Quirks and Quarks

A Fisheries biologist coped with COVID shutdowns by drafting his kids as research assistants

Their cottage lake was a research site and the three young boys caught fish and collected data

Their cottage lake was a research site and the three young boys caught fish and collected data

10 year-old Cameron Cooke releasing a tagged bass as part of his father's summer research project. (Steven Cooke)

Originally published on September 12, 2020.

The COVID-19 pandemic sunk a lot of research plans during the summer of 2020. Fisheries biologist  Steven Cooke and his students from Carleton University had trips planned to gather data on fish health from sites around the world. But Cooke was able to come up with an alternate plan that was outside the box, but inside the bubble. 

He decided to grab the kids and go fishing - but not recreationally

Cooke and his kids turned their summer getaway into a productive scientific endeavour. The three boys were put to work in their little boat on their cottage lake helping dad tag fish and gather data.

Over 800 fish later, they are still at it. So far there hasn't been a mutiny, there was only one man overboard.

Steven Cooke joined Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald to talk about his summer research. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

What was your summer plan before everything changed? 

We study wild fish in the wild and so to do that, we head out across the countryside. Some of that work is local -- in and around the national capital region -- but much of it is across the country. We've had long-standing research programs in British Columbia studying the migration biology of salmon. We do work in Europe. We had plans to do work in Denmark studying the migration biology of some of the salmonids over there. 

Biologist Steven Cooke releases a tagged bass as part of his summer research program. Cooke recruited his three young children to help with his research during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Steven Cooke)

How did you arrive at a backup plan to gather what data you could this summer when everything got canceled? 

I was fortunate in that my bubble includes my three kids, aged 5, 8 and 10, and they like fishing. So I put them to work helping me to catch the fish that we needed to do our research. 

We were doing this obviously to keep the kids occupied, but also it was an important opportunity to collect data for our team members. Many of our undergrad students in particular, who really only have, if they're doing a fourth year thesis, one opportunity to collect data. And as an institution, it was decided that undergrad thesis projects that involve lab or field work wouldn't be moving ahead. 

So this was an opportunity for us to collect data that we could then hand over to students so that they had something to work with this coming fall. 

Where were you doing your research? 

We're fortunate that we have a cottage on Big Rideau Lake, about an hour from Ottawa. It's a beautiful lake with rich fisheries resources, a popular destination for people that go angling. And it also happens to be in and around where I've been working for over 20 years. 

When you have the kids out on the boat, what are their jobs? 

The first job, of course, is to catch fish. At this time of year, it's not easy to set large nets, trap nets, hoop nets, things like that, working with kids. So we rely on a rod and reel. 

We work under a scientific collection permit, so it's not fishing for fun. Although I have to admit it is fun. When the fish are captured, somebody will pick up a net. The kids are quite good at netting fish. And then I look after the hook removal for any of the fish where it's a bit more precarious. 

We get the fish into water, usually an onboard holding vessel, and then we go about measuring them, tagging them and releasing them. So sometimes the kids are calling out numbers and doing the measuring and tagging. Other times I'm doing that and they're working the data book. So it's all hands on deck and everybody contributes. 

Ben Cooke, son of Carleton university fisheries biologist Steven Cooke, releasing a pike that was captured as part of his father's summer research (Steven Cooke)

What kind of fish are you studying? 

Because we're interested in how fish are moving within Big Rideau Lake, but as well moving across the Rideau system, we want to get as many fish tagged as possible. And that means really any species that we encounter, things like largemouth and smallmouth bass, northern pike and of course sunfish and perch. 

Our goal is to tag 10,000 or so fish. We're well over 5,000 and 800 plus of those fish were tagged by my children and I this past summer. And then we also did some experiments --  some one-off experiments with a beginning, middle and end. And we've just finished entering those data. 

What's going to happen from this point, from all the data that you and your kids gathered this summer? 

Some of it gets shipped off to the grad students. Some of the experimental data that's generated will be handed over to undergrads who will work it up for their thesis. The plan is to write them up into theses and then eventually peer reviewed publications. And I think you can expect to see my kid's names appear quite prominently in the acknowledgements sections. 

Dr. Cooke and his team taking data and releasing a fish.

Wow. So your kids are contributing to a PhD? 

Absolutely. So being surrounded by the life of an academic and because I study fish and like to fish, sometimes work and play are a  little bit blurred. So for them, aside from the fact that I'll drag them out even on days when it's raining, in general, I think they're just keen to be outside, they're keen to be observing nature and interacting with it in different ways. 

Yes, we're there to catch fish, but that doesn't prevent us from having conversations about the osprey that are fishing alongside us, about the cormorants and some of the issues associated with them, talking about all the other critters that we see while we're out there. And it just creates rich discussions and opportunities for them to make connections with nature. 

We hear a lot about summer science camps for kids. You managed to incorporate it and get them doing real science along the way. 

We did. We did. It was fun. And there was only one kid that fell overboard. So there was a good dunking. Thankfully, the kids always wear life jackets and they've got those handles on the backs, so you  just reach down, yank them back up on board and all was good. So that does not happen very often with my normal research assistants.