Part of a major multi-million-dollar research project involving the University of Windsor ground to a halt in Cumberland Sound this past fall.

The project in Nunavut's Cumberland Sound was supposed to shed light on deep-water Arctic species like turbot and Greenland sharks.

Scientists from the University of Windsor were using acoustic tags and sensors to track the animals.

However, researchers removed about 40 sensors from Cumberland Sound in September after local hunters worried they were hurting other wildlife, like ringed seals. Researchers still have tags on fish near Resolute Bay and Clyde River along with an array of sensors in the water.

Aaron Fisk is with the University of Windsor and a principal investigator with the international Ocean Tracking Network. He's been working on projects in Pangnirtung since 1999. This most recent project in Cumberland Sound began in 2010.

"Everything had gone well in the first two years, and there was a lot of support from what we were doing, particularly among the fishermen. It was just in the past year we heard that some of the community members were concerned we had scared away seals."  

The concerns began to build in the spring when ice fisherman in Pangnirtung on Baffin Island were using long lines for turbot. They began hauling in old beacons once used to detect submarines.

"They pulled out a number of submarine sonar beacons, which originally they thought were our beacons," said the University of Windsor's Aaron Fisk, who was leading the research.

Fisk, along with the Nunavut Government and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, had his own beacons in the water. They were being used to track the movement of deep water marine life like turbot, Greenland sharks and Arctic skate. Most of the research sensors were more than one kilometer deep in the water column.

Fisk said some people, though, came to believe that all the sensors, including his, were scaring away seals and whales.

In June there was a community meeting where people voted to cancel the project. The majority wanted the sensors removed, and in September they were pulled out of the water.

"We met and talked to them about what we were doing and I think the consensus was that we may be impacting the seals, and that's how it happened," Fisk said.

The irony, however, is that the acoustic tags, not the sensors, make sounds. The tags can last up to 10 years, and are still attached to about 200 fish and sharks in Cumberland Sound.

There is still hope for the scientific project in that region. Since the sensors are out of the water, there is no way of tracking the tags. But if the sensors are replaced, data would start to flow once more.

Researcher admits communication could have been better

Fisk said there are lessons to be learned, going back to the beginning of the project in 2010.

"I think I would have started doing community meetings and presentations right from the start instead of just interacting with the hunters and trappers organization which is what a researcher standardly does when they want to work in a community," Fisk said.

The researcher's hope was that turbot fishing would be further improved by monitoring the movement of marine life in northern waters.

Noah Mosesie heads the Pangnirtung Hunters and Trappers Association, which originally supported the research.

But Mosesie said there was not enough communication between the scientists and local people before things came to a head.

"I don't know what really happened to the community, the voters have power and we're voted by the people, so they were talking and then they were against it because there were less ringed seals and different migrating areas for beluga whales," Mosesie said.

Mosesie said that according to Inuit Traditional Knowledge, the research was having an impact on marine life in Cumberland Sound. Fisk agrees that communication could have been better from the start.

"That's something that's caused me and my team to do a lot of soul searching," Fisk said.

Evidence that seals used tags to their benefit

Fisk and his team have similar research underway near Clyde River and Resolute Bay. The sensors there are much shallower than they were in Cumberland Sound, where they were all below a depth of 500m, and most were deeper than a kilometer.

There have been no objections to the acoustic research in Clyde and Resolute. Fisk said there's no evidence that the instruments interfere with marine life.

In fact, he said that in Resolute Bay, there are indications the animals move and feed close to the sensors. 

"The beluga came in to that area to feed after we had deployed all that stuff. In fact, we caught ringed seals in Resolute Bay and put satellite tags on them, and were able to see that one animal spent a considerable amount of time within the array, and may have eaten a number of our tagged Arctic Cod," said Fisk.

The tagged fish are a pricey meal — the tags can cost as much as $800 each.

Data could have given fishermen more territory

The marine tracking project could have been a benefit to the local turbot industry.

Right now, there's an inshore fishery in Cumberland Sound during the ice season. In summer, large off-shore factory ships enter the sound and also fish for turbot.

"What we really wanted to accomplish was to show that in fact those two fish populations from the winter and the summer were in fact the same stock," said Fisk.

If the turbot were proven part of the same stock, Pangnirtung fishermen could be given more territory. But without research data, that may not be possible.

"We have one year of solid data and some partial data. It may not be enough. We'll continue to work on that but we'll have to find avenues to address 'how do we do this'," said Wayne Lynch, who is with Nunavut's Environment Department.

Lynch said a locally-run, small-boat fishery could start up in Cumberland Sound next year.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story stated the entire research project was cancelled when, in fact, just the Cumberland Sound portion of the project has ended.
    Dec 05, 2012 10:46 AM ET