Celtic Explorer takes heavy seas on the chin

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Twenty-two days have passed since the RV Celtic Explorer set out to survey northern cod stocks along the coasts of Newfoundland. By Thursday the research vessel will be back in St. John’s Harbour again, with data onboard.

Weather at sea has been less than ideal for the provincial government-funded fishing trip. According to Tom Brown, administrative director through the Centre for Fisheries and Ecosystems Research, recent winter storms were a major hindrance for the team of scientists.

“It’s been very windy. The boat is 65 metres and can take up to ten-metre seas, but the issue is — you can’t do any work in ten-metre seas. The vessel is quite safe, but you wouldn’t be able to fish and it would be very difficult for the crew.”

In mid-February, the vessel was forced to take shelter in St. Anthony because of high seas, which chief scientist onboard, George Rose blogged, “gave the crew time to organize the collected data, read, and perhaps finish outstanding papers and project proposals.”

“Dr. Rose did put estimates of bad weather days into the survey plan so that it wouldn’t jeopardize the entire survey.” —Tom Brown

Brown has been in communication with the Explorer throughout the trip. He says Rose is fairly confident they’ll get the majority of the survey done as planned despite the weather-related setbacks.

“Whenever you do a survey in the North Atlantic in February you have to account for bad weather days,” Brown said. “Dr. Rose did put estimates of bad weather days into the survey plan so that it wouldn’t jeopardize the entire survey.”

Data fishing

Data collected throughout the survey has yet to be analyzed and won’t be provided publicly before the Celtic Explorer returns. Rose is expected to give a summary statement in a matter of weeks, highlighting what the survey data shows.

The vessel has been fishing in under 500-metres of water, using acoustic sounders to run survey grids over areas of the North Atlantic known for cod overwintering. Past research by Rose has shown that the animals aggregate in the areas surveyed.

“They examine what’s on the bottom,” Brown explains. “They look for animals and if they find any they do a sub-sample or small sample using the trawl to identify what’s there.”

The research team is also sampling with a standardized shrimp trawl as part of a multi-species survey. Their goal is to collect as much full ecosystem data as possible.

“Anything else that’s caught while they’re fishing or while the echo sounders are moving — things like shrimp or crab that are caught while doing a trawl — is analyzed,” says Brown.

The vessel is also conducting an oceanographic analysis, measuring conductivity, temperature and depth. This information, Brown says, is vital for determining habitat preference, and that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and other group databases can benefit from.

The acoustic technology being used can tell the number of fish beneath the boat, once the data is analyzed. Depending on the volume of fish found with the acoustics sensors, Rose and fishing crew can determine how long they want the net towed on the bottom.

“They don’t try to take very large samples,” Brown says. “They do very short tows to bring up a small amount of fish. It may be a five-minute tow, it may be a one-minute tow, depending on the biomass.”

The Celtic Explorer’s fishing gear is used only to take sub-samples, in order to determine population size, age and maturity and other biological information.

Exploring future research

The trip, which marks the first time in our province’s history that a fisheries science vessel has been solely funded and deployed by our government, ends in St. John’s March 3.

The Celtic Explorer was chartered for 40 days, which includes the transatlantic crossing and return to Ireland. The survey itself was booked for only 24 days. The vessel will likely leave St. John’s again on March 4 for Ireland.

“We hope to be able to use the Explorer next year and again the following year.” —Tom Brown

Brown says the Centre for Fisheries and Ecosystems Research have the same block of time booked on the Explorer next year.

“We haven’t signed any formal contracts on that yet but we are in the queue. We hope to be able to use the Explorer next year and again the following year.”

The survey is part of the provincial government’s $5.25 million initiative to charter large vessels, such as the Celtic Explorer, for offshore research.

“We hope to use the Explorer or other suitable vessels to conduct further research, whether it be on cod, shrimp, crab or pelagic species such as capelin. That’s yet to be defined,” says Brown.

Meanwhile, there have been some preliminary discussions about the province acquiring a research vessel of its own, instead of having to rent from as far off as Ireland.

“I think both the province and MUN and CFR will look at it in the future,” says Brown.

“It would be a great positive for our research unit and for N.L. for that matter. But there are a lot things that need to be looked at first.”