Notes from the field: FishDip’s frigid trip to Labrador

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The MEOPAR-funded project FishDip (Dam Impacts on Pelagic Fish Ecology in a Subarctic Estuary, Lake Melville, Labrador) aims to assess the impact of the Muskrat Falls project on fish populations. With the FishDip project in its first year of sampling, Dr. Maxime Geoffroy and MSc students Tiffany Small and Jordan Sutton headed once again to the small town of North West River, in central Labrador. Accompanied by collaborator Dr. Frédéric Cyr (Fisheries and Oceans Canada) and local guide Doug Blake, the team spent a week on the frigid ice-covered waters of Lake Melville, and adjoining basin Goose Bay, collecting data on the physical and biological processes occurring.

Though winds were high and temperatures well below freezing, the team came prepared, hunkering down in ice fishing huts, enjoying hot tea, moose stew and soaking in the beautiful landscape.

For some, however, the warmth of the tent was all too brief. While Fred and Jordan called the ice camp home, remaining inside to collecting vertical current and turbulence profiles, using a vertical microstructure profiler (VMP) and acoustic doppler current profiler (ADCP); Tiffany, Doug and Max trekked across the snow-laden ice, station-to-station, on snowmobile.

Through the metre-thick ice, they collected biological samples using a niskin bottle (eDNA) and a bongo net (plankton). They also deployed an EK80 portable echosounder and an RBR CTD—All while battling the elements, and the constant freezing up of equipment.

   

“We had to adapt quickly to the elements, which often changed on a dime. After some of our equipment froze up, we decided to soak it in the water prior to deployment to ensure it worked efficiently. I’ve never seen an icicle form right before my eyes, it was definitely an experience to remember,” Small says with a laugh.

Doug shared his wealth of knowledge, gathered from years working in the bush, giving the team some tips for working in cold conditions. Small explains: “While we were busy trying to chomp through sandwiches that were basically ham and cheese popsicles, Doug was wrapping his in tinfoil and heating them up on the exhaust of his snowmobile—something we had never thought of, but something we will remember for the future.”

With Doug’s help, the team managed to navigate safely and efficiently on the ice, avoiding soft spots and taking shortcuts when needed. His knowledge of the area was a valuable asset, both about the distribution of fish in the region and  safe ice travelling. “When working in an area you aren’t familiar with, it’s important to seek those with local knowledge, and I think it’s safe to say that without Doug’s help this project wouldn’t be possible” says Max,  the project investigator.

The trip was in all respects a success. The data collected during this field season will be added to the multi-year collaborative effort to look at the impact of the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric dam on pelagic fish ecology within the Lake Melville estuary. Preliminary results suggest the avoidance of the fresh top layers by fish, which concentrated in the deeper Atlantic water. In addition, this field season was filled with many new experiences for every member of the team; from learning how to traditionally process animal pelts after trapping to watching an icebreaker steam through ice for the first time.  —by Jordan Sutton