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Aquatic network

Marine Institute doctoral student combining fish science and traditional knowledge in Labrador

Part of a special feature chronicling the transformation of the academy through the inclusion of Indigenous knowledge, voices, critiques, scholars, students and materials at Memorial.

By Moira Baird

Last month, Chelsea Boaler headed to Labrador to interview knowledge holders — Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents and harvesters — to learn more about capelin activity along the coastline.

The doctoral student in the Marine Institute’s fisheries science program is gathering local ecological information about capelin spawning in Labrador and the Quebec Lower North Shore.

The goals are to better understand capelin dynamics in under-studied areas, explore community well-being and make recommendations for improvements to management and conservation initiatives.

Chelsea Boaler during field work in Labrador last year.
Photo: Submitted

“In these interviews, we’re looking for historic information . . . how things have shifted over the past 20, 30, 40 years or so,” she said. “We worked closely with the Nunatsiavut Government in the north and the NunatuKavut Community Council in Southern Labrador, as a large portion of individuals I’m speaking with are Inuit.”

Known as a forager species, capelin are an important source of food for seabirds, seals, whales and northern cod in the Northwest Atlantic Ocean.

Ms. Boaler says another project’s goals are incorporating local knowledge and experiences into fisheries science and decision-making processes.

“We’re looking at how to best merge these ways of knowing together so that we get a holistic picture, because any knowledge is partial — even scientific knowledge. It’s about bringing all of this partial knowledge together to give us a better overall picture of what’s happening with capelin.”

Labrador aquatic network

Collecting local ecological knowledge began last spring during a series of community meetings in coastal Labrador communities from Nain to Quebec border towns to develop the Labrador Aquatic Observer Network (LAON).

To get things started in the field, Ms. Boaler worked closely with Nunatsiavut and NunatuKavut conservation officers and guardians and the Labrador Fishermen’s Union Shrimp Company (Shrimp Co.).

“They’ve been instrumental in launching this network, helping us get the word out, making connections with potential interviewees and reaching out to the communities and young kids who are out on the water on a regular basis,” she said.

Errol Andersen, lead conservation officer with the Nunatsiavut Government, casts for capelin samples.
Photo: Submitted

Through last year’s meetings, Ms. Boaler learned that people wanted a simple way to report first-hand observations and photos about capelin and other marine species along the coast.

“People didn’t want an additional application or website they had to go to, which is why we set up the Labrador network with the communities through a Facebook group.”

Last summer, more than 160 joined the group and posted sightings on the LAON Facebook site.

“People shared photos, videos or just locations where they were seeing capelin spawning — that’s going to give us a picture of what’s happening right now,” said Ms. Boaler. “We’re getting quite a bit of information, so hopefully we can have it all mapped out after our interviews with knowledge holders this month.

“Capelin is my primary focus for my thesis work, but the network is also capturing information about other species,” she added. “For example, there are a lot of porbeagle sharks moving further north than what people are used to seeing, so they’re posting photos.”

eCapelin network

The observer network is part of a larger project led by Dr. Marie Clément, who is studying capelin in Labrador and the Quebec Lower North Shore and its resurgence on the North Coast in recent years.

A research scientist with the Marine Institute’s Centre for Fisheries Ecosystems Research based at the Labrador Institute, Dr. Clément is one of Ms. Boaler’s PhD supervisors.

Capelin rolling onto a Labrador beach in summer 2018.
Photo: Submitted

The more than 20 partners in the research include the Nunatsiavut Government, NunatuKavut Community Council, Torngat Fish Co-op, Shrimp Co., Parks Canada, and provincial and federal fisheries agencies, as well as other academic partners from Quebec and Manitoba, and non-governmental organizations.

LAON will also be contributing its data to a larger network known as eCapelin, which was developed by the World Wildlife Fund and the St. Lawrence Global Observatory to collect data on capelin spawning in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Atlantic Canada. Both organizations are also partners in the Labrador network.

Ms. Boaler says most of eCapelin’s data comes from the island portion of Newfoundland and Quebec.

“There’s kind of this gap for Labrador — that’s what we’re hoping to fill in for them, as well. Eventually, we’re going to be transferring the capelin data over to the eCapelin website since we work closely with the creators of that site.”

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