Fisheries conservation chair making substantial progress

Positive signs in sight

By Sonia B. Glover

(October 1, 1998)

Memorial's fisheries science research and training program is only a couple of years old, but according to the senior research chair in fisheries conservation, the program has already made major contributions to the knowledge of the state of our cod resources, as well as to government assessment processes.

Dr. George Rose said the chair's main inshore study area is Placentia Bay and their research has already contributed to the management of the fishery in 3Ps.

"It was our acoustic surveys and tagging studies in Placentia Bay that provided strong evidence of the health of the cod stocks in 3Ps and that data was used, in part as the basis for the reopening of those fisheries," he said in an interview with the Gazette.

"We have provided some key information for the 3Ps stock assessment in the last two years and we hope we will be able to continue to play that kind of role," he added.

Dr. Rose said besides doing major studies on adult cod, there's also work involving spawning populations.

"We located the spawning areas in Placentia Bay where they were virtually unknown we tagged fish on the spawning grounds and then allowed the fishery to return the tags so we knew where the fish were going," he said. "We also did biomass estimates or surveys of how much fish was in some bays. All of this baseline research was accomplished by this chair in the last two years."

There's one research program in particular that's being conducted by the chair that has Dr. Rose excited. It's a northern cod study in Hawke Channel, off the southeast coast of Labrador, that Dr. Rose started when he was working with DFO.

Dr. Rose told the Gazette that a major spawning event recently occurred there, and the Hawke Channel fish may be the key to the rebuilding of the northern cod.

"This was probably the most exciting thing that has happened in recent years because for the first time we've documented the return of a spawning population of the northern cod to the northern range. So, this is a major event in the rebuilding of the cod stocks," he said.

Dr. Rose had been carrying out research in Hawke Channel since the early '90s and he admits he was beginning to wonder if the cod would ever rebuild because up until now there weren't any signs of it.

But this past spring, Dr. Rose said the fish were back in numbers like he had not seen in years.

"The fish were there in larger numbers than we've seen in five years. They were in good shape and most of them spawned; they were small fish, but the good news is that it looks like the start of a rebuilding process."

Dr. Rose pointed out that the northern cod is an important part of the major research effort by the fisheries conservation chair, which is also held by Drs. Paul Snelgrove and Yong Chen.

As senior research chair, Dr. Rose said the number one objective for him is to develop a strong fisheries science program that Memorial University can sustain.

"This chair is the beginning of a major program in fisheries science at the university -- something we've never had in the past and something I believe strongly must exist at this university. It's not so important to me that the chair continues, it's the program in fisheries science that must continue."

Dr. Rose said a second important aspect of the fisheries chair is training.

"It's important that we produce some really highly-skilled and trained people in the fisheries, and also that we make a major contribution to research during the first chair period and I feel comfortable that we will do that."

One of the areas that the fisheries research group will focus on over the next year or so is to study how important capelin is to the rebuilding of the cod fishery, especially the northern cod. A postdoctoral fellow from New Zealand recently joined the research team to study the capelin-cod connection.

Dr. Rose believes there is a strong link between the two species.

"I think capelin is probably the most important species in our waters and we are going to try and take our research where we can develop a better understanding of how important capelin is to the rebuilding of the cod because as most people know, the capelin disappeared from the northern area just before the cod," said Dr. Rose.

"I think if capelin was important in the decline of the cod, it's probably going to be equally or more important in the rebuilding; and that's one of the directions we want to take the research in now," he added.

Dr. Rose said besides capelin, other species also play an important role in the functioning of cod ecosystems.

"Capelin is a major part, but not the only part We have other people, including our graduate students, working on other parts of the system, trying to understand what is going on there right now -- what the cod populations are doing, what they are likely to do in the future and on top of that, how we should manage them."

Although Dr. Rose believes the northern cod fishery will rebound, he was quick to point out that people must get used to the fact that the fishery of the future will be much smaller and more diversified.

And this, he said, is not a bad thing. "I am not one bit pessimistic about the future of our province or our fisheries. The marine waters around here are some of the most productive ecosystems in the world. They always have been and there's no evidence that they still are not," Dr. Rose insisted.

"Our waters aren't producing cod right now or much capelin, but they are still incredibly productivethe landed value of seafood in Newfoundland has been the highest it's ever been in our history in the last few years. It may be shrimp and crab, but the ocean is still producing and that is of prime importance."