In 2005, Ronald Ivan Baker, a fisherman from East Jeddore, pleaded guilty to having caught seven Northern Wolffish. Baker had attempted to disguise these wolfish, protected by Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA), by chopping off the heads and tails.
After a fisheries officer became suspicious, tissue samples from Baker’s unidentifiable fish were sent to Paul Bentzen’s lab at Dalhousie, where he and his team were able to conclude, with certainty, that they were indeed the threatened Northern Wolffish.
Now, six years later, Dr. Bentzen and his team have produced two research papers on the potential of a process called DNA barcoding, and how it has been used to identify and catalogue close to 200 different species of fish from the Atlantic Canadian waters.
“DNA barcoding is this idea that if we look at the same little segment of DNA in different species it will allow us to tell virtually all species apart,” says Dr. Bentzen.
Cataloguing Atlantic Canada’s marine fishes
The DNA barcoding initiative owes a great deal to Canadian scientist Paul Hebert, who has spearheaded the research behind creating a “catalogue of life” using DNA samples. Hebert’s DNA barcoding research is headquartered at the University of Guelph but a consortium of university labs across Canada are engaging in projects to further the collection of specimens in the catalogue. Dr. Bentzen’s lab is part of this multi-million dollar operation, funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).
“Locally my part of this big Canada barcoding project was to do the marine fishes of Atlantic Canada, of which there are several hundred species. Students in my lab, technicians and colleagues in the Department of Fisheries and Oceans were all a part of the project,” says Dr. Bentzen.
Ellen Kenchington, a research scientist with the Nova Scotia Department of Fisheries and Oceans and an adjunct professor with Dalhousie’s Biology department, is co-author with Dr. Bentzen on the papers, detailing the DNA barcoding process for Atlantic Canada’s fish.
“It’s really important in so many ways,” she says. “For one thing if you just look at what it allows us to do which is identify all of the commercial species and more common bycatch using this forensic tool.”
A third research paper that Dr. Bentzen and his team are working on will explore the collection of specimens and DNA samples from the deep water dwelling fish in the Atlantic Canadian waters.
“There’s this spot near Sable Island called the Sable Gully, and it’s a marine protected area because it has very unusual things living there,” says Dr. Bentzen. “It’s an underwater canyon on our continental shelf, it gets really deep."
Supporting regulations, preventing fraud
The practical implications of DNA barcoding are numerous. In the context of Dr. Bentzen and Dr. Kenchington’s work on Atlantic fish, this catalogue of DNA markers can help to enforce fisheries regulations and prevent fish fraud, as was the case with the Northern Wolffish. The research will also help better understand the fish sold in grocery stores and in restaurants.
Studies from North America and Europe have shown that far too often, expensive restaurants don’t necessarily serve the type of fish that they advertise on their menus. For this reason, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has expressed interest in Dr. Bentzen's work and DNA barcoding in general.
The future of this research lies in the ability for people to remotely access the catalogue and be able to identify anything from the food on their plate to the strange looking insect that just landed on their arm.
“Things we could just dream of as science fiction a few years ago are rapidly becoming reality... one of those things is going to be handheld [DNA] sequencing devices that you could take with you anywhere,” says Dr. Bentzen. “It’s going to be possible to sample your food and [find out what it is] almost immediately.”
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