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Sea watch

Marine Institute using non-invasive techniques to monitor ocean species and habitat


By Moira Baird

Researchers from the Marine Institute and Fisheries and Oceans Canada recently spent 31 days at sea monitoring and gathering data within three federal marine conservation areas off Newfoundland and Labrador.

From left, the Northeast Newfoundland Slope team Gordon Adams, Julia Keeping, Jennifer Oteng, Dr. Jonathan Fisher, Janice Costello, Mary Clinton, Robyn Whelan, Kiley Best and Wade Hiscock leaving Holyrood in August.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

The five-year project is supported by more than $11.2 million from the federal government’s Ocean Management Contribution Program for marine conservation efforts across Canada.

The team returned to St. John’s in mid-September on board the Patrick and William, a 31-metre research vessel operated by RS Marine.

“It’s a multi-pronged, collaborative mission to monitor and gather biological, habitat, mapping and oceanographic information at conservation areas starting with three areas: the Northeast Newfoundland Slope, Hopedale Saddle and Funk Island Deep,” said Dr. Jonathan Fisher, chief scientist of the project and research chair in marine fisheries ecosystems dynamics at the Marine Institute (MI).

“All the information gathered is shared between MI and Fisheries and Oceans Canada, so we can evaluate how these marine habitats are structured and changing over time.”

The data will help in developing long-term monitoring plans for marine conservation areas.

From left, the Hopedale Saddle and Funk Island Deep team Sarah Walsh, Robyn Whelan, Mary Clinton, Alannah Wudrick, Wade Hiscock, Adam Templeton, Tanya Prystay, Jennifer Oteng and Frédéric Dwyer-Samuel in Nain.
Photo: Contributed

Non-invasive techniques

Targeting sites within the marine conservation areas, the team uses largely non-invasive techniques, including drop cameras and baited cameras to capture images and video of marine species and habitat; multibeam sonar to map the seafloor bathymetry; seawater samples to assess environmental DNA and identify fish and invertebrate species in the ecosystems; bongo nets to collect plankton samples to evaluate species, sizes and abundance differences among locations; and oceanographic devices to measure salinity, temperature and depth.

“We’re using environmental DNA to tell us what kinds of fish are in deeper waters, rather than catching fish in surveys,” said Dr. Fisher. “This is a state-of-the-art method that Fisheries and Oceans Canada has prioritized as an analytical method of the future.”

Student intern Robyn Whelan and masters student Jennifer Oteng collecting water samples for environmental-DNA analysis. They are holding a plastic container on the edge of the ship.
From left, student intern Robyn Whelan and master’s student Jennifer Oteng collecting water samples for environmental-DNA analysis.
Photo: Contributed

Student experience

Another project goal is educating students.

Over the next four years, MI expects to provide education and research opportunities for six graduate students, two post-doctoral fellows and at least 12 student interns.

Student intern Janice Costello’s main assignment at sea was collecting plankton samples multiple times daily at various water depths.

Dr. Jonathan Fisher (left) and student intern Janice Costello prepare a drop camera to monitor sites at the Northeast Newfoundland Slope. They are standing on and holding a metal stand on the deck of a ship on a sunny day at sea.
From left, Dr. Jonathan Fisher and student intern Janice Costello prepare a drop camera to monitor sites at the Northeast Newfoundland Slope.
Photo: Contributed

“I was also fortunate enough to be able to assist with other tasks, such as deployment and retrieval of the baited camera,” she said. “Working on this project gave me valuable hands-on experience that I’ll need for my future career. It was also very important for me to take the skills I learned during my studies and transfer them to use on a much larger scale.”

A graduate of MI’s Marine Environmental Technology Diploma Program, Ms. Costello is continuing her education this winter with a Bachelor of Technology Program.

Collaborative research

Members of the interdisciplinary team come from the Marine Institute’s Centre for Fisheries Ecosystems Research and Centre for Applied Ocean Technology and Fisheries and Oceans Canada staff based in Newfoundland and Labrador.

“Canadians in coastal communities depend on ocean resources for their livelihoods and healthy lives, so it’s important that we continue to build relationships and work together using the best available knowledge and research,” said Joyce Murray, minister, Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard. “We are proud to partner with the Marine Institute on this project, pooling resources and investing in innovative technology to advance our marine conservation goals and protect the oceans.”

Northern bottlenose whales spotted on the Northeast Newfoundland Slope in August.
Photo: Contributed

“Our researchers, technicians and students have a unique opportunity to advance collaborative methods of monitoring marine conservation areas and to complement the work of Fisheries and Oceans Canada in building a scientific foundation for future assessment of these significant ocean habitats off our shores,” said Paul Brett, acting vice-president of Memorial (Marine Institute).

The Northeast Newfoundland Slope is located along the edge of Canada’s 200-mile limit, while the Hopedale Saddle is on the Labrador Shelf. Both are home to cold-water corals, including soft corals known as gorgonians, and sponges that are spawning grounds, nurseries and refuges for many aquatic species.

Funk Island Deep, northeast of Fogo Island, is an important area for Atlantic cod and its benthic habitat.

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