Salmon researchers seek funds for expanded expedition in 2020

Fundraising is underway to mount winter scientific expeditions in the north Pacific Ocean in 2020 and 2021 to learn more about the lives of millions of salmon, as climate change alters the ecosystem and fisheries managers puzzle over why some stocks are crashing.

The goal of the 2020 international venture is to get two Russian trawlers on the water to build on and expand on the work of a pilot single-vessel survey that ran February-March this year in the Gulf of Alaska.

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Organizer Richard Beamish, emeritus scientist at Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo, is seeking $1.5 million from governments, the private sector and non-profit organizations — the same groups that funded his 2019 expedition.

Next year’s survey would again be supported by the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission, an international organization based in Vancouver.

The 2019 expedition was a signature project of the International Year of the Salmon program, which is backed by the Anadromous Fish Commission, as well as the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization and other partners.

And a bigger survey, this time led by the International Year of the Salmon, is planned for 2021. It would use five ships to survey the entire north Pacific Ocean.

The cost for that expedition is estimated at $10 million, with the potential for additional research, said Mark Saunders, director for the Year of the Salmon, which actually spans five years, running to 2022.

Saunders is approaching governments and foundations to line up vessels and funds. He’s hoping that the new Sir John Franklin, built for Canada’s Coast Guard as an offshore fisheries-research ship, can be used.

The high-seas survey is among projects Saunders and his group are working on as they strive to forge hemispheric-wide partnerships among researchers, organizations and governments to build trust, foster collaboration and learn from each other as new knowledge is generated. The goal is to link observations and share knowledge. “It’s about building capacity.”

The high-seas survey work goes beyond pure science because it will inform fisheries management, he said.

Wild salmon in B.C. sustain commercial and recreational fisheries and related businesses, such as charters and marinas, and are critical to First Nations. When runs of returning salmon crash — which we’ve seen with sockeye and chinook — it hurts communities.

Current low chinook numbers mean the endangered southern resident killer whales are without their favourite food. The federal government has introduced fishing closures to help protect fish stocks and in turn, the orcas.

High-seas expeditions give scientists from Pacific-salmon-producing countries the opportunity to work together and to learn how salmon live after they have left their home streams. Their research includes the distribution of the different species and stocks, their condition, prey, conditions in the water, temperatures, pollution and much more.

Scientists on this year’s trip are parsing their data in laboratories in Canada, Russia, the United States, Japan and Korea.

The survey resulted in an estimate that 55 million salmon live in the Gulf of Alaska alone.

Russia is keenly interested in salmon research and for many years has used trawlers off its east coast to help predict returns. It reduced the cost to charter one of its trawlers for the 2019 survey and provided new on-board equipment.

Beamish has a long-standing relationship with Russian scientists and was made an honorary member of that country’s TINRO fisheries centre in Vladivostok. Beamish was a member of the International Panel on Climate Change that received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 and has done extensive work on climate impacts on fish. He has been awarded the Order of Canada and Order of B.C.

He’s again teaming up with Brian Riddell, science adviser at the Pacific Salmon Foundation and its past president, to raise money for next year’s trip. They raised about $1.3 million for the first survey.

Riddell is another heavyweight in marine science — he spent three decades in Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s science branch. He set up the Pacific Salmon Foundation’s five-year Salish Sea Marine Survival Project aimed at improving fisheries-management policy and bringing economic and cultural benefits to nearby communities. And he has served as a Canadian commissioner to the Pacific Salmon Commission and provided science advice for the Pacific Salmon Treaty.

There’s an urgency to the funding appeals.

“There is a certainty that the ecosystems are changing and that means there is a certainty that it is going affect salmon abundance,” Beamish said.

“We need to understand the fundamental mechanisms regulating salmon. It’s long overdue to do that. With the certainty of ecosystem changes — major changes — we cannot be in a position in the future where every time we see something that is alarming that we basically didn’t anticipate it ahead of time.”

He pointed to the low chinook returns, saying scientists don’t know why that is happening.

“You cannot be stewards of British Columbia salmon in the future without understanding what the mechanisms are that regulate their abundance.”

To understand the mechanisms that impact salmon, “you need to know what is going on in the Gulf of Alaska in the winter,” Beamish said.

A more extensive 2020 survey, using two Russian trawlers, would allow scientists to investigate areas within U.S. and Canadian economic zones, where Beamish expects to find more chinook.

“The major difference is you need to have a greater effort so that you can cover a bigger area and then you want to build on what we found from this year.”

We need to understand trends affecting the abundance of salmon, said Beamish.

He also referred to pink salmon, the most abundant salmon species in the north Pacific. That species, however, made up only a small percentage of the catch in this year’s survey.

There is “something highly unusual going on that is clearly not consistent with the overall general understanding, which is very poor at the best,” Beamish said.

Another factor in Beamish’s argument in favour of a 2020 survey is that pink salmon have odd-even-year cycles “so you scientifically want to do a survey two years in a row.”

B.C. Agriculture Minister Lana Popham saw the expedition off in February when the ship pulled out of Vancouver. The province contributed $75,000.

“It just helps put more puzzle pieces together as we are on this quest to do everything we can to support wild salmon and to hopefully support them thriving eventually again,” Popham said.

The Pacific Salmon Foundation was a major supporter of the first survey, contributing about $400,000. That agency has submitted an application for the 2020 survey to the new federal-provincial B.C. Salmon Restoration and Innovation Fund of $143 million over five years. The federal Fisheries Department contributed $250,000 to this year’s survey.

To date, 192 applications have come in to the fund, Robin Jahn, Fisheries and Oceans Canada spokesperson, said in a statement. They are now being evaluated, and applicants will be notified soon.

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