By Wade Kearley
Philip Meintzer’s research into a better design for cod pots could help build a sustainable, commercial fishery for cod.
With the twitter handle @codfatherNL, it’s no surprise that Philip Meintzer lights up when discussing his research on cod pots. All this despite the fact that on the wharves of Fogo Island, he’s endured good-natured gibes. “The fishermen get a laugh out of a prairie boy trying to tell them how to fish.”
To reach Meintzer’s office at the Marine Institute, we ascend a tightly winding metal staircase which he climbs with the confidence of an athlete. From the upper deck there’s a view into the world’s largest flume tank. All 1.7 million litres have been drained for tank renovations but a hint of salt water lingers in the air. Shelving on one of the long walls of his rectangular office is full of VHS tapes from flume tank research conducted before he arrived. Outside, a partially frozen marsh glitters in the April sun. Meintzer gestures to a chair in front of his veneered desk and sits opposite.
Born in Calgary less than thirty years ago, he and his younger brother were raised by their mother, Ayesha Shaikh, a high school teacher at his alma mater. “My friends always asked me if it was weird having my mother teach at my school. It wasn’t. I thought it was great.” Growing up there, the ocean wasn’t on his radar. When he enrolled at the University of Calgary he was interested in zoology but hadn’t considered a marine focus.
COMFORTABLE ON THE WATER
As part of his undergraduate conservation field work, Meintzer spent a term at remote Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre on the west coast of Vancouver Island. A not-for-profit facility, Bamfield is dedicated to coastal marine science education and research.
Meintzer was inspired by the eco-focused research there. He was comfortable on the water, he got along well with professors, staff and fellow students, and, he came to see how dependent humans are on the marine environment for survival and “how climate change could impact that relationship.” He saw that science had a huge role, in the face of climate change, “to ensure that relationship is sustainable.”
After his B.Sc., Meintzer took a year off. One day on the Bamfield Facebook page he saw a post by Dr. Brett Favaro that stoked a fire in him. Dr. Favaro had been his teaching advisor at the centre. He was now a research scientist with the Marine Institute’s Centre for Sustainable Aquatic Resources (CSAR) and author of the recently-released book The Carbon Code: How you can become a climate change hero. “They were looking for graduate students interested in a project designed to investigate the potential for cod potting in a sustainable cod fishery,” said Meintzer. Funding was available through the RDC’s Ignite R&D program. Meintzer wrote to his former advisor who then urged him to apply.
Favaro had more than an inkling that Meintzer would adapt well. In a telephone interview Favaro said, “I’d seen him in Bamfield. He was a leader in the class.” And he added that those skills served Meintzer well in the field. “As a master’s student from Calgary coming into a place like Fogo and trying to change the traditional fishery, well, you need personal qualities that can’t be taught,” he said. “You have to be very open minded and easy to get along with. You have to be able to listen and learn. Phil excels at that. And that is rare.”
IMPROVING THE QUALITY OF HARVESTED COD
On Fogo Island off Newfoundland’s northeast coast (pop. 2,300) the Atlantic cod was once king until the ground fish moratorium of the 1990s. Then snow crab and northern shrimp gained in importance, but these are now in significant decline and fishermen face an uncertain future. One tiny but bright light is the small-scale heavily-monitored stewardship fishery. Most fishermen take their limited cod quotas using gill nets. In an effort to get higher prices per kilogram, some fishermen harvest cod using hand lines and pots.
Similar to lobster and crab pots, cod pots are baited and left on the seafloor for cod to swim inside. Meintzer said the most important feature, excluding the low bycatch levels, is the improved quality of captured fish compared with those taken in gill nets. “The fish are alive and free-swimming until the pots are hauled in so they can be bled to produce the more highly-prized white meat,” he said. Fishermen can then get a higher price per kilogram compared to fish caught by some other methods.
The research objective is to assess how cod and other non-target species interact with the cod pots, to study their efficiency, and to propose potential solutions that help reduce unwanted bycatch, while increasing their efficiency for catching cod. . Part of that process was developing and testing modifications—such as trap weight, mesh size, number and size of entrances, and escape prevention devices—to increase cod per haul and reduce by catch.
TO THE WATER BORN
In the first phase of his research he compared the Norwegian and Newfoundland cod pots to determine which caught more and what modifications might increase catch. The larger Newfoundland pots were designed by scientists at MI. Both types have two entrances, but the entrance to the Newfoundland pot features slim metal retention bars—called triggers—to prevent exiting. In contrast the more easily deployed Norwegian pot has a smaller, commercially-illegal mesh size (according to NL regulations) and includes a mesh divider in the main part of the pot.
Meintzer stepped onto the deck of Aubrey and Marie Payne’s boat in August of 2015. Based in Seldom on Fogo Island, they’ve been part of the stewardship fishery since 2007. With him Meintzer brought fifteen Newfoundland, and fourteen Norwegian pots, as well as a large metal camera frame, which surrounds the pots to record underwater videos. “Using cameras helps determine how the gears interact with marine species,” said Meintzer. “Catch data is informative but it only tells part of the story—what is caught. But the cameras tell us what we didn’t catch, what escaped, and why different gears catch different amounts,” he said.
The experiment was supposed to last three weeks but within two weeks the Paynes had caught their combined four-thousand-pound quota, said Meintzer. Fortunately, for the third week, he was able to deploy the pots with Rodney Budden. “He’d worked with Newfoundland pots but he wanted to know how Norwegian pots compared,” said Meintzer. “He loved them.”
While hauling pots with the fishermen, Meintzer observed that a future cod pot fishery would depend on many factors. “Boat size is important, so is boat gear, and the experience of the crew, he said. “Mr. Budden was fast at getting fish out and pots back in the water using the Newfoundland style pot.”
“During the first field season, Phil had only been here a couple of months before he was on the boat, and it was like he was born to it,’ said Favaro. “Then, once the field work was over, you couldn’t keep him away from analysis. He’s a leader in the lab and he has a lot of respect among his peers.”
SWIMMING INTO THE CURRENT
In the course of what many would regard as a mind-numbing task of reviewing more than 100 hours of digital footage, Meintzer made several observations. Although bait attracted many cod, relatively few were able to enter the pots. Of those that did, most approached against the current. And only 22 percent of those got inside. And one quarter of those later escaped. It was also clear that the Newfoundland pot triggers were counterproductive, discouraging cod from entering. “These findings showed us there was room for improvement,” and gave them sound ideas for modifications.
In the summer of 2016, Meintzer expanded the test deploying sets of five pots—the two original pot types, plus a Norwegian pot with 100 mm (commercially legal) mesh, a square, four-entrance pot, and a modified Newfoundland pot with added features of the Norwegian pots: including the removal of triggers, a different entrance funnel and the addition of the interior mesh divider. Constructed throughout June and July the pots were deployed in August and September. No cameras this time.
THE BERTH OF A COMMERCIAL FISHERY
All the pots were efficient enough, Meintzer has concluded, to use commercially. But the one that worked best was the modified Newfoundland pot. Meintzer said, “It was surprising that a few small modification could make such a significant difference in the catch rate.”
“What is great about these results is, if they move to a commercial pot fishery, fishermen have options,” he said, “depending on the size of their boat, the number of crew, the area they are fishing, and their investment in gear.”
Based on the his findings a report was submitted to DFO. It was prepared by Meintzer, Favaro and Philip Walsh, one of MI’s primary project researchers. The report contains findings and recommendations to inform policy and management of a cod-pot fishery, in terms of the options available to fishermen, such as quotas, the number of pots allowed, the areas for the fishery, and things like that,” said Meintzer.
The Marine Institute recently announced that they will be offering brand new masters, and doctoral degree programs in Fisheries Science with their School of Fisheries, and Meintzer has been offered the opportunity to “roll up my master’s program directly into a PhD,” as part of this new program, beginning in the fall. He is weighing his options and an important factor is funding, or the lack of it.
THE TIDE OF GRADUATE STUDENT RESEARCH
In 2016 Meintzer was granted $40,000 over two years from the Ocean Industries Student Research Award (OISRA) by RDC. Shortly afterwards the province cut that program as part of a cost-cutting initiative. “Now the next time someone like me is interested in doing this kind of research, there won’t be a grant. You need funding to be predictable. This isn’t a one year project,” he said.
Favaro agrees. “It is actually worse than that. I’m grateful, but all the funding I got to kick start and support those programs is gone,” he said. “The ROI for these programs is high. For every dollar you put into scientific research – including research lead by graduate students – you get many dollars back over the long term,” he said.
As Meintzer wonders where next, he is preparing the final chapters of his thesis. And he’s taken time to reflect on what he’s learned. “A huge thing is that science takes time. The field work is important but analyzing the data is critical. And the analysis takes time and dedication.”
The second thing he learned is the importance of communication. “You can have the best research but, if you aren’t getting the results out there, than what good is your work?” he asked. “People need to know about it. You have to get it out there to the policy makers,” said Meintzer, a big supporter of open-access publication. “Posting your results behind a pay wall is not going to help create the changes we need.”
And finally, he’s learned that hands-on work is a rewarding kind of science. “Working directly with the harvesters and demonstrating in a real way how to improve quality, decrease bycatch and make their case for a sustainable cod fishery was a great way to build a level of trust that wasn’t there before,” said Meintzer. “And in return they have shared their knowledge with me and that has helped me to improve my science.”