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Partnering of Research Scientists and Industry to Navigate Future Fisheries

Researchers at the Centre for Sustainable Aquatic Resources (CSAR), an industry support centre within the Marine Institute of Memorial University of Newfoundland, have a challenging and yet rewarding role to play in world fisheries. Sustainability issues in Newfoundland and Labrador’s fishing industry are global in nature and CSAR’s research team is leading the way in innovative approaches to conservation harvesting.  CSAR is a unique facility housing the world’s largest flume tank and combines the expertise of fishing gear technologists and fisheries research scientists to address the problems facing today’s fishing industry.

Dr. Scott Grant is CSAR’s senior scientist whose research skills and interests are as diverse as the fisheries he serves.  From studies on the sustainable development of emerging fisheries for ‘new’ species to investigating and developing live release protocols in more traditional fisheries, Dr. Grant’s research has a common thread of both applied and innovative science.

“Newfoundland and Labrador’s fishing industry has had to reinvent itself since the collapse of the groundfish fisheries,” explains Dr. Grant, “and the myriad of challenges at every new initiative has not only required the application of sound science, but also highly skilled and resourceful technical and research support.”

Dr. Grant is the lead biologist on resource assessments currently underway on a diverse array of ‘new’ emerging fishery species including, starry flounder, Atlantic hagfish, sea cucumber, and toad crab.  The Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, Nunavut Government, Canadian Centre for Fisheries Innovation (CCFI), and Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) provide the funding for these studies.  Fish harvesters also play an important role by providing traditional ecological knowledge and the sampling platforms used during exploratory fishing and commercial development of these species.  Dr. Grant’s work focuses on establishing maturity schedules, reproductive potential, relative abundance, and distribution of these underutilized species, as well as the selective properties of fishing gear to avoid capturing juveniles and undersized individuals or the incidental capture of non-targeted species.  Dr. Grant’s recent studies on Atlantic hagfish occurring on the Newfoundland Grand Bank have made significant contributions to science, fisheries management, and industry.  In addition to providing new information on distribution, sex differentiation, and size at first, 50% and 100% maturity it was demonstrated that harvesters could avoid over fishing of highly susceptible juvenile and undersized hagfish by utilizing traps with appropriate sized escape holes. These findings have important implications in a commercial fishery, as few undersized hagfish are likely to survive when released.  Hagfisheries the world over have been characterized as boom and bust fisheries, which may in part be attributed to a lack of sound science in advance of commercial development. Although the Grand Bank hagfishery is still in the exploratory stage, fisheries managers and harvesters alike can now make informed decisions with respect to life-history characteristics and gear specifications that will contribute to the long-term sustainability of the resource.

Handling practices are of paramount importance in the fishing industry particularly when large quantities of undersized individuals and non-targeted species are discarded at sea in recruitment dependent fisheries.  At-sea experiments conducted by Dr. Grant and funded by Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) have made a significant contribution to Newfoundland and Labrador’s most lucrative $450 million snow crab fishing industry.  Caging experiments illustrated that commonly used handling practices result in significant mortalities of undersized crab returned to the ocean floor.  Ultimately, the study concluded that mishandling of undersized crab by dropping and prolonged air exposure can have a substantial negative effect on the quantity of legal-sized crab available to the fishery in future years.  In the short-term, it was recommended that harvesters be encouraged to use on board handling systems to avoid damaging crab, while longer-term initiatives should investigate gear selectivity devices that prevent the removal of undersized individuals from the ocean floor.  Follow-up experiments funded by CCFI are currently underway and will investigate gear selectivity measures in an attempt to reduce the catchability of undersized and soft-shell snow crab.

One of Dr. Grant’s most recent investigations posed a particular challenge as the work was conducted under fully operational conditions on board commercial trawlers fishing on the Newfoundland Grand Bank.  Funding was provided by CCFI, Fishery Products International Limited (FPIL), and DFO to determine whether American plaice captured incidentally in the yellowtail flounder bottom trawl fishery would survive if released back into the ocean. American plaice are under moratorium in the Newfoundland and Labrador region and annual by-catch of this species in the Grand Bank yellowtail flounder fishery has approached regulatory limits in recent years.  Dr. Grant designed and carried-out experiments on board commercial trawlers to assess the influence of temperature (season), tow duration, and recovery tank stocking density on the short-term (12-hr) survival of American plaice.  Survival of well over 75% was observed in most cases but heavily influenced by season.  Survival assessments were augmented by analysis of blood chemistry parameters (i.e., cortisol, osmolality, lactate, sodium, and chloride) that provide an indication of the level of recovery from exhaustion and stress.  Blood samples collected during the recovery period are being compared to baseline samples collected from American plaice at rest.  These findings will be of particular interest to science as physiological studies conducted in laboratories are highly unlikely to mimic the conditions fish are subjected to in actual commercial trawl fisheries.  Thus far, blood chemistry analysis have demonstrated a recovery from physical exhaustion, while an analysis of body size and physical damage (degree of mucus loss and bruising) of mortalities is providing insights into on board sorting procedures that will take full advantage of limited recovery tank space by selecting fish most likely to survive.  Although the results are promising, this study has many hurdles to overcome before a live release program could be put into practice on board commercial trawlers.  The next critical phase of the study, to be conducted in 2004-05, will continue to involve at-sea experiments to assess the long-term survival of American plaice once they are returned to the ocean floor.

“The American plaice live release study could have global implications,” claims Dr. Grant, “and FPIL is to be commended for its foresight and commitment to fisheries conservation and the advancement of science.”

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