Scientists make surprising discoveries about salmon on Gulf of Alaska expedition
21 researchers from 5 countries studying survival of fish during their years in North Pacific
A vessel carrying an international team of scientists docked in North Vancouver, B.C., on Monday after a five-week expedition to the Gulf of Alaska that could shed new light on the lives of salmon.
Researchers collected thousands of samples and pioneered a new DNA testing method to learn more about salmon survival in the North Pacific in the first comprehensive study in the region in decades.
The scientists were all smiles as they spoke of their findings and praised the success of the international collaboration at an event at the Burrard Dry Dock Pier.
"The ability of a team of researchers to work together effectively, that already is a tremendous success," said Dick Beamish, the expedition's organizer. "We have now set a precedent for being able to do this in the future."
The 21 scientists from five salmon-producing countries in the Pacific Rim — Canada, South Korea, Japan, Russia and the U.S. — travelled around 8,000 kilometres and surveyed 60 different locations while aboard the Russian research vessel Professor Kaganovsky.
The purpose of the trip was to learn more about how Pacific salmon survive in the open seas of the Gulf of Alaska, a major feeding ground for salmon.
The team trawled for salmon so they could collect data and conducted DNA testing to identify where the fish hatched.
The research led to some surprising discoveries.
The team found the second most abundant species of salmon in the catches was coho, contradicting their belief that most coho stay in coastal areas in the winter. Researchers were also surprised that pink salmon — the most abundant of all Pacific salmon — comprised only 10 per cent of their catches.
Their findings also raised questions for further research.
Laurie Weitkamp, a fisheries biologist with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said scientists were puzzled when they caught large, seemingly well-fed sockeye salmon and skinny, malnourished chum in the same location.
"These two fish clearly were responding to this common environment in different ways," said Weitkamp. "It's really puzzling. How does this sockeye look so beautiful and well fed and this chum just barely made it through the winter?"
The researchers hope to make more discoveries in the coming months after analyzing data from the thousands of samples they collected.
The expedition was in collaboration with the Year of the Salmon, a five-year initiative spanning the Northern Hemisphere to raise awareness and improve understanding of salmon conservation.
The project was funded through $1.3 million in donations from governments, non-governmental organizations, industry groups and private donations.