New DNA insights will transform Arctic marine biodiversity and fisheries management

By Brian Burke, Nunavut Fisheries Association & Caron Hawco, eDNAtec

Indigenous fishing enterprises are playing a key role in the application of genetics research to support the commercial fishery of Canada’s North. This has the potential to address the significant knowledge gaps that currently exist relating to Canada’s biodiversity in the North. Traditional environmental programs have typically been limited due to the challenges of operating in remote and harsh Arctic conditions.
The Nunavut Fisheries Association (NFA) and environmental genomics specialists at eDNAtec have partnered to bridge this knowledge gap. The focus is to build on their Canada’s Ocean Supercluster project, OceanDNA System, integrating Indigenous knowledge with eDNA research to transform commercial fisheries research by involving Indigenous fishers directly in the research process.
In September 2020, eDNAtec, working with the NFA, Petroleum Research Newfoundland and Labrador (now Energy Research and Innovation Newfoundland and Labrador), and the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) launched the OceanDNA System project to assess, monitor and characterize the ocean. It was financed by Canada’s Ocean Supercluster to the tune of $2.2 million with additional funding of $2.7 million from the project partners.
All organisms shed environmental DNA (eDNA) into their surroundings. The eDNA in one water sample can reveal an abundance of data about the variety and number of organisms present in an ecosystem and can be completed in a fraction of the time required for conventional field sampling.
Through the OceanDNA System project, eDNA sample collection tools can now be easily deployed on operating fishing vessels where crews are trained to collect samples from marine ecosystems, which are then analyzed with eDNA sequencing systems.
“We have been building capacity using environmental DNA (eDNA) water sampling techniques on our commercial and research vessels,” said NFA Executive Director Brian Burke. “This research, which is taking place in the harsh conditions of Canada’s Eastern Arctic, is being incorporated into NFA’s annual fisheries research and tracking programs to improve understanding of the marine environment and management of fishery resources.”
Expected to be completed by the end of 2022, the OceanDNA System project developed eDNA workflows and procedures that supported the integration of eDNA technology with conventional biodiversity assays and Indigenous knowledge, providing an improved understanding of Northern ocean biodiversity through the following advancements:
Development of field protocols that are straightforward and easy to learn, with equipment that works reliably without requiring technical expertise, particularly when collecting water samples without introducing other contaminants, such as human DNA, which can complicate lab analysis.
Identification of targeted commercial species and bycatch so their DNA is pre-identified, making for a quicker and more efficient analysis of samples. Target species included Greenland Halibut, Greenland Shark, Arctic Skate, Arctic Cod, Narwhal, two species of Northern Shrimp, two types of Redfish, and two types of Grenadier.
Abundance of target species. This research is based on work conducted in related fields, including medical genetics, to conclude not just what species are present, but the relative abundance of each species present.
Understanding genetic diversity within species. Related to stock assessment, determining if populations of certain stocks are one distinct population that can be managed as one entity, or if there are discrete populations that are separate and don’t inter-mix. For example, Greenland Halibut is currently considered to be one population that has a very broad geographic distribution. We are now using environmental genomics to determine if this species is actually represented by two or more distinct populations.
Ecosystem modeling. All the information is brought together, layered and applied to define species extent and density across the entire ecosystem area. This model provides a better understanding of how various factors, such as water depth, temperature and nearby structures affect the populations of target species.

According to eDNAtec CEO Steve Barrett, eDNA sampling can now be easily done by non-scientists in remote communities and is proving to be safer, faster and less expensive than ever before. “This technology also aligns with Inuit philosophy that ecosystems must be viewed as a whole versus by individual species,” he added. “By improving ecosystem knowledge, northern communities can be more involved in directing the environmental stewardship of their coasts, including Marine Protected Areas.”
“We are integrating Indigenous knowledge with eDNA to improve stock management, invasive species detection and biodiversity assessments,” said Burke. “This will build on our existing research and is not only important for NFA’s offshore fishery but also for assessing inshore fishery potential for communities in the Qikiqtani region and across Inuit Nunangat.”
The Nunavut Fisheries Association NFA is a non-profit organization established to provide a unified industry voice for Nunavut’s fishing industry. NFA represents four Inuit-owned quota holders, including the Arctic Fishery Alliance, Baffin Fisheries, Qikiqtaaluk Corporation and the Pangnirtung Fisheries/Cumberland Sound Fisheries Partnership.
Specialists in environmental genomics, eDNAtec is transforming how to assess, monitor, and characterize ecosystems through DNA sequencing, which enhances environmental stewardship of our planet’s marine and terrestrial biodiversity. eDNAtec works closely with the world’s ocean industries and organizations with an interest in them, including energy, fisheries, and the Government of Canada.

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