What's happening on the cutting edge of fishery research

By Cathie Horan, Special to the Gazette

Research and development has become a major focus of the Newfoundland fishery of today, and no wonder. "Without science and technology, how could we ever adapt to changing market forces, with -- for example -- new farmed species or new products in the future?" observed Alastair O'Rielly, the Canadian Centre for Fisheries Innovation's (CCFI) managing director.

Since it began in 1989 CCFI staff members have teamed up with approximately 80 researchers from Memorial and its Marine Institute (MI), to help companies solve everything from quality assurance problems at processing plants to fine-tuning harvesting techniques in the swordfish fishery. CCFI has been involved in more than 200 leading-edge initiatives, making it the primary R and D partner in today's fishery and aquaculture sectors.

Mr. O'Rielly said industry's participation and leadership in research are essential to building a successful fishery. CCFI's list of clients indicates a bright future, and includes Fishery Products International (FPI), Fisheries Resources Development Ltd. (a subsidiary of National Sea Products), Beothic Fish Processors Ltd., and Clearwater Fine Foods.

Of course the researchers are as important as their industry partners, and Mr. O'Rielly said Memorial excels in terms of human resources.

"In all sectors, we regularly work with seasoned, resourceful and talented staff who are dedicated to making a contribution to the future of the industry," he said. "MI's Aquaculture, Fishing Technology and Seafood Development units, the Ocean Sciences Centre, C-CORE, the departments of Biochemistry and Biology, and the faculties of Engineering and Applied Science, and Business Administration all contribute a unique blend of talents and strengths and, together are capable of tackling just about any opportunity that surfaces."

Researching a new species

The subjects of CCFI research are diverse. Industry giant FPI has joined with CCFI and the Ocean Sciences Centre to uncover the mysteries of a brand new aquaculture species, the yellowtail flounder. The flatfish, a successful product in FPI's line of foods, has undergone more than two years of productive study. This summer, work on a pilot-scale culture facility will begin.

Sea urchins for Japan

On the west coast of the island, biologist Bob Hooper is in the midst of a two-year study on sea urchins. Traditionally an ignored species, opportunities in the Japanese markets have changed that -- urchin roe sacs are a delicacy and command high prices. CCFI commissioned Dr. Hooper to examine ways to ranch sea urchins so that the problems of harvesting the animal during mid-winter, when the roe sacs are at their best, could be avoided. As well, the size of the animal's roe sacs can be increased, which will increase their value.

Dr. Hooper believes he is now on to a formula for success: the quality and size of the sea urchin roe can be manipulated to suit the particular tastes of the Japanese if grown under controlled conditions and fed the right seaweed. The final results of Dr. Hooper's work will be available later this year.

Harvesting technology

A highlight of the past year's work in harvesting research was an innovative technology developed for 65-foot fishing vessels. Developed and tested on one vessel so far, the new anti-roll technology provides safe, smooth sailing on board vessels that are known for rapid, uncomfortable rolling. The system consists of a three-compartment water filled steel tank, similar to tank systems available for larger vessels. The water flows back and forth through tuners, which separate the three chambers, lagging the movement of the roll enough to counteract it. The advantages over other systems include the fact that it continues to work during fishing and it doesn't ice up. CCFI and the system's inventor, Dr. Don Bass, plan to transfer this technology to the private sector.

Competing with crab

Despite the groundfish moratorium, processing research in the province has also continued unabated. Processors have not had an easy time; those who have survived have done so by concentrating on other species, such as crab. But even in the crab fishery, processors cannot rely on past practices. Global competition from other crab fisheries is fierce, so crab processors here have had to focus on enhancing quality and improving productivity. The Fisheries Association of Newfoundland and Labrador recently contracted CCFI to examine crab processing, and using the expertise of C-CORE and the Seafood Development Unit, new processing methods which safeguard the natural fresh flavor and texture of snow crab are being developed. Summer trials using pilot technologies are planned, and the new equipment could be available to industry within a year.Looking ahead

What's next? Mr. O'Rielly said there's still plenty of room for growth in fish farming. In fact, researchers are making preliminary investigations into the farming of lucrative flatfish species such as witch flounder, and CCFI is looking into the transfer of halibut culture technologies from Europe. There is room, too, for existing commercial species to expand, including steelhead trout and mussels. In harvesting, underdeveloped species and conservation-oriented gear will continue to be important. In terms of processing, those species that are successful commercially, such as shellfish, will be the focus.

Since St. John's is home to CCFI, it concentrates primarily on provincial issues, but the centre also works with national clients. As Mr. O'Rielly pointed out, "research and development benefits not only the advancement of brand new innovations, such as those being researched in aquaculture today, but is also invaluable to established operators everywhere who wish to increase productivity, cut costs or produce new products. There is no end to the opportunities that science can open up."