Plankton on board

Plankton on board

Science serving aquaculture
May 1, 2002

If you think buying a new car that meets your needs is a challenge, just imagine how tough it would be to shop for a ship.

Now imagine having to make sure the ship could serve as an oceanographic research laboratory capable of accommodating 15 scientists, and strong enough to handle rough weather conditions along the St. Lawrence River. And you better make sure it's large enough to hold tons of scientific equipment, large winches, and commercial fishing gear.

That's exactly the type of shopping trip that a group of oceanographers from a consortium of Rimouski-based Quebec universities recently found themselves on. For several months, they searched for a ship they could use to collect sediment from the floor of the St. Lawrence River. Their goal was to use the sediment to analyse the quality of plankton in the river, and to provide their students with an opportunity to gather the solid evidence they needed to confirm the results of their theoretical work.

So the search for the perfect ship started. From London to Rio, through Asia and the United States, oceanographers from the Université du Québec à Rimouski, the Université du Québec à Montréal, and Laval and McGill universities scoured the oceans of the world seeking a rare pearl. They even called on the services of a specialized ship broker, but with no luck.

"The vessels that were offered to us were all too old and in poor shape, or they were simply too expensive," says Serge Demers, Director of the Institut des sciences de la mer de Rimouski (ISMER).

After searching the seven seas, the group of oceanographers made a startling and somewhat ironic discovery. The ideal ship was right under their noses—right here in Canada.

And so they had found their rare ocean pearl. No longer needed by the Canadian Coast Guard, the John Jacobson had been sitting in dry dock in Victoria, British Columbia. Floating proudly, it was 50 metres long with an extensive after-deck, and could accommodate 30 passengers. Equipped with ultra-modern navigation equipment, the vessel quickly won over the oceanographers—who were already imagining how they would use the vessel's decks to analyze freshly collected sediment from the river's floor.

The transaction went quickly and the John Jacobson soon began a 33-day voyage home—through the Panama Canal—to its new port in Rimouski. It was a memorable odyssey. At one point, it even involved pirates, but fortunately, everyone came through the experience safely.

When it arrived in Rimouski, the John Jacobson was again placed in dry dock, but this time to fit it with extra equipment so that it could carry out its new duties. Powerful new generators were installed along with equipment to analyze submarine geologic formations. The ship's layout was also redesigned so that, if necessary, it could be transformed into a commercial fishing vessel.

According to Serge Demers, "this scientific trawler will enable us to evaluate the health and vitality of fish stocks, while enhancing our knowledge of the ecology of these fish and the quality of their food."

The key function of all the ship's newly installed equipment? To study the layers of sediment that have accumulated on the floor of the St. Lawrence River through a dozen major geological changes, over the past one and a half million years. It's a unique phenomenon in Canada, and one previously unrecorded in modern time. It has left sediment deposits similar to those found in Africa and the Middle East over 250 million years ago. Studying these features will lead to an enhanced knowledge of the initial development of the river's ecological system, as well as an investigation of geological formations that hold a wealth of history.

The research ship will also be a valuable training tool. According to Liza Viglino, a doctorate candidate in oceanography, "the ship will enable me to save a lot of time in confirming my hypotheses on the state of inshore fauna. I can now collect samples and analyse them directly on board."


In an economy where scientific knowledge is not only increasingly valued but worth its weight in gold, the research being carried out on the new ship is of inestimable value to Canada—and possibly the international community.

One of the research consortium's main projects is to develop algorithms that allow analysis of the composition and status of the marine biomass LINK TO GLOSSARY in northern coastal waters, such as the St. Lawrence Estuary.

Since 1997, NASA, the U.S. space agency, has been observing and recording changes in the colours of the world's oceans—using a satellite that photographs the oceans from an orbit 705 kilometres above the Earth. NASA's goal has been to examine the role that these vast expanses of water play in the phenomenon of climate change.

Unlike pictures taken at low altitudes, space shots must be interpreted using mathematical formulae—algorithms—that take into consideration the various layers of atmosphere between the camera and the subject. These algorithms also have to take into account the specific optical characteristics of the microscopic animals living in our oceans and the type of water in which they live. "NASA has developed algorithms that make it possible to interpret the data gathered from vast temperate oceans, but they cannot be used to accurately analyse northern coastal waters, which are much colder and therefore choppier, and which have different light reflective properties," says Serge Demers, Director of the Institut des sciences de la mer de Rimouski.

So it's with the goal of developing algorithms capable of calibrating satellite data relating to the St. Lawrence that Demers and his team will be conducting a series of tests. The tests will accurately determine the optical properties of the river's biomass. The data will be used in developing the mathematical models on which the algorithms will be built. The data could also be used to examine the status of coastal waters in other parts of the world.

Understanding the environmental impact of aquaculture

Another researcher at the Institut des sciences de la mer will be taking advantage of the capabilities of the new vessel to study the impact of the massive aquaculture on the marine ecosystem of the Gaspé Bay. Professor Vladimir Koutitonsky will be exploring how fecal matter from fish farms is carried by marine currents, and how it interacts with the flora, bacteria, and animals that make up the marine ecosystem.

Professor Koutitonsky also plans to study the impact of the addition of chemical elements and organic materials from the food given to farmed fish. Approximately 15 percent of this food is not absorbed and accumulates at the bottom of the bay where other animals and bacteria live. As with fecal matter, the decomposition of the food given to these fish alters the oxygen and carbon levels in these waters. The oceanographer wants to develop numerical models that offer solutions to minimize the negative impact of aquaculture. These models may also apply to other parts of Canada and the world.


The research ship was acquired through funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the Ministère de l'Éducation du Québec. The ship is managed by three Quebec universities, which together deliver an oceanography program for masters and doctorate students.

 For its part, the Ministère de l'Éducation du Québec supports the only oceanography program in Quebec. It also encourages the inter-university partnership that brings together various departments from UQAR, UQAM, Université Laval, and McGill University.

By investing in the acquisition of the research ship, Quebec hopes to encourage research in oceanography, marine geology, and biodiversity, which is a program of study offered by McGill University. Through its investment, Quebec is also acquiring another tool that can be used to expand knowledge of aquaculture—a rapidly growing economic activity in the maritime regions of Quebec and Canada.