A new Coast Guard research ship has been assigned to help monitor fish stocks around Prince Edward Island, continuing a five-decade tradition of fisheries surveys.
The Capt. Jacques Cartier took part in the 51st annual September survey in the Southern Gulf of St. Lawrence last month, along with the ship that it will eventually replace, the CCGS Teleost.
The work follows an 18-month delay in getting the new ship operational because of malfunctions, delays receiving parts, and COVID-19-related travel restrictions in Nova Scotia.
"Really the government is the sole organization that would be running these long-term surveys; there's no real equivalent in universities or industry," said Daniel Ricard, a Moncton-based biologist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
"It's very much a monitoring program. Most of our scientific understanding is based on these surveys. It gives us a baseline of what's in the ocean ecosystem, and how things are changing."
The research vessel will collect fish using a bottom trawl, then sort all the species, measuring and counting every creature drawn up.
"For P.E.I. that would include lobster, mackerel, halibut. Essentially, all the oceanic species that are exploited in P.E.I."
Ricard said a lot of the scientific advice that is generated by Fisheries and Oceans Canada uses information from the survey.
"Basically, we have been fishing randomly, the same way, for 50 years. So if things change, we can get a signal of what things are going up, what things are going down," Ricard said.
Comparing the ships
Ricard was the chief scientist aboard the Teleost this summer, working alongside the Capt. Jacques Cartier for the September survey.
With the Teleost nearing the end of its working life, he said it was important to determine how the two vessels compare before the older ship is retired.
"It's our fourth vessel, because the survey is 50 plus years old," he pointed out.
"In order to maintain the continuity, we have to establish what is the fishing efficiency of the two different vessels, and more importantly, the two different types of fishing gear that they use.
"So what we do in this comparative fishing experiment that we did this year — and we will most likely continue a little bit next year — [is] we fish the two vessels parallel in the same area.
"Then we are able to compare what is caught in the two vessels, with the two different types of gears, in order to be able to say, 'OK, we're going to have to adjust our time series accordingly.'"
Biologist Nicolas Rolland was chief scientist aboard the Capt. Jacques Cartier during the September survey.
He said there are many new features available with the new research ship.
"The new vessels were designed especially to lower their nose in the water, and we have collection of acoustic data that is being made when we are steaming all along the surveys," Rolland said.
"We have a drop keel that goes six feet below the vessel, away from the bubble zone of the vessel. So it creates less noise, and we have a nicer signal for the acoustic data."
"We have a really nice layout for the oceanographic work, and there are many new sensors and new equipment that we can deploy," Rolland said.
State of the art
Ricard said the Capt. Jacques Cartier is a welcome addition to the Coast Guard fleet.
"For us, they're kind of big toys. They're the main scientific platform from which we obtain our data and the information about the marine ecosystem," Ricard said.
"It's a new vessel. It's a modern vessel. It has a complement of scientific instruments that are very much state of the art.
"At the same time, I am torn because I have worked on the Teleost for so many years now that I am saddened to see her go."
Workhorses of the sea
Ricard describes the research vessels as workhorses, conducting surveys for the Quebec region, the Maritimes region as well as Newfoundland and Labrador.
He said the annual surveys are also an important tool for scientists when it comes to climate change.
"When these surveys were were started in the late '60s, early '70s, climate change was not part of the scientific discourse, so this is not necessarily the focus of our work," Ricard said.
"However, it is through these kinds of long-term, long-running surveys that we can get a signal that things are changing, that climate change is happening, and that water temperatures are warming up."
Ricard said researchers also conduct oceanographic measurements, taking a sample of the water column for temperature, salinity and dissolved oxygen, which also allow them to track changes in the marine ecosystem.
CCGS Capt. Jacques Cartier is the second of three offshore fisheries science vessels built under Canada's national shipbuilding strategy at a cost of $778 million by the Seaspan Shipyard in North Vancouver.
It was delivered to Nova Scotia in November 2019.