As buried treasures go, centuries-old sediment from the bottom of a bay likely wouldn’t make it onto most people’s Top-Ten list.

But for marine bio-geographer Emilie Saulnier-Talbot, the core samples that were extracted from the Bay of Sept-Îles this year by two Canadian research vessels are worth their weight in gold.

“They are like time capsules that will allow us to go back and measure the historical changes that have occurred in the water,” said Saulnier-Talbot, an associate professor at Université Laval (ULaval) in Quebec City and the first holder of the school’s new research chair on coastal ecosystems and port, industrial and maritime activities.  “That will give us the baselines and references we need to assess the current situation.”

Created in February at ULaval’s Northern Research Institute (INQ) and funded to the tune of $1 million over the next five years by the Port of Sept-Îles and INREST, a Sept-Îles-based non-profit research group that specializes in environmental and workplace health issues, the new chair aims to enhance our understanding and knowledge of the impacts that commercial port operations have on their surrounding marine ecosystems and to identify practices and protocols that will help ensure the sustainable development of those facilities.

A first step was taken when the Canadian Coast Guard-operated Arctic research vessel Amundsen visited the Bay of Sept-Îles in March and took two long (1.5 metre) core samples plus several shorter ones.

In September, another scientific research vessel – the Coriolis II, a Rimouski-based ship that is owned and operated by a consortium of five federal and provincial government agencies and post-secondary schools – returned to take a second group of core samples.

Saulnier-Talbot is now preparing to study those samples, which are stored in a fridge in her lab at Université Laval.

An expert in diatoms – single-celled algae that react rapidly to physical changes in water like light, temperature and pH levels, much like the proverbial canary in a coal mine – she plans to use spectroscopy and do elemental analysis of carbon and nitrogen traces from ages-old algae and bacteria pigments in the sediment to get a better picture of what she calls “the water-sediment interface” in the Bay of Sept-Îles.

“I’m hoping we can go back 1,000 years, though we need to do carbon dating to confirm that,” said Saulnier-Talbot.  “But we for sure can go back 150 years, which is the period that interests us the most.”

According to Saulnier-Talbot, studying the physical and biological variables in the water coastal environment over time “will help us to infer and quantify changes that have occurred there past and present.”

Though her work is focused in Sept-Îles, she said the relative newness of modern commercial port activities there may provide benchmarks and presumptions about the impacts that everything from heavy industry and maritime activities to global warming and ocean acidification are having on ecosystems in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

“Sept-Îles is an amazing model bay because the port is only 70 years old,” she said.  “And it’s both rare and refreshing to see a port authority investing so much time, interest and money in environmental research.”

The new chair was not the only major initiative to evolve this year from the growing environmental partnership between the Port and INREST.

The two first partnered up in 2013, with the city of Sept-Îles, in a five-year, three-phase study on the environmental health of the Bay of Sept-Îles.

The bay received a clean bill of health in the final report from the INREST-run environmental observatory created for the study, which recommended continued investigation and monitoring.

In July, the Port and INREST announced the creation of the Centre for Industrial Port Expertise – or CEIP – a new INREST-run research body that will support the observatory’s work and study the larger issue of industrial port ecosystems.

Backed by $350,000 in funding from the Quebec government’s Blue Fund program, $250,000 over five years from the Port of Sept-Îles and long-term financial assistance from the city of Sept-Îles and port partners like IOC/Rio Tinto, Aluminerie Alouette and Minerai de fer Québec, CEIP will also notably work to develop a marketable version of a management model aimed at helping ports to identify and manage environmental and operational challenges.

The so-called Enviro-Actions model is based on the establishment of environmental observatories in industrial port areas that collect samples, use real-time data and satellite images to provide quality portraits of water, sediment, and other ecosystem elements.  The instrumentalized system also sends alerts to management when environmental values change.

“After spills or other preventable problems you often hear senior managers say, ‘Oh, if we’d only known,’” said Dr Julie Carrière, executive director of both INREST and CEIP and a chemical engineer with more than 30 years of consultancy experience on environmental and health and safety projects in Sept-Îles and across Canada.  “Our approach is to help ports to prepare rather than to react.”

According to Carrière, the work being done by INREST, CEIP and the new chair is helping to make Sept-Îles a hotbed of environmental research on marine and port ecosystems – and she credits senior officials at the Port of Sept-Îles for providing the vision, encouragement and financial support needed to make it happen.

“We’re developing tools and expertise here that are both unique and useful for ports all along the St. Lawrence River and elsewhere,” she said.  “But it wouldn’t be possible without the openness and commitment of the Port of Sept-Îles to preserve the environment.  They have been the key elements and partners in bringing obscurity to life and in pushing us to go further in our work.”