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January 14, 2014

Project aims to track spawning cod

The Atlantic male cod, it seems, is rather vocal when it comes to love.

And that just might help researchers determine the exact timing and locale of its winter spawning season and the actual size of the species stock.

Marine researchers from The Nature Conservancy, as well fishermen and scientists from UMass-Dartmouth and state and federal fishing agencies, have embarked on a research program to figure out exactly where and when the Atlantic cod are spawning along Massachusetts’ South Shore, with the goal of protecting spawning areas to help the groundfish species rebuild its stock to more sustainable levels.

The collaborative program embraces high technology and exploits the male cod’s low urges. Given that combination, how this research program has not been cast as a reality show is anybody’s guess.

“We’re using underwater hydrophones that are recording sound in the water,” said Chris McGuire, the Boston-based marine program director for The Nature Conservancy. “They are recording the sounds that cod make while they are spawning. They make this grunting sound.”

The sounds, which the fish emit to defend their spawning areas and attract females, should help scientists determine both the volume and timing of the spawning. It may sound slightly voyeuristic, but McGuire insists it’s all in the name of science and discovery.

“The grunting sounds are a really good metric of time,” McGuire said. “You’re going to have none. Then you’ll have some as spawning begins. And then, as there are more fish and more activity, you get more and more. It’s sort of like the bell curve, it will taper off and then you’ll have none.”

The researchers have deployed five hydrophone units in Massachusetts waters off of Scituate to capture the cod’s amorous utterances and that, they hope, will help give them a thorough picture, in all its purple hues, of where and when the cod now spawn.

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