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The $1.4 million required to go ahead with the second North Pacific Salmon Study was raised over this winter of 2020, according to Richard Beamish and Brian Riddell the co-organizers of these important science expeditions to discover the unknown factors in Pacific salmon winter feeding behaviour.
"We have one Canadian vessel, called the Pacific Legacy, and we leave March 11 for 25 days for the Gulf of Alaska," says Beamish.
It's a new, modern commercial trawler, he says, holding 12 scientists on this trip. The purpose follows last year's North Pacific salmon study expedition with the goal of understanding more about the salmon's winter feeding grounds of the Gulf of Alaska, when the five species of salmon are widely dispersed over this huge body of water.
The challenge is to understand what regulates salmon abundance from a multi-disciplinary and multi-national point of view. The expedition will be identifying fish by their DNA to produce the data on country of origin, including the river of origin. Scientists from Japan, Russia, USA, and Canada are involved.
They are looking at the behaviour of the fish under these winter conditions, only the second time a comprehensive expedition of this kind has been conducted in the North Pacific in winter. The focus is to understand what regulates the abundance of salmon. The study is in the winter because this is the most stressful period ,in the year for salmon. This year, the very warm water, named ‘The Blob” has returned and the scientists will determine how this warming event affects salmon survival. "Is the food source for the salmon affected by the water temperatures, and in what ways?" Are the salmon forced to deeper water with less food?
Support for the expedition comes privately and with some government funding and by the commercial fishing industry from Canada and USA.
"They survey a large area of the gulf where fish are widely dispersed," says Beamsh, "taking numerous samples from the salmon. The expedition follows a sampling plan that allows a large area to be surveyed. It's like polling for politics, taking small samples over a large area gives us population information including abundances. condition, health, diets, age, behaviour and growth rates."
Beamish agrees this is a complicated scientific undertaking, and it requires a hardy spirit to take on the many tasks involved. The payoff is the new knowledge in understanding the behaviour of these fish at a time when they face challenges of a changing environment and apparent losses in their survival rates.
Basic Need for Management Data
Brian Riddell has been raising money on behalf of the Pacific Salmon Foundation (PSF) and their involvement in Richard Beamish's scientific expeditions to study salmon on the North Pacific.
"Basically we have been reaching out to donors, especially in the commercial fishing industry, and they came forward with significant funding to put the second expedition in the North Pacific this March 2020," says Riddell.
He says the commercial fishermen are concerned about what they're seeing in salmon. "They want to help in identifying the changes. It's not the same picture everywhere on the west coast of Canada, but the Fraser sockeye return in 2019 was the lowest in the historical record."
The Fraser run is customarily huge, often exceeding 10 million fish, "These fish have met challenges this year as well, including the landslide called the Big Bar Incident: "In late June, a landslide in a remote, rugged canyon along the Fraser River north of Lillooet was reported to authorities. Huge pieces of rock from a 125-metre cliff had sheared off and crashed in to the river, creating a five-metre waterfall."
"This incident made it worse because last year most of the returning fish were destined for the Upper Fraser watershed."
Riddell has spent his scientific career in the study of Pacific salmon. "I worked for many years in DFO doing stock assessments and genetics. I moved to the Pacific Salmon Foundation for 11 years and I retired, although I am presently working on raising funds on behalf of the PSF and acting as a science advisor to the organization."
PSF is a federally registered charity operating since 1989, providing funds to restore streams and operate conservation programs in B.C.. The Vancouver-centred organization fluctuates in size depending on the programs engaged.
The PSF supports the North Pacific Salmon Study endeavors of Beamish, "These expeditions require experienced people. Last year was atypical because they had good weather. It's difficult to travel out there in winter and work under those conditions."
The science will be conducted and results will flow to the Tula Foundation for data processing and management of the results. The process requires interpretation of data to learn the important details of fish numbers, condition of fish, genetic origins, "The goal is to learn what the fish are doing that is consistent with their returns to rivers of origin."
Ultimately they will be learning how to better forecast the timing and size of salmon runs. "There is a basic need for management data in every season."
Learning the Habits of Salmon
Eric Peterson started the Tula Foundation with Christina Munck at the end of 2001 with the general objective of pursuing "Innovation and Solutions in the Public Interest." They’ve run a number of programs including since 2010 the Hakai Institute, which pursues "Science on the Coastal Margin" of BC. That science includes a focus on oceanography and salmon science.
The Tula Foundation did early work with sockeye in Rivers and Smiths Inlets starting about 15 years ago, working with scientists from UBC and SFU. "At that time the mystery was the reason for the collapse of those two sockeye runs. Later it became evident that their collapse was part of a more general trend across the coast."
"At the end of 2009 we decided it was time to get serious, to establish a base of operations on the Central Coast, to hire staff, and to work more systematically with a long term plan,' says Peterson. They established an "ecological observatory" on Calvert Island, roughly halfway between Port Hardy and Bella Bella, and a few years later a second one on Quadra Island.
"We are soup to nuts on environmental data gathering (acquisition) to managing our own and our partners data." Peterson notes that he sat at the table where the North Pacific Ocean salmon studies were hatched in discussions about learning the habits of salmon in their winter feeding grounds, a task never before undertaken.
Tula Foundation offered to put data management resources on the table to the North Pacific Salmon Study partners. The organization has been engaged with DFO, Ocean Networks Canada, and other agencies and organizations involved with sustaining Pacific fisheries.
Tula Foundation will be presented with data on the oceanography as well as the feeding and food supplies of salmon, a second look after this area was visited in the Year of the Salmon 2019.
"Part of the challenge is to work with data and run it through a major process, and disseminate it. First of all, getting it organized to do this by taking data in Russian, Japanese, Korean, and English."
Peterson says it is an interesting challenge, "We are enthusiastic about being able to take this data and harmonize, analyze, and bring it all together. It will have scientific purpose and commercial purpose."
Peterson notes that the reasons for the collapse and lack of recovery of the Rivers Inlet and Smiths Inlet runs remain a mystery. Many factors — harvesting pressure, spawning habitat destruction, disease, may all have been factors — but there is no one "smoking gun".
"Confronted with such mysteries, experts have often said to me, 'oh it’s probably because of factors beyond our control out there in the open ocean.' I see these expeditions to the North Pacific as a positive step toward tackling these questions directly and resolving some of those mysteries. We like the fact that the nations around the rim of the North Pacific are all engaged in this effort."
The Tula Foundation also operates Hakai Magazine which publishes stories on "Coastal Science and Societies."