Searching for answers

Study zones for the 2022 Pan-Pacific Winter High Seas Expedition/NOAA Fisheries

Nudged into action by near unbelievable early findings of privately funded probes into the secret lives of Pacific salmon, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has announced it is this winter going all-in in on the ocean research initiated in 2019 by Canadian scientist Dick Beamish.

The expeditions Beamish helped organize have produced groundbreaking and baffling insights into fish behavior that the 79-year-old scientist now believes could “completely change how we think about salmon.”

A soon-to-be octogenarian still possessed by a boyish curiosity as to how the natural world works, Beamish was a key player in helping to raise $1.3 million to help send the Russian Research vessel Professor Kaganovsky to sea in 2019 with an international team of scientists to begin serious study of what has long been the black box of salmon life-history.

Their scientific sampling that year and again in 2021 found, among many things, a large congregation of coho salmon in the southern Gulf of Alaska that proved to be made up of stocks from the Pacific Northwest, British Columbia, Alaska and Russia.

All indications are that cohos from around the Pacific Rim gathered in a massive school there, and examinations of their scales indicate they appeared to grow little over-winter, Beamish said.

It looked, he explained, like coho came from all points of the compass to gather in an unheralded ball of fish that basically hibernated for the winter, but more and better scale samples are needed to help confirm the latter observation.

The Canadian Coast Guard research ship Sir John Franklin and the Canadian trawler Raw Spirit are headed back into that gathering area this winter to help collect more scales as part of what is being billed by the U.S., Canadian and Russian government as the 2022 Pan-Pacific Winter High Seas Expedition.

Added firepower

The resources now in play are major upgrades from the first expedition aboard a 35-year-old, weather-beaten Russian research vessel  Fabian Dawson at Sea West News described as “not look(ing) like much” and defined as seasoned by her “peeling paint and sea scars.”

This year NOAA is sending to sea the Bell M. Shimada – a 209-foot, state-of-the-art research vessel commissioned in 2010 and based in Newport, Ore. It will team with Canadian and Russian ships in a Gulf-wide search for salmon.

“Research ships from the United States, Canada, and Russia will set out into one of the roughest oceans in the world to unravel a mystery,” according to a NOAA media release: “What determines whether salmon that migrate across the North Pacific come back alive?”

How NOAA decided to this year jump into this ongoing research is unclear. NOAA scientists were over the ummer seeking space on Canadian ships in the belief that previously requested NOAA assistance was a no-go.

Then came word from Washington, D.C. that the Bell M. Shimada would join the Canadians and Russians in their investigations.

The ship was specifically designed for studying “a wide range of marine life, sea birds, and ocean conditions along the U.S. West Coast from Washington State to southern California,” according to the NOAA website, but it is now headed far offshore into the central Gulf of Alaska.

The plan is it hunt for immature salmon in an approximately 300-mile wide swath of ocean stretching south for hundreds of miles from a line roughly between Cordova, Alaska, and the middle of the Alaska Peninsula with a lower Gulf of Alaska boundary near the latitude of the mouth of the Columbia River.

The Canadians, meanwhile, will be investigating the sector of the Gulf east of Cordova and then south in the offshore waters off the Lost Coast, the Alaska Panhandle, the Province of British Columbia, and the states of Washington and Oregon – basically the area in which the Professor Kaganovksy worked in the past. 

To the west of the Canadians and the U.S., the Russians are sending the research vessel Tinro to explore the waters south of the Aleutian Island chain.

Beamish expects more surprising findings, and admits some of what has been found so far has scientists scratching their heads. That big congregation of coho from all over gathered in the southeastern Gulf was wholly unexpected.

“This behavior overwinter is almost unbelievable,” Beamish said. The schooling raises fundamental questions, starting with the first and most obvious as he pointed out: “How do they find each other?”

The bigger question might be why.

Why do these salmon come all the way from Russia and western Alaska to overwinter in the Gulf of Alaska off British Columbia? Are they drawn there by food supplies? Are they schooling to avoid predation as the juveniles of about 80 percent of fish species do? Or is there some other explanation for their behavior?

Whatever the case, Beamish said it is time for scientists to begin to sort out what happens to salmon in the ocean. The waters in which salmon spend most of their lives have too long been treated as a big, black box into which salmon annually disappear by the billions only to return by the millions.

Or not.

A complex ecosystem

Some have argued the food web of the Pacific – where the fundamental rule is that big fish eat little fish and species be damned, including your own – is too complicated to untangle, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot that could be learned.

Already, Beamish said, there are indications that pink and chum salmon generally spend their lives in different areas of the ocean almost as if they had separate home ranges. And it is clear, he said, there is a southern boundary to the range of pinks and chums in the Gulf, but where exactly the boundary begins and what determines why fish stay north of it remains unclear.

So, too, the interactions between the ranges of the six different species of salmon and how these ranges might be affected by the warmer waters the Gulf witnessed in the past decade when salmon exploded into record numbers overall, but with some species in some areas in steep decline.

The big winners have been pinks, the smallest and fastest-growing of the species, and a fish that has become big business for free-ranging Alaska salmon farmers or ranchers as they prefer to call themselves.

Washington-state-based scientist Greg Ruggerone, once a leader of the University of Washington’s now 66-year-old Alaska Salmon Program, and Canadian-based colleague James Irvine in 2018 reported that thanks largely to the abundance of pinks, overall Pacific salmon abundance had reached levels never before witnessed in recorded human history.

But their peer-reviewed study published in Marine and Coastal Fisheries noted that slightly more than two out of every three salmon in the ocean was a pink or what many Alaskans simply call a “humpy” due to the massive humps that form on the backs of male pinks as they move toward the spawning grounds.

“There are more Pacific salmon now than ever before since comprehensive statistics began to be collected in 1925,” the American Fisheries Society said in summarizing the research. “However, Chinook and coho salmon and steelhead trout are depressed throughout much of their range, representing only 4 percent of total salmon catch.”

In terms of biomass – essentially the weight of all salmon combined – the Ruggerone-Irvine study indicated the ocean’s hatchery-boosted production of salmon is near the peak of natural production in the mid-1930s, but the mix of species comprising that biomass has shifted heavily toward pinks, chums and sockeye – the latter’s numbers being inflated by a global-warming driven boom in Alaska’s Bristol Bay.

Warming has significantly increased the productivity of lakes where young sockeye spend their first year or years of life. As a result Bay sockeye harvests have exploded from an average annual harvest of 10.1 million per year through the period from 1960 to 1982, according to Alaska Fish and Game data, to current harvests sometimes over 40 million per year.

The most recent five-year average, according to Fish and Game numbers, is 40.7 million per season or four times that old, long-term average. Other salmon stocks in Alaska, unfortunately, have not faired as well.

“With few exceptions, since 2007, Chinook salmon runs across the state have been well below the long term average,” according to Fish and Game. “Research has shown that during the recent period of poor production, marine survival has dipped below one percent. This decrease in marine survival, even in the face of some very good freshwater production in several systems, has been driving the downturn in overall adult production.”

Chinook – the Alaska state fish – are the largest of the Pacific salmon, the big kings that made famous the Columbia and Kenai rivers.

The losing species

“The Columbia is the largest river of the American West, and its annual migrations of Chinook salmon were once spectacles of nature,” according to the National Museum of American History. “These prized fish, some weighing more than 70 pounds, churned the waters as they returned upstream to reproduce.”

And the Kenai, as all Alaskans know, produced the largest Chinook every caught with hook and line, a world-record king of 97 pounds, 4 ounces.

Chinook returns to both rivers are now shadows of their famous selves, and this is largely true of Chinook rivers south along the West Coast of North America from the Alaska Peninsula to Oregon.

A peer-reviewed study by David Welch and associates found a 65-percent average decline in Chinook productivity West Coast-wide. It applied to the big fish whether they came from watersheds disrupted by hydroelectric dams or logging or urbanization or agriculture runoff or none of those things.

The productivity of Chinook from streams draining wildlands generally fell just as much as that of Chinook from streams altered by the impacts of humankind. The study, Welch said, really leaves only one conclusion.

Something or things are going on in the ocean that reduce king numbers. It has been suggested predation by marine mammals – killer whales, sea lions and seals – could be a problem. Some studies, but not others, have suggested competition with pinks could be a major issue.

In a peer-reviewed paper published in Ecosphere in 2020, researchers in British Columbia and Washington state reported “survival of hatchery Chinook salmon decreased when greater numbers of juveniles were released into the Salish Sea in even (numbered) years when large numbers of pink salmon were present, but increased or remained stable when pink salmon were not present in large numbers (in odd years). This suggests lower, density-dependent survival of juvenile Salish Sea Chinook salmon during even outmigration years.”

A study of Alaska’s Prince William Sound (PWS) found no such connection between pink salmon numbers and the survival of wild Chinook from the Copper River, but reported that “all sockeye salmon stocks examined exhibited a downward trend in productivity with increasing PWS hatchery pink salmon returns. While there was considerable variation in sockeye salmon productivity across the low- and mid-range of hatchery returns (0–30 million), productivity was particularly impacted at higher levels of hatchery returns.

“We do not know if possible deleterious interactions between hatchery pink salmon and wild sockeye salmon in this study are from predation or competition, or whether they occur in nearshore or offshore areas. (But) pink salmon feeding may cause a general depletion of prey availability that could impact sockeye salmon without tight spatial overlap of these two species. In this regard, the apparent impact to sockeye productivity may reflect a general increase in pink salmon abundance across the northeast Pacific rather than increased abundance of hatchery pink salmon to PWS (Prince William Sound) in particular.”

The connection between the pink salmon boom and sockeye declines to the east of Alaksa’s Bristol Bay and south to the Lower 48 has been attracting increasing attention year by year.

Canadian scientists Brendan Connors and colleagues linked abundant pinks to significant declines in sockeye in non-Alaska waters and specifically fingered hatcheries as a problem.

“From 2005 to 2015, the approximately 82 million adult pink salmon produced annually from hatcheries were estimated to have reduced the productivity of southern sockeye salmon by 15 percent on average,” they reported in the peer-reviewed journal NRC Research Press. 

Pinks were reducing sockeyes everywhere, the study concluded, but in some areas the consequences were offset by the benefits of global warming. (Yes, there are some benefits to global warming.)

“…For sockeye at the northwestern end of their range, the same level of hatchery production was predicted to have reduced the positive effects of a warming ocean by 50 percent (from a 10 to a 5 percent increase in productivity, on average),” they wrote.

Other scientists, most notably those who are hatchery boosters, have disputed these conclusions not to mention the theory that there are now so many pink salmon in the Pacific – thanks to a combination of a warming climate and hatchery boosting – that pinks can not only influence the numbers of other salmon but create “trophic cascades” that trigger collapses in various populations of seabirds. 

What is happening remains wholly debatable because so little is known about the lives of salmon in the ocean, because hatcheries seem such an easy solution to producing more economically valuable and/or popular salmon, and because humankind has long been of the belief it can improve upon nature.

In fact, in Canada, where salmon runs are in dismal condition, the national government is now proposing a “$647 million, five-year plan to save collapsing Pacific salmon stocks,” the CBC reported last summer. 

“Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan said the goal is not only to stop the decline, but to grow stocks back to abundance.”

Two large, new Canadian hatcheries are a cornerstone of the plan. They are said to be needed because of a loss of habitat, human activity and climate change. The Canadians, whose ast salmon plan called for the country to be producing 140,000 metric tonnes of salmon per year, have apparently missed what has going on at sea.

Hatcheries and the better management envisioned in earlier plans led to a 2021 harvest of about 2,000 metric tonnes of salmon.

Beamish termed this a simply an “absolutely remarkable collapse,” and suggested it’s time someone fins out what is going on in the secret world where salmon spend most of their lives and, more importantly, put on all of their weight.

The growth zone

Pink salmon fry weigh less than 0.3 grams (0.011 ounces) when they emerge from spawning gravels and head to sea to begin gorging themselves. When they return 18 months later, they average anywhere from 2,055 grams (4.53 pounds) to 1,256 grams (2.77 pounds).

To go from 0.3 grams to 4.53 pounds in 18 month, a pink would have to increase its body weight by almost 50 percent every month.

Sockeyes grow bigger – with average weights historically in the range of five and a half to six and a half pounds – but it takes a much longer time for them to gain weight. The predominate sockeye in Cook Inlet, according to Fish and Game, is a fish that has spent a year in freshwater, three years at sea and weighs about 6 pounds, though they have been getting smaller.

Fish and Game records put the average weight of a sockeye in the 2021 commercial harvest at 5.2 pounds.

It is interesting to note weights have gone done as abundance has gone up. The 4.5 pound average weight for pinks, according to Alaska Fish and Game records, dates back to 1976 when Alaska salmon numbers were at record lows. The entire statewide harvest that year was 50.1 million salmon of which pinks made up 56 percent.

Thirty-eight years later, Prince William Sound alone produced a record harvest of almost twice that size at 99.5 million salmon, but 93 percent of the catch – thanks in significant part to the proliferation of hatcheries in the Sound – was pinks, and they had shrunk nearly 40 percent in size, according to state data. 

The total statewide harvest that year – 2013 – was 272 million. Eighty percent of those fish were pinks, according to Fish and Game, and the statewide harvest of Chinook had fallen to 321,014 of the big fish or but 52 percent of what it was in 1977 when state fisheries were considered to be in crisis.

Given salmon harvests in Alaska – where average catches have increased steadily decade by decade since the 1970s – a warming ocean has clearly benefitted some salmon, but it has not benefited all salmon.

The pivotal, unanswered question is how much of this change is due to solely to shifting environmental conditions and how much is due to man’s tampering with nature by throwing every more hatchery fish into the seas as the NRC Research paper contends.

And what is “good” or “bad” here is grounded largely in human perceptions. If you’re an Alaska who loves humpies, it has all been good, arguably even great. But if you love Chinook, sockeyes and coho, the situation is clearly not so simple and could range from not-so-good all the way to plain old bad.

CORRECTION: An early version of this story misidentified Greg Ruggerone’s work history.


3 replies »

  1. So, how many pink salmon were in the ocean in 1855?

    When you start making claims like “thanks largely to the abundance of pinks, overall Pacific salmon had reached levels never before witnessed in recorded human history.”

    You should be able to back it up.

    How many salmon in 1855.

    This is typical unscientific misleading hyperbole from Ruggerone.

  2. I’m glad they are finally out there looking around in the search for answers. I’m not sure using a Russian ship to help is the best idea though, even if it is cheaper. You almost always get what you pay for.

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