Special Places:

An Exploration of Our Marine Protected Areas

Interview with Corey Morris, images provided by Dave Howells.

Golden Cod is a visually and genetically distinct population of Atlantic Cod that live in Gilbert Bay, Labrador. Corey Morris, a researcher with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and John Green at Memorial University have been studying Atlantic Cod, in particular the Golden Cod for the past nineteen years.  The research is done jointly with people from the local community and their involvement is key to the success of the MPA.

Map of Gilbert Bay MPA


The Golden Cod

The cod of Gilbert Bay are genetically and geographically distinct from other Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) populations (the northern cod stock), and have been given the nickname ‘Golden cod’.  As you might suspect, they have a distinct golden or even reddish brown colouration, which researchers believe is due to high amounts of carotenoids in their diet from the invertebrates they eat.

The ‘Golden cod’ spend much of their time within Gilbert Bay, even spawning within the bay in late May to early June.  This is in contrast to other cod of Labrador, which spawn offshore and usually in winter. The result of this geographic isolation is that there is little or no mixing of genes (through reproduction with other populations).

Researchers from Memorial University (MUN) have been studying the Golden cod of Gilbert Bay since 1996, and a collaborative monitoring program was established in 1998 by MUN, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), and the NunatuKavut Aboriginal Fishery Guardians to track the health of this cod population.

The monitoring program included four main components:

  1. Monitoring the Gilbert Bay cod population (e.g. the density of cod eggs in plankton; the abundance of juvenile cod; age distribution and abundance of adults within the MPA; migration patterns using acoustic monitoring);
  2. Measuring the impacts of fishing on this cod population;
  3. Habitat identification habitat mapping (using multibeam sonar technology to map different types of habitats within Gilbert Bay); and,
  4. Water quality monitoring.

So what are the results of the monitoring to date?

Unfortunately, the data indicate that since the re-opening of the fishery in 2006, the Golden cod population has experienced a steep decline in numbers (abundance), particularly for the large, commercial-size cod.

The research on impacts of fishing found that the annual fishery could reduce numbers enough to have a negative effect on the recovery of the Gilbert Bay cod population.  While these cod were initially thought to remain inside the MPA year-round, scientists were able to track the movement of these fish using acoustic telemetry and a tagging program, and this provided evidence that large-size Gilbert Bay cod move out of the bay and into Alexis Bay during summer to feed, and then return to inside the Gilbert Bay MPA to spawn and over-winter. The data has shown that  by moving the food fishery from the summer to the fall, mortality of the Gilbert Bay cod could be reduced since they would have migrated back into the protection of the MPA by that time.  Another solution could be a change in fishing gear type. We have now initiated a cod pot pilot project which would encourage commercial harvesters to utilize cod pots, particularly in summer, and remove any Golden cod found in the pots and return them to the water.

The habitat mapping research identified important habitat within the Bay including coralline algae beds that are critical for young cod, and also home to key food sources for the cod such as brittle stars and scallops.  Habitat mapping also identified ‘The Shinneys’ area as the most important spawning area for the Golden cod inside the MPA, and Alexis Bay (outside the MPA) was identified as important feeding area.

Water quality monitoring indicated that previous concerns due to the presence of an outfall pipe into the MPA was not an issue.

To address the declining Gilbert Bay cod population, changes to the updated Management Plan include a later season opening date for cod fishing outside the MPA, an expanded science monitoring program with new genetic work, and tagging studies outside the MPA.

Conservation Objectives

When an MPA is established, conservation objectives are identified as key goals by Fisheries and Oceans Canada.  For the Gilbert Bay MPA, the regulatory conservation objective is the:

  • Conservation and protection of the Gilbert Bay cod and its habitats.

Additional non-regulatory conservation objectives include:

  • Conservation and protection of the Gilbert Bay ecosystem.
  • Promotion of scientific research opportunities on the Gilbert Bay ecosystem.
  • Promotion of public awareness, education, and support of the Gilbert Bay MPA.

Public awareness of the Gilbert Bay MPA is important to ensure the objectives of the MPA can be achieved and to continue local community support.  This promotion of public awareness is most often done through various educational programs and stewardship programs. For example, the Golden Cod Festival took place in William’s Harbour for several years, where the community celebrated the connection of the people to the land and sea, with music, food, activities and games. William’s Harbour has voted to resettle the community and very few residents now live there year-round. Knowledge and understanding of the ecological and cultural importance of Gilbert Bay is likely to help sustain an attitude of appreciation and pride of the MPA.

Photo Story A Day Monitoring Gilbert Bay with Community Fisheries Guardians by Jamie Fitzpatrick

Corey: My name is Corey Morris, and I’m a researcher with Fisheries and Oceans Canada. We’ve been studying Marine Protected Areas and Marine Protected Area effectiveness for the past nineteen years with Fisheries and Oceans. For many years I’ve been studying Atlantic Cod, in particular the Golden Cod that live in Gilbert Bay, Labrador.

Jamie: The Golden Cod is a beautiful name for a fish. Tell us about it. How is it different from the codfish we all know?

Corey: When we started working in Gilbert Bay many years ago, local residents there described the fish that lived in the area as being dark in colour. Somebody–I believe it was Margaret Burden, who is on the Marine Protected Area committee–coined the phrase Golden Cod some time ago. It’s this visually distinct, also genetically distinct, population of what we call Golden Cod that live in Gilbert Bay. It’s an absolutely fantastic place to conduct research. It’s remote, it’s undeveloped, it has a great naturalness to it. Globally I guess we’re losing some of these very important remote wilderness areas, and it’s important to conserve these types of areas both on the land or in the sea. So we visit the area soon after the ice melts, and we return and clue up the season maybe a month or so before freeze-up.


Jamie: Who’s involved when you go out on the water there?

 Corey: When I say “we,” I mean the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, researchers from Memorial University, and also the Nunatukavut Community Council. They have fisheries guardians that are involved, and they also have elders that help us with some of the work. In fact, one of our senior researchers there, or technicians, is George Rowe. He’s been working each year, on every trip with us, for the past twenty-one years perhaps. George started this work when he was sixty-five. So right now George is eighty-four, and he’s fished all his life. He’s extremely interested in the cod in Gilbert Bay, and he’s been a great help. So it’s the local people, the aboriginal groups, Memorial University, Fisheries and Oceans, and also the communities. People in the communities around this area have been a tremendous help in maintaining the longevity and the interest in the work we do.

Jamie: Take me through a day when you’re out in Gilbert Bay doing that monitoring work. What goes on?

Corey: The goal and objective of the Marine Protected Area is to protect the discreet, unique population of Atlantic Cod and its habitat. So we monitor movement using acoustic telemetry, which tracks the behaviour and movement patterns of individual fish. We also conduct a lot of angling, to measure a range of sizes of fish, to try and measure the growth of the population and the strength of different year classes. We also use mark recapture tagging, to look at both the locations of where fish move, but also individual growth rates. A fourth element of our monitoring program is to conduct plankton samples. In the plankton samples we collect a large number of cod eggs. Collecting cod eggs tells us when the fish are spawning. It indicates something about the health of the population, to suggest that yes, there are still cod that spawn in Gilbert Bay. So our monitoring program, in summary, looks at the movement, the growth, the abundance, and reproduction of the population.


“People in the communities around this area have been a tremendous help in maintaining the longevity and the interest in the work we do. As well as researchers from Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Memorial University, fisheries guardians and elders from the Nunatukavut Community Council are involved, and help us with some of the work. One of our senior researchers there, or technicians, is George Rowe. He’s been working each year, on every trip with us, for the past twenty-one years perhaps. George started this work when he was sixty-five. So right now George is eighty-four, and he’s fished all his life. He’s extremely interested in the cod in Gilbert Bay, and he’s been a great help.”

Jamie: So how big of an effort is this? How long do you go out for?

Corey: We take a bunch of different people with different boats. The Nunatukavut Community Council use their boats. We leave from Port Hope-Simpson, usually for ten days, and we have an expedition of sorts. We use small boats and we travel around the entire area, from the coast where there are a lot of historical fishing villages, all the way up into these glacial fjords, and the rivers that support char and salmon. So we have gotten very comfortable working in this area. The people are very supportive. Being involved with the local people and the people involved with this project is instrumental to this Marine Protected Area and probably any Marine Protected Area. We were invited by the local interests in this population, and we’ve engaged in many, many meetings with the public to try and understand what really needed to be protected. So working with the local people, local governments, municipal, aboriginal, provincial, having that continued interest and continued engagement on the ground has been largely the success of the Gilbert Bay Marine Protected Area.

©David Howells 2016 www.davehowellsphoto.com

©David Howells 2016

DFO researchers and local fisherman, George Rowe, measure and record data as part of the golden cod monitoring program, June 2016. Photo: David Howells.

The Gilbert Bay Marine Protected Area (MPA)

The Gilbert Bay Marine Protected Area (MPA), located in Labrador, was first designated under the Oceans Act on October 11, 2005, at the request of local stakeholders. The goal of creating the MPA was to protect the ‘golden cod’, a genetically-distinct population of Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua), which spends most of its life inside Gilbert Bay. Gilbert Bay is a narrow inlet located on the southeast coast of Labrador, approximately 300 km from Happy Valley-Goose Bay. The bay has two narrow openings to the Labrador Sea near the community of William’s Harbour. The Gilbert Bay MPA itself is approximately 60 km2, and is divided into three different management zones with varying levels of protection. There are several physical conditions that exist within the bay which likely play a role in keeping this Gilbert Bay population relatively isolated from other Atlantic cod populations in the region. Gilbert Bay has a relatively short ice-free season, highly stratified temperature and salinity (salt) gradients, and has shallow sills rising to depths of 5m separating portions of the bay. In addition to the cod population, Gilbert Bay is home to a wide range of marine species including Icelandic Scallop, Rock Crab, Winter Flounder, Atlantic salmon, Arctic Char, Capelin, Herring, and important habitats such as coralline algae beds and eelgrass beds. Waterfowl such as loons, geese and mergansers use the area seasonally and it is also visited by marine mammals such as Minke Whale, Harbour Porpoise, Killer Whales, and Harp Seals.

The main communities near Gilbert Bay are Port Hope Simpson and William’s Harbour where the majority of stakeholders reside. Located approximately 20 km from Gilbert Bay, Port Hope Simpson has a resident population of approximately 575 people. Originally established as a logging town in 1934, fishing became and remains the mainstay of the community. William’s Harbour is located at the mouth of Gilbert Bay and has a population of approximately 45 people.

Scientists have been studying Atlantic cod in Gilbert Bay since 1996, and working together with local fish harvesters identified Gilbert Bay cod as a resident population, genetically distinct from other Atlantic cod populations. Local residents became very concerned when the commercial northern cod fishery re-opened in 1998 and wanted to make sure this special population was protected. The creation of a Marine Protected Area was identified as a potential solution. The success of the Gilbert Bay MPA continues to be closely tied to the level of local support and community involvement in the MPA including research, monitoring, and educational programs.

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