President's Report 2006 | Research

Tracking fish stocks

Dr. Rodolphe Devillers (L) and Dr. George Rose are part of the new GeoCod research team at Memorial. (Photo by Chris Hammond)

Memorial University took a lead role this past year in a new high-tech study that will include trying to figure out how climate change can affect future distributions and levels of fish stocks in the Northwest Atlantic Ocean.

The study will also look at the changes in the ocean ecosystems of Atlantic Canada such as the dramatic decline in groundfish like cod; distribution shifts of pelagics, such as capelin; and increases in snow crab and shrimp.

The exhaustive project will be done thanks in part to a hefty $250,000 two-year grant provided by the GEOIDE Network Centre of Excellence and the Canadian Centre for Fisheries Innovation (CCFI), based at Memorial.

Dr. Rodolphe Devillers, assistant professor, Department of Geography, is leading the study, which is titled GeoCod - Geomatics for the Sustainable Management of Fish Stocks. His research team includes Dr. George Rose, professor of Biology and chair of Fisheries Conservation at the Marine Institute.

The bulk of their work will involve integrating and analyzing all available fisheries and environmental data from the past 30 years in the Northwest Atlantic. The group’s project aims to develop a Geographical Information Systems based decision support tool to provide fishery managers with comprehensive and accurate analysis of changing marine ecosystems which could also help to develop new fisheries policies.

GIS is a system for creating, managing and visualizing spatial data. Basically it’s a computer system that allows users to integrate, store, analyze and display geographically-referenced data.

“The research will allow cutting edge GIS display and analytical systems to be used to address questions on the changes in the ocean ecosystems of Atlantic Canada that have been evident in the past two decades, particularly as they relate to the fisheries,” said Dr. Rose. “The relationships among species changes, fisheries changes and environmental and climate changes are basically spatial in context and this research will allow these to be explored using the latest visual and analytical technology and foster the development of new approaches.”

Dr. Devillers said this project is significant because of what the team will attempt to do - create a database of all fisheries and environmental data to examine what has changed in the ocean’s ecosystems and why these changes occurred in the first place. Their analysis will be spatially based, something that has never been done before at this scale.

“Tools will then be developed to allow the analysis and visualization of these data and then provide an easier access to the data than what we have currently,” he said. “Right now data are distributed in different organizations, different systems and formats and it is difficult to get a big picture of fish dynamics.”

The fishery is still at the heart of local economies throughout Atlantic Canada, especially in Newfoundland and Labrador, and is a multi-billion industry throughout the region. Dr. Devillers said such research is very important if Canada wants to sustain its fish stocks. He said overfishing has had a dramatic impact on the fishery and on the communities which still depend on it for their livelihood. As well, climate change has been another main factor affecting fish stocks.

“Understanding the changes in the marine ecosystems that have occurred, and their causes, is the first step towards predicting their future,” added Dr. Rose. “The research should form a basis for understanding past and present changes, identify strengths and weaknesses of current data and point to means to predict the future state of fisheries and ecosystems.”

The GeoCod team also includes Dr. Mir-Abolfazl Mostafavi from Laval University and Dr. Marie-Josée Fortin of the University of Toronto. They will collaborate with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Fisheries and Aquaculture Newfoundland and Labrador, the World Wildlife Fund, and several other partners in fisheries and geomatics. The program will also provide training and academic opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students.