these nearshore areas, show the daily and seasonal variability at these sites and identify the drivers of that variability.

A man holds up a Niskin bottle and a woman pulls up a CTD.
Yves Perreault (Little Wing Oysters) and me pulling up a Niskin and CTD in Okeover Inlet. Photo credit: Michelle Vandermoor.

I am currently working on a paper which I hope to publish soon, which is investigating the use of endmember models to estimate carbonate conditions in these nearshore areas. As well as being useful to researchers interested in carbonate conditions and OA, these could be simple tools that shellfish growers could use to estimate the pH or calcium carbonate saturation state at their farms, as they only require two measurements to be made (the salty and the fresh endmember total alkalinity and dissolved inorganic carbon).

I’m also investigating how conditions vary across the salinity gradient in this paper. I’m aiming to identify the salinity ranges where minimum buffer zones occur, which are hotspots of acidity where the most rapid changes in pH will likely happen in the future. I’m hoping that shellfish growers can use this to inform their decisions as to where in the water column to hang their shellfish and where to locate their farms.

Sampling equipment and a makeshift lab sitting in a boat
Our sampling equipment and makeshift lab in Yves’ boat.

I am also hoping to conduct a vulnerability assessment of coastal BC communities to ocean acidification, combining exposure, sensitivity and adaptive capacity scores to give an overall vulnerability score of BC municipalities. I’ll be using the nearshore data I have collected to inform the exposure part of this assessment, instead of coarse-resolution general circulation model data which have been typically used for this type of assessment in the past. I’m hoping that identifying which areas of BC are most vulnerable to future (and/or present!) OA, will be useful to policy makers, resource managers and the growers themselves.

A woman with her back to the camera wading into the water with a Niskin bottle used to collect water for sampling
Wading into the water with a Niskin bottle used to collect water for sampling. Photo credit: Marty Davelaar.

What do you see as the most pressing OA issue for Canadians?

In my opinion, from a BC perspective, we need to establish a baseline of carbonate (OA) conditions in the nearshore. The majority of OA sensitive species live or are farmed in these areas, where there is currently little data available. We can’t predict what will happen in the future with OA if we don’t know what is happening now.

What is the one take-home about OA that you wish all Canadians knew?

That OA is already happening!

View of Baynes Sound from a dock. Water in the forefront with shoreline in the background and a rainbow in the sky
At Stellar Bay Shellfish, Baynes Sound.

What excites you most about the current or future of OA research in Canada?

There are some very interesting ideas being investigated to mitigate ocean acidification (marine carbon dioxide removal), it will be exciting to see what comes out of this research in the next few years. Hopefully something to lessen the impact of OA can be developed – of course it would be nice if we could cut the carbon emissions too!

View from the shore looking out at a dock in Baynes Sound. There is a beautiful sunset in the background.
At Stellar Bay Shellfish, Baynes Sound.

Anything else you’d like to say?

I received a lot of help from a large number of people in collecting the data and I’d like to acknowledge and thank everyone who baked in the sun and froze in their boots while collecting samples with me. Also, many thanks to Yves Perreault at Little Wing Oysters, Andre Comeau and Chris Roberts at Okeover Organic Oysters, Keith Reid at Stellar Bay Shellfish and Andrew Dryden at Evening Cove Oysters for access to their shellfish leases, boats, time and expertise.

Six people in winter gear stand on a dock with a boat behind them. A man third from the right stands in the boat.
L to R: Myself [Ellie], Aimee McGowan, Kenny Scozzafava, Paul Covert, Andre Comeau and Yves Perreault – about to go sampling (and get very cold) in Okeover Inlet.


To learn more about Ellie’s research, please visit her LinkedIn and ORCID profiles.


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