Transforming opportunities for marine industries in Western Newfoundland

New Frontiers in Research Fund | Published:

Fishing trawlers off the coast of Newfoundland (Photo: Ravi Natarajan)

It’s the hub of Canada’s fishing industry, but over the last three decades, Newfoundland and Labrador have seen waves of economic uncertainty.

“I was born in Newfoundland and Labrador before moving away. When I came back for a visit as a child in the ’80s, I saw capelin, the small fish, roll up onto the shore. You couldn’t walk on the beach, there were so many,” says Kelly Hawboldt from her St. John’s, Newfoundland, home. “Over time, there were less and less.”

Despite growing up in Western Canada, Hawboldt always felt her roots were in Calvert, Newfoundland, a rural, coastal community along the southern shore of the Avalon Peninsula on what is called the “Irish Loop.” It was where her mother grew up and where her grandparents and extended family lived and worked. Over the years, during her visits, she watched as the once-thriving fishing village began to change.

“There used to be a fish processing plant in Calvert and it’s gone. You could just see the industry moving out of the community and the community becoming older.”

Years later, Hawboldt returned to her roots. A chemical engineer, she is a researcher in green processing of natural resources and a professor in the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science at the Memorial University of Newfoundland. Her passion is the environment and her East Coast heritage. Her goal: uncover ways to decrease people’s environmental footprint, while helping rural, coastal and Indigenous communities navigate ways forward.

Hawboldt is working alongside Raymond Thomas, a celebrated Canadian food scientist and a professor of boreal ecosystems and agricultural sciences at Memorial University’s Grenfell Campus in Corner Brook. The pair and their team of dozens of Canadian and international researchers and Indigenous community collaborators have been awarded more than $14.9 million in funding through the New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF) Transformation stream.

Over the next six years, the team will use the funds to look at how communities can repurpose marine biomass, like fish and shellfish byproducts, from a primary use to a more efficient, zero-waste product.

“While some of these communities harvest seaweed and other nonfish marine products, others harvest fish only,” says Thomas, the project’s nominated principal investigator. “There could be benefits in diversifying the use of fisheries biomass into the agricultural, biomaterial, functional foods, pharmaceutical, biosensor and nutraceutical industries.”

Working with six Canadian universities, the team has partnered with researchers in Japan, Australia, Italy and Ireland. The team also includes Indigenous leaders from across Western Newfoundland: Chief Jasen Benwah (Benoit First Nation), Chief Mildred Lavers (Mekap’sk Mi’kmaq Band), Chief Joanne Miles (Flat Bay Band), Chief Rhonda Sheppard (St. George’s Indian Band) and Chief Peggy White (Three Rivers First Nation). Thomas says what makes this project different is the team’s interdisciplinary approach guided by Two-Eyed Seeing, a Mi’kmaw guiding principle. Building toward the Two-Eyed Seeing approach, this project bridges social and natural sciences through both Western and Indigenous knowledge systems.

Thomas says Two-Eyed Seeing will weave its way throughout the entire project, “to get a comprehensive look at sustainability, innovation and the health validation of the products that we develop from these raw materials.”

We want to diversify the marine sector into agriculture, pharmaceuticals, functional foods, biomedicine or biomaterials, so it’s not just a one-dimensional sector.

One of the team’s Indigenous community researchers, Chief Mildred Lavers, represents community interests from one of the three study regions―the Great Northern Peninsula. Lavers says the NFRF Transformation funding will help strengthen existing partnerships.

“We are confident that our collaboration with Memorial University’s Grenfell Campus will support our priorities, and we look forward to the next step in the future of this wonderful work,” says Lavers.

This project comes at the perfect time for these communities: the marine industry is harvesting less each year, due to stricter regulations and the impact of climate change. The waste that fishing and aquaculture create is a cost to the communities.

“Those byproducts have a lot of value,” says Hawboldt. “Right now, the communities are basically paying to dispose of them instead of getting paid for the product.”

Thomas and Hawboldt want to support transformation within the marine industry. The team will investigate how those residues can be repurposed into things like functional food, medicine and biomaterials.

“We’re looking at seaweed and fish, which are primary biomass, and how we can take that material and develop a series of high-value products using different approaches that will have different applications,” Thomas adds. “We want to diversify the marine sector into agriculture, pharmaceuticals, functional foods, biomedicine or biomaterials, so it’s not just a one-dimensional sector.”

Hawboldt says part of the research will be to develop green processes to extract the residues.

The work that we do here is going to be a model for other locations within Canada and internationally.

“In my lab, we’re taking shrimp processing byproducts and we’re extracting carotenoids, which are antioxidant and anticancer agents, and we’re getting lipids from them,” she says. “I send those lipids to one of my colleagues in biochemistry. We then take the residue from extracting those lipids and work with people in ocean sciences to determine its potential for use in agricultural feed. Almost nothing goes to waste.”

“The work that we do here is going to be a model for other locations within Canada and internationally,” says Thomas. “We are at the forefront of developing this knowledge.”

Thomas says this collaborative Two-Eyed Seeing approach will have huge impacts on the sustainability of rural, coastal and Indigenous communities.

“Typically, the low-value or extra biomass from marine waste gets dumped. This project will give the people who live in these areas a say in taking control of this material and developing some products and processes that are of value to their communities.”

Thomas and Hawboldt believe the reason this kind of industrial transformation hasn’t worked in the past is not for lack of trying, but because of the barriers researchers, communities and enterprises have faced. A key part of the six-year project will be to identify and implement sustainable strategies to overcome these barriers, with rural, coastal and Indigenous communities as the hubs for innovation.

“We’re trying to bridge that gap by training people to start these small businesses and scale up,” says Hawboldt.

“We anticipate that we will train 200 graduate students,” adds Thomas. “These students will then be the skilled labour that is going to work in these communities and support the industries.”

“Rural sustainability is a huge issue,” adds Hawboldt. “The team hopes to address this issue by diversifying economies and co-creating opportunities within the marine industry across Western Newfoundland.”

Raymond Thomas

Raymond Thomas
Professor, Boreal ecosystems and agricultural sciences
Memorial University of Newfoundland

Kelly Hawboldt

Kelly Hawboldt
Professor, Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science
Memorial University of Newfoundland

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