Nfld. & Labrador

Acoustic listening stations will track northern cod in N.L. waters

More than a thousand northern cod are being embedded with transmitters that will beam information about migration and spawning patterns to receivers moored to the ocean floor.

Researchers tracking fish to learn more about where they migrate and spawn

Bruce Chapman, president of the Atlantic Groundfish Council, says the idea for the project began in 2015 when the council and the Association of Seafood Producers discussed the recovery of northern cod. (Patrick Butler / CBC)

Northern cod are about to experience a much higher level of surveillance.

The iconic fish — 1,260 of them — are having small transmitters implanted into their bellies.

As the cod swim about, their transmitters will send information to 75 acoustic receivers moored to the ocean floor in 13 areas along the eastern continental shelf and in three areas closer to shore in cod fishery area 2J3KL.

A variety of academic and private entities are involved in the six-year, $8.5-million project, including Bruce Chapman, president of the Atlantic Groundfish Council.

He said the idea for the project began in 2015 when the council and the Association of Seafood Producers had conversations about the recovery of northern cod.

Data from the transmitters will be gathered to study migration and spawning patterns. (Ocean Tracking Network)

"According to the DFO survey, this recovery was happening in the centre part of the area of 2J3KL, and the northern and southern parts of the area weren't really recovering and are still not recovering to the same extent as the centre," said Chapman.

Chapman said the project's goal is to address gaps in our understanding of northern cod and to improve management of the stock.

Trying to predict movement

Memorial University and Dalhousie University are among those involved in the project.

They'll look at the cod migration, what portion of each offshore stock migrates inshore annually, where the major spawning areas are, how catch rates can be better managed, and how productive cod are in different areas.

"We are absolutely trying to find the movement pathways and determine whether they're predictable in space and time," said Fred Whoriskey, executive director of Dalhousie's Ocean Tracking Network.

The transmitters are implanted into the cod bellies. (Ocean Tracking Network)

"We are trying to understand whether their are particular habitats that are used for longer periods than other periods, i.e. critical habitats that need to be protected, or the best place to go to fish and fish more efficiently."

The goal is to rebuild the northern cod stock and receive certification from the Marine Stewardship Council, the gold standard when it comes to recognizing sustainable fishing.

Meanwhile, northern cod continues to be sold outside of Canada.

Companies like Sysco France buy cod from Newfoundland because local processors are involved in fishery improvement projects like the one currently underway. 

Jean-Louis Meuric, a consultant working for Sysco France, said the company has won contracts with universities and hospitals because they have developed a responsible sourcing policy for wild fish.

Cod with implanted transmitters await their release into the Atlantic Ocean off Newfoundland. (Ocean Tracking Network)

"Worldwide, [sustainability] has become something very important," he said.

The tagging and genetic sampling of the cod will be completed during spring spawning in April and May.

The placing of the acoustic receivers will be completed in the spring.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador