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Scientists spawn and hatch Arctic cod in lab

Breakthrough could have knock-on for aquaculture.

Scientists at the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have successfully spawned and hatched Arctic cod in a laboratory, and while the breakthrough is aimed at researching the effects of climate change on the species, the work could also have benefits for aquaculture.

Young Arctic cod were collected during the summer months in the Beaufort Sea for three consecutive years between 2012 and 2014 before being shipped live via plane in small breathable bags on ice to the Alaska Fisheries Science Center laboratory in Newport, Oregon — a facility able to simulate Arctic environments to grow fish by mass chilling natural seawater pumped from the Pacific.

While the aim of NOAA’s research is to learn the effects of climate change on the species, there are also benefits to be had for the aquaculture industry, with a better understanding of the cod’s genetics and behavior. The first series of experiments focused on growth of juvenile Arctic cod in response to temperature and food availability. The second series of experiments, which is still ongoing, is focusing on the same factors during the egg and larval stage. At the same time tests were conducted on Arctic cod, scientists conducted comparative studies on walleye pollock, Pacific cod and saffron cod.

 Arctic cod are a key component of the Arctic marine ecosystem and, compared to other cod species, Arctic cod are energetically the richest in fat content. However, new research by NOAA Fisheries scientists at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center shows that Arctic cod may be the most vulnerable to warming ocean waters.

“We’re seeing limited temperature ranges for Arctic cod to successfully grow and survive. Arctic cod have relatively high growth at 0 deg C, but are rapidly outpaced by other Bering Sea species including walleye pollock and Pacific cod above 2.5 deg C. The temperature tolerance for Arctic cod eggs is even narrower, where 5 deg C is the lethal limit compared to >12 deg C for these other two species,” said Benjamin Laurel, research fisheries biologist, Alaska Fisheries Science Center.

In general, Arctic marine species require colder water to survive than populations further south, but determining just “how cold” is tricky and requires specialized laboratory space to simulate the Arctic environment. Plus, there are sometimes big surprises. Laurel and co-investigator Louise Copeman from Oregon State University, found that saffron cod, another species of cod in the Arctic, can grow and survive well in water temperatures as high as 20 deg C.