CBC Windsor
Steve Fields will spend eight days as a working member of the crew aboard a scientific research vessel in the Arctic.

Fields of View

Tagging Greenland sharks an incredible experience


SCOTT INLET, NUNAVUT - I can now officially cross "catching and tagging a Greenland shark in the frigid waters off Baffin Island" from my bucket list.

Between Tuesday and Wednesday, we caught a total of 17 Greenland sharks and I had the distinct honour of participating in doing the actual field work on one of them, which was just about one of the craziest things I've ever done.

The actual work-up on one of the animals is an amazing operation to observe. The crew on the ship pull the sharks up on the starboard side from the long lines that had been set the day before. Then they launch the Zodiac, and the three occupants pull up to the ship and tie the animal to the side of the smaller craft, and then take it out to the open water behind the boat.

Those at the bow and the stern of the Zodiac hold the animal in position and help measure the length, and then Nigel - the real star of the whole operation - goes to work. After recording the gender, he deftly implants the acoustic tag into the fish. With bare hands, in water that's about 0 degrees C, he uses a scalpel to make an inch-long incision in the shark. He yells out the tag's serial and identification numbers to the person recording the data on the ship's deck, sticks it into the fish, and then sutures the incision closed. He clips a small tissue sample for genetic analysis, collects a blood sample, pulls the hook out of its mouth, inserts a marker tag and then the two assistants release the fish. Depending on conditions and any complications that arise, the entire process can take anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes.

One of the eight sharks we caught Tuesday had been eaten by others by the time we retrieved it and had to be thrown back. Another managed to escape from the line, so in all, we recorded data from six sharks on our first day of fishing. Two of them were "babies" and were small enough to pull up and work-up on the ship's deck. The other four were done in the water off the side of the Zodiac.

For most of the time, I was on the deck recording the data. Then Kevin Hedges, one of the DFO scientists on board unexpectedly asked me if I wanted a turn in the Zodiac for our fifth shark. I jumped at the opportunity, but my heart started racing and the adrenalin began pumping immediately.

We pulled up alongside the 2.56 metre beast and Nigel told me to reach under it and tie up the front end. I was wearing thick rubber gloves, rain slickers, my winter coat, a hoodie and thermal underwear, but even with all that gear, the shock of the cold water on my hands and forearms was immediate. Not being a nautical man, getting the rope underneath the shark's body and a proper knot tied to it was a bit of a misadventure, but eventually we got it secured to the side of the Zodiac.

When we pulled out to open water, we turned the fish over so its belly side was up to take a measurement. I somehow managed to get the tape measure caught in the shark's mouth when we were trying to record its length and had to fight a little to get it out of its teeth. Nigel told me that's never happened before, and so I quickly became the subject of some good-natured ridicule.

By the time I got back up on deck, my hands and forearms were drenched and sore from holding the shark in position. The entire experience gave me a whole new sense of appreciation and admiration for what Nigel does on a regular basis.

And as memento from the entire experience, Nigel even saved the hook from the first shark I helped tag and gave it to me as a souvenir.

Research 'newbie' gets to kiss the squid


SCOTT INLET, NUNAVUT - We set sail from Clyde River at about 7 pm on Sunday evening and steamed up the northeast coast of Baffin Island for about 12 hours through the night. I woke up at around 7 am on Monday and had coffee on the rear deck of the boat, looking out at the magnificent sheer cliffs that jut up out of the Davis Strait for hundreds of meters.

After working until well after midnight the night before, checking all of the acoustic monitoring equipment to verify it's in good working order, we wasted no time getting to work, setting out the receivers that will eventually track the Greenland halibut we plan to tag.

The actual work can be back-wrenching at times. The receivers are attached to 200-pound disc-shaped anchors that have to be hoisted to the back of the boat and then dropped into the ocean when we get the go-ahead from the bridge via short-wave radio confirming that we're in the proper location according to their GPS coordinates.

My job was to help lift the moorings out of their storage bin, set them on the rear deck, bolt the hardware on and then attach the shackles which secure them to the line. After that, we set them up on the edge of the boat, and launched the float, carefully holding the receiver and the release mechanism as they were towed behind the boat. Once we got the "deploy" message from the bridge, we pushed the mooring overboard and watched it pull the entire line below the surface.

After dropping the moorings for two of the three acoustic gates we set at the mouth of the Scott Inlet, we headed inland about 30 kilometers to drop the long lines that will sit on the ocean floor in hopes of catching the Greenland sharks and halibut the scientists on board are studying.

The lines have all been baited with fresh squid. Being the newbie on board, I was tasked with the honour of kissing the last squid for luck before it was dropped. Nigel made sure the final hook was good and loaded up with squid, and for dramatic effect, I made sure it was an especially sexy kiss.

Speaking of Nigel, I have a whole new sense of respect for him. After spending the night sleeping on the floor of the ship's lab, he spent the entire day working. In the afternoon, the temperature dropped and the wind picked up considerably, and in some pretty rough conditions, he suited up in rain slicks, dug in and helped bait about 250 hooks on about 4,800 feet of line. The work didn't finish until around 8 pm.

The crew of the MV Nuliajuk have been an absolute pleasure to work with. I'm especially having a great deal of fun with Kevin Hewitt from Trespassey Newfoundland, a true east-coaster if there ever was one, and Anton Snarby of Liverpool, Nova Scotia. Both are possessed with easy-going attitudes, an amazing sense of humour and a seemingly endless appetite. As I'm writing this, Anton is scarfing down a plateful of last night's leftover pork chops and rice for breakfast.

Levi Ishulutaq, from Pangnurtung, Nunavut and Ilkoo Anguitkjuak from Clyde River, Nunavut are also members of the crew. Both are extremely hard working Inuit men, and while there's a bit of a language barrier with Ilkoo, Levi is both witty and articulate.

Howard Penny, the captain of the ship and Robert Noel, the first mate, are both from Newfoundland. Both are very polite and extremely patient, taking time to answer the endless barrage of questions they're getting from a less-than-nautical man such as myself.

Today we've had to drop anchor in Refuge Harbour, which runs off the Scott Inlet, due to the fact that conditions were too rough to pull up the long lines. Hopefully by tomorrow we'll be able to pull them back up and I'll see my first Greenland shark.

Stop in Clyde River provides insight into Inuit life

CLYDE RIVER, NUNAVUT - With a simple stick and line, two 14-year-old Inuit boys are able to reel in sculpin, a spiny fish, off the main dock of the harbour of this little village of about 800 people. As soon as his friend pulls one to the surface, Joisinpops them with a round or two from the pair of pellet guns he keeps by his side.

"Practicing," he replies matter-of-factly when I ask him about what seems like a rather unconventional method of fishing.

Joisin says he wants to be a hunter one day, shooting the "animals we eat." Narwhales and seals are high on his list of potential targets. He responds affirmatively when I ask him if he'd like to work on a fishing boat one day, although it seems apparent the notion may never have occurred to him.

That might be because there are no commercial fisheries in the area of this remote village, about 600 kilometres northeast of Iqaluit. That may change in the near future.

We touched down on the dirt runway at the tiny airport on the outskirts of town on Friday afternoon. I'm travelling with Nigel Hussey, a post-doctoral fellow in the Great Lakes Institute of Environmental Research; Kevin Hedges, a Winnipeg-based scientist with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans who earned his master's degree at the University of Windsor in 2002; and Ellie Chmelnitsky and Melanie Toyne, both with the DFO.

The point of our work is to set out high-tech acoustic tracking and satellite monitoring systems that will tell these scientists all about the migratory patterns of such fish species as Greenland halibut, Arctic char and by-catch like Greenland shark and Arctic skate.

As of this writing, we're waiting for the MV Nuliajuk, a 64-foot research vessel to arrive from Cumberland Sound, where the scientists were previously conducting their research, and take us to Scott Inlet, about 100 kilometers north from here. Some preliminary winter test fishing done by the Hunters and Trappers Organization and the Government of Nunavut in Scott Inlet has led scientists to believe it may be fertile waters for halibut. The information we glean will ultimately help the GN and the feds establish sustainable commercial fisheries here and bring much needed job opportunities in northern communities starved for development.

Judging from recent media reports, the need is clear.

On my flight from Ottawa to Iqaluit, I read a heart-wrenching National Post column by Joe O'Connor about the persistent problem of solvent abuse in Davis Inlet. Kids as young as six and seven years old have been caught sniffing gas, while other teenagers high on the stuff and armed with shotguns have been found wandering the streets in hallucinatory states.

On the flight from Iqaluitto Clyde River I was handed a copy of the Nunavut News. One of their lead stories was about World Suicide Prevention Day. Since the end of August, Nunavut has already had 18 suicides. In a territory of a little more than 33,500 people, that's a frightening rate when compared to the national average of nearly 11 per 100,000 people. The vast majority are males. In the 20-29 age group, almost half of all injury hospitalizations at Iqaluit's Qikiqtani General Hospital are due to suicide attempts.

Whether what we in the south consider meaningful employment will be a panacea to the problems Inuit communities face remains to be seen. I spoke with Samiulie Iqaqrialu, a 35-year-old man who works at the local community centre, who told me only about 35 per cent of the people in the community are employed. He said the jobs a fishery might bring would be a welcome improvement.

But I also spoke with a young guy on the flight from Ottawa who works with an environmental engineering firm in Kingston, overseeing the cleanup and disposal of hazardous materials at now-shuttered northern warning stations. He told me the greatest virtue he's learned working in the north is patience.

"People up here don't look at life the way we do when it comes to work and money," he said. "It's not a bad thing. They just don't get up first thing in the morning and bust their asses all day like us. They go at their own pace."

I'm a first-time visitor to the Arctic and a casual observer who would never pretend to have a solution for the problems that plague these communities. Employment as an alternative to the inescapable idleness that comes with the territory might be part of the answer, but it would seem to me that southern solutions to northern dilemmas won't be the fix-all that's required.

Providing some resources and the ability to determine their own solutions - and their own futures - would seem like the only natural way to go.

Windsor research writer bound for the Canadian Arctic

The furthest north I've ever been in Canada is Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. That was in the summer, and the coldest it got was about 25 degrees.

The largest fish I've ever caught was a small mouth bass I reeled in on a tiny lake in southern Ontario. It was about 21 centimeters long.

Yet here I find myself preparing for a 15-hour air journey to Clyde River, Nunavut - about five degrees above the Arctic Circle - where I will board the MV Nuliajuk, a 64-foot research vessel and head out for an eight-day adventure, hopefully catching all manner of aquatic beasts including Greenland sharks, lethargic bottom-feeding dwellers that can grow to 6.5 metres, weigh 1,000 kilograms and potentially live to a 100-years-old.