Thanks to cod fish and satellites, researchers and scientists alike will soon have a better idea of how the waters around this province are changing and the effect that is having on some of the organisms that live in them.
"This is a neat thing, it's all quite new," begins Dr. George Rose, of the Marine Institute of Memorial University.
"These satellite tags, you put them on an animal and away they go. They record several things: the depth the animal is at, the temperature of the water, and they also have light sensors to give you an idea of the latitude and longitude. If all works well, you get a three dimensional picture of where this fish has been. This is the kind of unique data we've never had from anything that swims in the ocean before," Dr. Rose explained in an interview with The Packet.
And that's gotten Dr. Rose, director for fisheries ecosystem research for the Institute, excited for a variety of reasons.
The tagging of animals is a concept that's been employed by scientists for hundreds of years. Until the space-race of the 1960's, however, satellite tracking had never been coupled with this research method.
Early satellite tagging involved cumbersome tags that could only be affixed to larger mammals and fish. Recently, an American company developed satellite tags only a few inches in length which have significantly changed the game, according to Rose.
"Up until now, the tags were too big and they went on larger fish. When I got wind of (these newer tags) I thought, 'Wouldn't it be nice to put that on big cod fish?'"
Tagging no fish less than a meter long, 25 cod were caught and tagged by Rose and fellow crew members of the RV Celtic Explorer, a Marine Institute chartered, provincially-funded research vessel originally based in Ireland.
"We are very optimistic this technology will unlock some secrets," said Rose.
Even if they never see the tags again - which they are hoping they will, because they cost thousands of dollars and are reusable - Rose said the information will be transmitted by satellites back to the Institute's research laboratory.
They hope as well to track those tags by satellite to where they are floating in the ocean, for retrieval. The information when downloaded directly from the tag is much clearer than when it is relayed by satellite.
The satellite playw two parts: relaying early information to give researches a start, and allowing them to track the tags so they can retrieve all information. However, should a tag become damaged or digested while floating in the ocean, the researchers will still be able to rely on the information retrieved via satellite.
Rose expects to be hunting for these tags over the next year because, "Many of them will pop off because our fish, we expect, will not be caught, but will go on to enjoy life after the tags come off."
Rose explained the tags are set for a timed delay and then automatically release from the animals.
So far only one tag has been retrieved, which was something the team had not expected, but what do you expect when people are given a chance to fish for cod?
A recreational fisherman took one of Rose's cod out of the water, tag still intact, and politely phoned it in. Although it's still to early to build a scientific case for what can be learned from the tag, it is known the cod travelled hundreds of kilometers in four months before it was taken out of the water, again.
We've never fished (hake), it's been fished in Canadian waters by the Russians, but we never fished it. It's the kind of thing to be aware of. - Dr. George Rose on noticing new species establishing themselves in Newfoundland water
"The most interesting part is that we've tagged hundred of thousands of cod fish in the past but all you ever got was point A to B. You had no idea where it had gone in the meanwhile," says Rose.
"For example, you could have tagged a fish and caught it in the same place, but it might have gone hundreds of kilometers in the meantime. With these tags, we can trace the whole life of the fish."
Seeing new things
While the science of cod satellite tagging remains in its infancy, the crew of the RV Celtic Explorer also focused on several other ventures while on the water, during latter parts of May and early July of this year.
"Our basic goal is to study the changes in the fisheries ecosystems that are currently taking place, with focus on cod, capelin and shrimp. As it turns out, we were working on a lot of different things and we saw some unique things, particularly in the south; new species are appearing."
Rose and crew spotted large schools of silver hake on the southern part of the Grand Bank, a fish that traditionally thrives along the Scotian Shelf, but also noted denser populations of haddock.
"We've never fished (hake), it's been fished in Canadian waters by the Russians, but we never fished it. It's the kind of thing to be aware of."
Warmer water fish inhabiting more northerly climates is being attributed to a gradual rising in temperatures in the oceans, but even Rose was shocked to hear of a sunfish, a 2,200 pound tropical fish often found in the Mediterranean, floating off the coast of Labrador.
When it comes to the effect that non-traditional organisms will play when interacting with the locals, Rose said, "We don't really know (how they will affect other species). There will always be winners and losers. The money crops that we've had - the crustaceans -they are cold-water-loving species, and with the warmer waters we are having now, those species will not prosper how they have in previous decades. These conditions are good for capelin and for cod.
"How they are going to fit in the mix remains to be seen."
Rose said that thanks to innovations in science such as cod satellite tagging, scientists will have a better understanding of how these changes will affect organisms that live in the ocean and those who make their living off the ocean.
"I think we are at a very critical stage in the evolution of cod. We had massive declines in the late 80's and early 90's as a result of overfishing, and then a real bad period of productivity and cold conditions; everything collided, that was pretty depressing.
"The (cod) fishery was saved more or less by the growth of crab and shrimp, and that was great, a lot of people have done well.
"I think what's happening now is a reversion back to the systems that used to be here, which are really the dominant systems of the northwest Atlantic. All of those negative things have started to reverse themselves."
Rose, like the weatherman, still has no definite answers as to what's going to happen as a result of the ever-changing ocean, but said, for the time first time in a long time, things are looking good.
"What we do now will determine what will happen in the future, but there is great potential."