New Brunswick

'Fish of the future': Slimy sculpin reveal health of N.B. waterways

'It's a good fish species for environmental monitoring,' says UNB researcher

October 06, 2017

Michelle Gray works on processing 900 slimy sculpin to gather data that can help determine the health of New Brunswick waterways. (CBC)

It has a name that might provoke an involuntary shudder, but a University of New Brunswick biologist calls it the "fish of the future." 

Michelle Gray, an associate professor of environmental and ecosystem management, says the slimy sculpin reveals invaluable insights about the health of rivers. 


"It's a good fish species for environmental monitoring," she said.

The biologist described the slimy sculpin as a small fish that isn't able to move around very well and stays on the bottom of the streams.  

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It has a name that might provoke an involuntary shudder, but a University of New Brunswick biologist calls it the "fish of the future."  0:36

Gray calls it the perfect fish species that's a combination between a bug and a mobile fish species.

"As we see things like climate change happening, these could be our early warning," she said. "They're like the canary in the coal mine, like our early warning, so if the slimy sculpin are no longer present, then we might have implications for brook trout and salmon.

"That's why I call it the fish of the future." 

Water's health determined

Gathering and examining fish from rivers and streams across New Brunswick helps collect data that can establish a baseline for the health of those bodies of water.

Gray, who has been in her present position for two years, said she has been working to collect the information into one database to see if any patterns emerge.

Michelle Gray, associate professor of environmental and ecosystem management at UNB says the slimy sculpin can help tell researchers so much about the health of rivers. (Catherine Harrop/CBC)

"If we want to say something about how the ecosystem is doing, we need long-term monitoring," she said. "So that is certainly one of my goals, is to collate all the information that we've been gathering over the years from the different locations around New Brunswick, and start looking at the bigger picture."

In the meantime, Gray and her team of students examine every bit of the tiny fish that were gathered in waterways in northern New Brunswick. They will process 900 fish and then the data.

The slimy sculpins are measured and weighed. Each fish is then killed and organs, like the liver are weighed and examined.

The weight of the liver and gonads, in relation to the weight of the entire fish, can give the team clues about its health. If the weight is down, it could be a concern. 

"Then we might have some concerns that they are putting energy into other things," said Gray. "So it might be that …there's not much food at the site. Or they're having some sort of temperature stress, or some other stressor. So there's not going to be as many babies, or the next generation is not going to be as healthy." 

Part of larger study

Each student gets a part of the fish's body to work on. 

Zachary Bourque, who is studying for his master's degree, processes the bodies of the fish to send to another scientist who does an analysis on mercury levels. 

These slimy sculpin were gathered from waterways in northern New Brunswick as part of a study examining the potential impacts on the watershed of logging and road building. (CBC)

High school co-op student Tyler Golding gets the heads. 

"I remove the lower part of the jaw from the head first," he explained. "I take the tweezers and pick the ear bones out."

Gray said the ear bones will be examined under a microscope to determine the age of the slimy sculpin. The ear bones have rings like a tree that show how old the fish is.

The project is part of a much larger study of the Black Brook watershed that is funded by a grant from the National Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada and J.D. Irving.

The study is looking at the potential impacts on the watershed of logging and road building.

With files from Catherine Harrop
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