The research vessel Celtic Explorer tied up in St. John’s Friday, successfully ending its second year of surveying cod populations off Newfoundland and Labrador.
The vessel wasn’t here long. Just long enough to take on supplies, refuel and to allow the science and ship crews to grab a couple of pints on George Street and bid each other farewell till next year.
The Celtic Explorer is on lease from the Marine Institute of Ireland and has been travelling around Newfoundland waters for the past month, looking for signs of cod and other commercial fish.
George Rose, lead scientist on the trip and director of the Centre for Fisheries Ecosystems Research, is encouraged by what he saw in the latest expedition, although he warned it’s preliminary data.
In general, there are signs of big changes happening on the Grand Banks, he said.
“We found a lot of things. And we’re right at a very important point in the evolution of the ecosystems here on the Grand Banks, to the north and all around the island. Things are changing very rapidly,” he said.
Those changes are widespread and significant, he added. The water is warming up.
Return of caplin good sign, researcher says
Species normally found farther south are starting to show up here regularly, Rose said. Some species are starting to see declines, like crustaceans, while others are seeing an upswing — like cod and caplin.
Signs pointing to the return of the caplin are especially heartening because they are so important as food for other species, said Rose.
“We’ve been waiting 20 years for this. To see a turnaround in the caplin ... and the cod will be probably close behind. We’re only at the beginning of the rebuilding of the cod, but I think there is more hope now. There are more positive signs, right now, than we’ve seen in 20 years,” he said.
So why has it taken so long for the caplin and cod to come back?
Rose chuckles at that million-dollar question.
“The simple answer is we don’t know. It probably has something to do with the ocean climate. There’s pretty good evidence that the feeding of the caplin was just no good from 1990 to very recently. Everybody knows around the island the caplin were small, there weren’t many of them, and so on. But we’ve got a bit of evidence now that that may be turning around quickly — and that would be great,” he said.
As for the cod, Rose said some signs of life are better than none at all.
“We’re seeing better signs of cod now than we’ve seen in 20 years. We’re still at low stock levels, but you have to realize that for almost 15 years — if it was a medical patient it was flatlined — nothing was happening. We had high mortality rates, fish were not growing ... and the first evidence that we have now is that that might be starting to turn around. That’s probably the best news we could have,” he said.
This is the kind of information the province was hoping for when it decided to take a more active role in fisheries research, said Fisheries Minister Darin King.
King was part of a group of dignitaries, students and parents who toured the Celtic Explorer before its departure Saturday.
“We see tremendous advantages to doing our own scientific research. We’ve seen a lot of great results come, giving us good information about fish, the stocks, the patterns and so on. And we share that information with the federal government,” said King.
In late 2010 the province announced it was going to play a bigger role in fisheries research. It committed $14 million to charter a dedicated research vessel, The Celtic Explorer, and for the creation of the Centre for Fisheries Ecosystems Research, which is now part of Memorial University’s Marine Institute.
Fisheries research is typically the domain of the federal government. But when the funding was announced, then-premier Danny Williams said more information would give the province a stronger hand in influencing harvester quotas set by Ottawa.
The research got off to a rocky start last year. The expedition was nearly a bust because of extreme weather off the Labrador coast. It was so bad Rose and his science team lost more than half of the time they had available because it was too rough to deploy their equipment.
This year was much better. They only lost about half a day.
To do its research, the Celtic Explorer will crisscross an area, scanning with its advanced sonar equipment and basically count fish and other sea life. Periodically, the scientists will deploy their nets and haul up samples so age, weight, diet and general condition can be assessed.
Several of the largest cod specimens caught, well over a metre in length, were equipped with satellite tags and released. Those tags will release from the fish after a year and beam their data back to land via satellites.
The Celtic Explorer will be back in St. John’s to conduct its third round of testing next April. After that, the science team will piece together all their research.
“We haven’t got all the answers,” said Rose, “but we’re working on them.”