Research at sea

Photography: Saltwater joys photography by Martin Silverstone

Jan 29, 2019
ASF’s research crew on the Labrador coast, every day brought new challenges and thrills.

Patience, luck, and a preference for remote places are prerequisites for an ASF biologist.

Off the Labrador Coast, in a thick fog, Eric Brunsdon swears he knows our precise location. Still, the maze of squiggly red lines that the ASF researcher is following on the boat’s electronic chart are not reassuring.

Eric and summer student Heather Perry are downloading information from ASF’s receiver line across the Strait of Belle Isle. It’s a foggy day but calm. The receivers, set around 600 metres apart, are marked by small buoys bobbing in a large sea. Currents caused by the tides often pull the markers down so they can be barely visible, or worse completely submerged.

Brunsdon says we’re close to number 3. I can see nothing. Then Perry calls out, “There!” and points toward a yellow float. She grabs a gaff from the floor of the boat and snares it. The two struggle to haul up the small black cylinder against the force of the tide and current. I want to help, so I get up from my seat in the middle of the boat to move the gaff out of the way. Sea legs is a term I never really understood until I realize I have none. I stumble and fall, almost knocking over Heather and the laptop in the process.

Before causing a bigger catastrophe I decide to sit down and simply observe. These two obviously know what they are doing. Sometimes the best way to help is to stay out of the way.

Fieldwork in biology is always an adventure, and ASF’s research department is in the midst of a remarkable quest for more knowledge in the Labrador Sea. In addition to the receiver line across the Strait of Belle Isle, a modified fyke net was installed in a protected cove near the small fishing village of L’Anse-au-Loup, Labrador. After checking half the receivers for “hits,” Brunsdon steers the craft toward the coastal net.

High winds and tide the night before have twisted the net and anchor around each other, so the two perform a sort of impromptu game of “human knot” to sort it out.
Despite the problems with the trap, a few capelin and a herring are still found inside. It was much more interesting the last couple of days when the pair found buckets of capelin and other fish, and three shining, silver salmon. A few scales from these adults were removed and will reveal the fishes’ age and perhaps information on their home rivers. An anal fin sample was also taken and preserved to be sent to Ian Bradbury at the DFO laboratory in St. John’s, Newfoundland to help with a study on genetic diversity. Afterward the fish were released and rocketed away, likely headed toward their home river to spawn.

Still, Perry and Brunsdon are disappointed at the absence of smolt. The main goal of the fyke net, and indeed the duo’s presence here in Labrador, is to capture smolt heading out to ocean feeding grounds. A certain number are to be surgically implanted with a small transmitter. In this way, ASF hopes to learn more about where smolts head after they pass through the Strait of Belle Isle, the last point at which any information has been gleaned until now. Smolt that aren’t tagged will be sampled for general condition and health. Samples from various organs will be sent to Kristi Miller’s laboratory at the Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo, B.C. for genetic and disease analysis, and to DFO Moncton for other related studies.

The pair’s disappointment is assuaged somewhat by the appearance of a couple of pods of humpback whales. The huge creatures circle our boat, tail fins announcing a deeper

Muscle power and high tech: Perry and Brunsdon had to use plenty of both. Above, after hauling up the receiver, they use wifi to download the information to a laptop computer. Will the data show smolt are on the move through the Strait of Belle Isle?

Dive as they seek to corral the schools of capelin. Loud breaths from their blow holes sound like deep notes from orchestral horns. It sends shivers down my spine.

Back at the tidy L’Anse-au-Loup dock, the harbour master is anxious to hear if the two have had any luck. Nelson Belben has obviously taken a liking to the hardworking ASF crew and is eager to help. For the moment, all he can offer is advice on the weather and general agreement with the going theory that “everything” is a few weeks late this year. To backup this claim, Belben points to the stories of locals skidooing right up to July 1, and reports that ponds in the backcountry are still frozen. Anecdotal evidence, perhaps, but it’s backed up by the large patches of snow visible in the hills we can see from the coastal road.

On the rivers too, here and back in places like the Gaspé, Quebec North Shore and New Brunswick, it seems fish have been delayed. This gives some encouragement to Brunsdon and Perry, but although their frustration is palpable, they remain upbeat and positive.

Part of research work is staying motivated and prepared. After discussing strategy with Jonathan Carr, still have to worry about your fellow human beings.

An early morning start at the receivers and no fish to tag leave the crew with the rest of the afternoon free. We all head up to the Pinware River where ASF’s Newfoundland and Labrador program director, Don Ivany, has a few camp visits to make. After, we hike up to the Forks Pool, and wade across. Showing the same plucky indifference to the challenges she faces out on the saltwater, Heather, who will return to studies at Dalhousie University in the fall, gamely accepts a piggy-back from Ivany. She is the only one without chest waders. On the other side, it’s a short walk up to the first set of falls where I watch as Eric and Heather clamber over the rocks to get a closer view of salmon trying to leap the torrent.

Wildlife research is never easy or straight forward. Wild animals very rarely do the expected, and even when they do, you

It’s easy to see the joy they take from being physically active in the outdoors. It takes special people to conduct research on wild animals in remote places. These two have the qualities that allow them to face the ups and downs of such work. This short excursion is definitely an “up” as we picnic on Ivany’s bottled moose and squid and drink from an ice cold spring. For the moment, their work is the furthest thing from their minds. After another exciting crossing and a hike back to our vehicles, it’s time to say goodbye. Tomorrow, Ivany and I are leaving. We offer to share beers back at our hotel, but Heather and Eric politely decline. Their thoughts are now on the day ahead and an early wakeup. For all intents and purposes, the two are already back in their boat, heading out to check for hits on the receivers and hoping hard for a few smolt back in the fyke net.

A few days later, back in my humble abode outside Montreal, the sea air and northern scenery are just a memory. My hanging waders and backpack still smell of smoke from the shore lunch I shared with Don, Eric and Heather. There is no way to remain indifferent after sharing such wonderful moments in the outdoors, and I am hungry for news. Don calls and the update is good . . . and bad.
Smolt from the Cascapedia, Restigouche or Miramichi have finally crossed the receiver line. First one, then in bunches. Don is happy and I can sense the relief and reward that the field workers must have felt. I can almost see the broad smile breakout on the harbour master’s friendly face.

The bad news? A herring fisherman wants to set up a weir in the cove where the fyke net is just as it began fi sh-ing well. This development will force them to move from a close, reliable spot. Smolt season is short and the two will be mulling this problem as they make the bumpy drive from L’Anse-au-Loup back to their base at L’Anse-au-Clair. Wildlife research is never easy or straight forward. Wild animals very rarely do the expected, and even when they do, you still have to worry about your fellow human beings.

Brunsdon uses a dip net to remove a salmon from the fyke net. After taking scale and blood samples, he releases it gently back into the sea. I’d seen them wrestle the net on two occasions and this must have been crushing news. But, a day later I heard from Eric—not a hint of disappointment or pessimism in his voice. He and Heather had moved the net and it was fishing well again. With the smolt run in full swing they expected to capture, tag and release some fish in the days ahead.

What insights would these smolt provide as our research tracks them further out to sea? Likely it would take more field seasons toiling in a boat in faraway places to find the answers. But as Eric and Heather showed me, that kind of work is only one of many saltwater joys.

Martin Silverstone is the editor of the Atlantic Salmon Journal. He visited ASF’s research team in Labrador last July.