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2003 James W. Bourque Studentship in Northern Geography - David Hardie

David Hardie grabs hold of a big one from Ogac Lake on Baffin Island.
(Photo: Mary-Ellen Maybee/Canadian Geographic)

Cod in isolation
A handful of coastal salt lakes on Baffin Island, Nunavut, are home to an odd population of Atlantic cod. Odd because these cod survive in landlocked bodies of water well north of their normal range. Odd because they can grow to gargantuan proportions despite a limited diet. And odd because they have persisted for years in extreme isolation, while their cousins in the North Atlantic are endangered.

The Baffin Island cod are “marine relicts,” says David Hardie, a doctoral student in biology at Dalhousie University who was awarded the $5,000 James W. Bourque Studentship in Northern Geography for 2003 by The Royal Canadian Geographical Society. “These populations aren’t from just a few hundred years ago,” he says. “They’ve been on their own for a much longer time, separate from marine stocks.”

Hardie spent last summer studying the fish in Ogac, Qasigialiminiq and Tariujarusiq — lakes that occasionally receive influxes of tidal waters — and found they are dramatically different from the cod living in Atlantic waters. Baffin cod subsist on sea urchins and on each other, yet they grow to “historic sizes,” says Hardie, whose largest catch weighed about 25 kilograms and measured 130 centimetres long. Unlike marine stocks, they are not tasty, likely because of their poor diet, and thus are not harvested for food.

Although scientists have known about the Baffin cod since the 1950s, no one has yet unlocked the mystery of their origins or determined exactly how long they have been there. Hardie hopes that his genetic analysis of tissue samples — the first of its kind — and future studies of sediment cores from the lakes will help elucidate the evolutionary history of these unusual fish.

Monique Roy-Sole

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