A story with guts: What this fisheries lab is learning about the state of the oceans

MUN researcher Jessica Melvin spends her days in a small windowless room picking through cod guts. Problem is, she can't get enough. That's where you come in.

Memorial University researcher monitoring plastic in the ocean

Jessica Melvin of Memorial University's Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research is studying fish guts to help understand how much plastic is in the water off Newfoundland. (Andrew Sampson)

It's the kind of job that stands out even in the esoteric world of scientific research.

Graduate student Jessica Melvin spends much of her time in a tiny room with no windows, picking through plastic bags filled with cod guts.

And on a sultry day in late July, that's exactly how it smells. 

"You get used to it. Once you've been in here for about an hour, it goes away," she told the St. John's Morning Show.

"I just have to remember to shower when I go home."

It's just part of the job as Melvin and fellow researchers study how much plastic is in the ocean off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador.

This is the second year Memorial University's Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research has collected offal from people taking part in the recreational fishery. 

Recreational fishery key to research

Last weekend they left the slipway at Quidi Vidi with 13 samples. On July 30 they'll be at the wharf in St. Philip's. By the end of the summer they'll have collected cod guts from all over the Avalon Peninsula, plus Marystown. 

"One of the great things about working with citizens is that we're getting guts from fish that people are actually eating," she said. 

Researchers sift through stomach contents to see how much plastic cod are ingesting. (Andrew Sampson)

On the day CBC visited her space in the science building Melvin was working on her third package of shiny pink organs. She sliced open the stomach, then the intestines, and dumped the contents into a strainer. Not pleasant to look at, but that doesn't matter. Sense of touch is what it's all about. 

"It's quite slimy," she said. "And there is a lot of intestines so you do have to really work to get the scissors through the whole thing."
So far this year Melvin's probing fingers haven't found any plastic. Cod can ingest bits of the synthetic material directly from the water, or through the smaller fish they eat. When plastics are present they can indicate bigger problems. 

"They have the potential to carry a lot of chemicals," Melvin said, chemicals that can become more concentrated as they move up the food chain. "We want to see how big a problem that is in Newfoundland waters."  

Encouraging results so far 

The good news is, so far researchers haven't found much. Of the 204 fish they examined last year they found plastics in five.

At just 2.4 per cent, Melvin said that's one of the lowest rates among cod tested anywhere in the world. This year they hope to double the sample size and they're looking for your help.

The researchers are asking anyone who catches cod in the recreational fishery to save and freeze the guts, label the bags and give Melvin a call.

"I would love to drive around and pick up guts wherever people want me to," she said.

You'll find detailed information on how you can help at the laboratory website

With files from Andrew Sampson and the St. John's Morning Show