International team of salmon scientists back in port, raring for another mission

The organizer of a month-long Gulf of Alaska salmon survey is already thinking about how to raise money for another trip in the winter of 2020, now that the Russian trawler used in the expedition has finished its job and tied up in Nanaimo.

“From what I’ve seen, this needs to be done again,” said Richard Beamish, who came up with the idea of the expedition to mark the International Year of the Salmon with the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission.

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“We need to be back out in the Gulf of Alaska in the winter next year.”

Beamish, an emeritus scientist at the federal Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo, would like to see a summer 2020 survey as well, and ongoing expeditions in subsequent years. Some proponents want to see a five-vessel survey spanning the entire North Pacific Ocean.

The intensive Gulf of Alaska expedition cost about $1.5 million to stage. That included $900,000 to charter the Professor Kaganovsky, a workhorse ship used by Russians on their own scientific surveys. Public and private sector donors stepped up, along with non-profit agencies, to cover the entire cost.

Future surveys would build on data collected by the 21-member volunteer team of international scientists from the five salmon-producing Pacific Rim countries: Canada, Russia, the U.S., Korea and Japan.

The goal is to continue digging into the mysteries of how five Pacific salmon species survive in the open ocean. Plenty of research about salmon has been carried out close to shore, but there is little knowledge about their time in the ocean, where they spend the vast majority of their lives.

Although some salmon are doing well, other populations — such as B.C. chinook — are struggling to survive.

Scientists carried out as much research as possible on board the vessel, which made about 70 stops to haul in fish and other samples. They plan to take dozens of samples to their home laboratories for further analysis, work that’s expected to take a few months to complete.

Researchers are testing the hypothesis that the fish that make it through their first ocean winter are the ones that grew most quickly during their first months in the ocean.

They’re looking at such questions as what the salmon eat, what conditions work best for them, where they live in the ocean, how many there are and what shape they are in.

For the hoped-for next survey, Beamish said private donors might have to take the lead.

“I think that it is going to be difficult for governments to come together quickly,” he said.

“Once you’ve got private donors committed, it is a lot easier for government to join.”

For the trip that was just completed, Federal Fisheries and Oceans Canada was the first to make a commitment, promising $250,000. B.C. chipped in $75,000.

Beamish’s fundraising partner was fisheries scientist Brian Riddell, president and chief executive of the Pacific Salmon Commission, which put in about $400,000 through its endowment fund, making it the largest contributor. As the support came in, the commission played the role of the venture’s banker.

Riddell said that although the Salmon Foundation will likely want to continue to support salmon surveys, he does not expect it to remain the largest donor. A wider base of sponsors is needed, he said, including other countries who send scientists. He noted that Russia made a significant contribution by reducing the cost of chartering its vessel and providing additional equipment on board.

“To me, the importance of this cruise is that it is a demonstration of feasibility. It’s sort of like an engineering design — proof of principle,” Riddell said.

“There will be a lot of excitement about what they did, but we will have to look at the costs and what they learned and so on.”

Levi Sampson, president of Harmac Pacific, which contributed $25,000 to bring the trawler to Nanaimo, said the expedition fit with the company’s values.

“As a company, we really care about the ocean and salmon and wildlife.”

Harmac, which operates a pulp mill near Nanaimo, has supported the Nanaimo River hatchery for a number of years and many of the company’s 300 employees enjoy fishing, he said.

As for the ocean survey, “It is definitely something we would look at supporting again,” Sampson said.

Beamish’s plan for another survey comes as the federal and provincial governments announced they are taking applications for a five-year, $143-million fund to support salmon through science, infrastructure and innovation.

Both federal Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson and Premier John Horgan stressed the need for more research.

Wilkinson said one of the things researchers on the salmon survey look at is the impact of climate change on salmon stocks.

“We need to understand more. We are going to have to see what they come back with and how that helps to inform some of the decisions that we make.”

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