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Sustainable fisheries

Marine Institute research chair receives $500,000 to study marine fisheries ecosystems dynamics

By Moira Baird

Dr. Jonathan Fisher has been named the Marine Institute’s research chair in marine fisheries ecosystems dynamics.

The research chair was created to help understand and quantify how environmental conditions, marine food chain interactions and fishing activities affect the population dynamics and sustainable use of marine species and their ecosystems in Newfoundland and Labrador waters and the eastern Canadian Arctic.

It aims to improve scientific advice supporting sustainable fisheries management of established and emerging fisheries.

This research is supported by combined funding of $500,000 over five years from the Robert and Edith Skinner Wildlife Management Fund and the Marine Institute (MI).

Watch the video below to learn a bit about Dr. Fisher’s work, including in the Arctic, and more.

Complex relationships

“Fisheries ecosystems dynamics include changes in the marine environment that impact aquatic populations through spatial distributions, growth rates and predator-prey relationships,” said Dr. Fisher, associate professor with MI’s Centre for Fisheries Ecosystems Research (CFER).

“Those changes in turn affect fisheries opportunities and the resulting marine ecosystems dynamics are complex and require closer examination.”

Collecting this data will help fill knowledge gaps, provide research opportunities for graduate students and aid in developing models to predict and quantify marine ecosystem changes in response to climate change and fishing activity.

By expanding this knowledge base, he says the research will move “from data to decisions” – enhancing the scientific advice provided to government and industry decision-makers.

“The challenge will be integrating this knowledge into management processes and applying it to improve fisheries sustainability,” he said.

From left are PhD candidate Jennifer Herbig and Dr. Jonathan Fisher on board CCGS Amundsen in the Arctic.
Photo: Submited

Collaborative research

The Robert and Edith Skinner Wildlife Management Fund is an estate gift to Memorial University for supporting collaborative research and teaching in aquaculture nutrition, wildlife ecology, fish stock assessment and sustainable harvesting.

Dr. Robert Shea, vice-president, Memorial University (Marine Institute), pro tempore, says collaborative research will play a significant role in the research chair activities.

“CFER’s unique and interdisciplinary fisheries research is key to expanding our knowledge of changing ocean dynamics and marine ecosystems – and maintaining a sustainable, viable fishing industry for the future,” he said.

“We appreciate the Robert and Edith Skinner Wildlife Management Fund’s investment in research that will contribute to sustainable fisheries and enable our researchers to continue building partnerships with governments, industry and academics here at home and around the world.”

From left, Dr. Jonathan Fisher and former CFER researcher Dr. Kyle Krumsick sort samples.
Photo: Submitted

Plankton surveys

For the past four years, Dr. Fisher and graduate students have carried out continuous plankton recorder (CPR) surveys in the ice-free Northwest Passage to monitor the health of marine plankton and environmental changes in the ocean.

The data contributes to worldwide CPR surveys that began in 1931.

Their most recent survey was completed this summer on board the CCGS Amundsen, a 98-metre Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker dedicated to science missions in the rapidly changing Arctic and sub-Arctic.

The team also used acoustic technology to examine the distribution and abundance of Arctic cod and other fishes while the CPR collected plankton samples.

“You can match up the fish and the food that fish might be eating,” said Dr. Fisher.

“The continuous plankton recorder is almost 100-year-old technology and the acoustics are ever evolving to be the highest tech, so it’s really a combination of old and new.”

A continuous plankton recorder that is towed behind ships to collect samples.
Photo: Submitted

Satellites and cameras

Technology plays a big part in the research.

“We’ll continue to use stable isotope analysis, for example, to study the chemistry of fish tissue to determine who is eating whom in food webs impacted by changing spatial distributions and food availability.”

Dr. Fisher is also part of a CFER team tracking the behaviour, seasonal migration and spawning movements of Atlantic halibut in the Gulf of St. Lawrence using pop-up satellite tags.

Those tags record data for up to a year before releasing from the fish and floating to the surface to transmit information via satellite.

Dr. Fisher and graduate students have also recorded video footage of Greenland sharks using baited underwater cameras to gather initial abundance estimates off Nunavut.

It enabled the researchers to identify, measure and quantify the world’s longest-living vertebrates without capturing them.


Prior to joining CFER in 2011, Dr. Fisher was a post-doctoral fellow concurrently with Queen’s University and the Bedford Institute of Oceanography.

He holds a B.Sc. (Hons.) from Queen’s University, an M.Sc. from Dalhousie University and a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania.

Along with fellow MI researchers, Drs. Paul Winger and Noel Cadigan, he leads an Ocean Frontier Institute project on sustainable capture fisheries and their ecosystems. His role is assessing the health and productivity of ocean ecosystems under climate change in the Canadian Northwest Atlantic and Arctic gateway waters.

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