Scientists track DNA of seabirds killed in Nunavut turbot fishery
“Does the local fishery kill local birds or is it killing international birds?”
Each year, a few hundred seabirds die in Nunavut fishing nets. Whether the birds themselves are from Nunavut isn’t clear.
That’s what researcher Jennifer Provencher is trying to figure out.
The dead birds, usually northern fulmars, become part of a vessel’s “bycatch,” and are recorded by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
But it’s Environment and Climate Change Canada that is responsible for the well-being of bird populations in Nunavut, along with the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board.
“Seabird bycatch is a policy gap in Canada,” said Provencher, who was in Iqaluit a few weeks ago for an annual fisheries meeting.
Her research efforts are bringing together members of Nunavut’s fishing industry and related government departments, to see if the territory’s growing turbot—or Greenland halibut—fishery could be damaging Nunavut seabird populations.
Because the thing is, it might not be.
Many of the bycatch birds, mostly northern fulmars, are being caught in the Davis Strait between Nunavut and Greenland, so it’s hard to know if the birds are from the territory.
Since there are tens of thousands of seabirds in each northern colony, a few hundred bird deaths annually among colonies in both Nunavut and Greenland would not affect population health.
But if the birds are coming from a single area on Baffin Island, that could be a problem.
“At this point we don’t know which it is, we don’t know if this is a really local impact or a much more regional impact,” Provencher said.
That’s why she is supplying collection kits to Nunavut fishers, so that birds killed in gill nets can be sent for DNA testing.
“Once we have the birds in hand, we can use genetic tools to figure out if the birds are from one colony or if they are from the whole region,” she said.
If there is a negative impact, it could take fulmar populations years to bounce back. The birds, which can live for 50 or even 60 years, don’t mature until they are six or seven years of age, and the females only lay one egg each year.
Provencher noted that Nunavut seabird colonies along Baffin Island are becoming more and more important to the northern tourism industry.
“The turbot fishing is an expanding fishery. They keep upping the quotas, the fish stocks appear to be sustainably fished and healthy,” Provencher said. “It’s not about preventing fishing and it’s not about no seabirds being caught … It’s about co-managing the fishery with the seabirds.”
Often seabirds get caught while fishing nets are being hauled in. The birds, who have been drawn by the smell of fish oil and bait, will dive to catch the turbot as it nears the surface.
“That seems to be more when it happens,” said Brian Burke, executive director of the Nunavut Offshore Allocation Holders Association.
Nunavut fishers are willing to work with researchers, and will bring more bird collection kits on boats in the coming ice-free fishing season, but he added that until now, bird deaths through fishing bycatch haven’t been flagged as a problem.
“We don’t see big numbers,” said Burke. Though when the birds are caught, it’s in fixed gear or nets, and not on the mobile trawls used for both the turbot and shrimp fishery, he said.
Jerry Ward, director of fisheries for the Qikiqtaaluk Corp., said birds in bycatch is not an issue encountered by QC vessels, which are factory freezer trawlers.
“In some fisheries they’ve used scare lines. That seems to have worked with the long line fishery. Whether it will work with fixed gear, we’ll see,” Burke said. “We’re wondering too, where are they coming from … we don’t want to be hurting the birds.”
If there is one bird colony that is significantly affected, that could lead to a moratorium on fishing in the area, said Grant Gilchrist, a research scientist with Environment and Climate Change Canada, who works on the conservation of marine birds in Nunavut.
But that would only be in an extreme scenario.
“Bycatch is not an issue unique to Nunavut. What’s new here is that it hasn’t been studied,” he said, adding that the real question is: “does the local fishery kill local birds or is it killing international birds?”
This summer, Provencher and other researchers will be doing a count of seabirds in Nunavut colonies, to update population information that is years out of date.
Between the bird collection kits and the colony counts, “we can figure out if this is an issue of concern or if it is having a very small impact,” she said.