Greater Trail biologist Dan Bouillon is bracing himself for the voyage of a life time.
The Teck Trail environment manager joined the 2022 Pan-Pacific Winter High Seas Expedition and set sail for the North Pacific on Wednesday, Feb. 23 to study the effects of climate change on migrating Pacific salmon.
“I still have interaction with my fisheries research friends so I quickly raised my hand to volunteer for this expedition when I learned they were looking for scientific crew,” Bouillon told the Times. “Several people have already told me I am crazy to go on a medium sized ship 1,000 kilometers into the Gulf of Alaska in the winter time.”
The expedition is led by Bouillon’s colleague, Dr. Dick Beamish, with scientists from Canada, the U.S.A, Russia, Korea and Japan putting their collective heads together to continue research on the salmon’s winter ecosystem.
“The research that is being done is very important to understand the factors that result in variable ocean mortality of salmon and therefore why we sometimes get highly variable and surprisingly low or high returns of salmon in the spring and summer each year,” explained Bouillon, a former fisheries biologist with a master’s degree in oceanography.
Dr. Beamish started the research in 2017 and led the first privately-funded expedition by chartering a Russian research vessel in 2019.
“I put on a crew of 21 scientists from all salmon producing countries and we probably had the first major expedition to study the winter ecology of pacific salmon,” said Beamish. “It’s exciting in the sense that the discoveries we are making, according to me, are remarkable.”
Beamish partnered with Dr. Brian Riddell, and in this the International Year of the Salmon, will expand their research into the resiliency of the various species of salmon in the North Pacific.
Of the millions of eggs that are fertilized, the survival rate has dropped precipitously.
“What is happening is we are seeing a climate related change in the capacity of the ocean off B.C. to support salmon,” said Beamish. “So instead of a three per cent return of chum salmon that we got in the 60s and 70s we get half a percent. And that half a per cent translates into a substantial reduction of what comes back.
“Now how does that mortality actually occur? That is what we are studying.”
The expedition consists of four research vessels including one from Russia and the U.S., the Canadian Coast Guard ship, Sir John Franklin, and the Raw Spirit, a gill-net vessel where Bouillon will conduct his research.
“My jobs on board the ship include salmon identification as the fish come on board, identification of large oceanic fish species that we may catch, support for lab work, and potentially helping the crew with the gill net retrieval,” explained Bouillon.
The Raw Spirit will fish two gill nets that float on the surface, each 1.5-to-2.5-km long, and one long line that sinks to the bottom and catches bottom fish.
Scientists still don’t know what factors ensure or compromise the salmon’s survivability during their first winter at sea, so the winter testing is vital in sampling salmon to determine resiliency.
“We are testing the idea that at the end of the first ocean winter that salmon will show that they have accumulated the energy to survive the winter,” said Beamish. “We actually see that some of the fish that we sample simply do not have the energy to survive the rest of the winter.”
Novel technologies such as genomics, environmental DNA (eDNA), and ocean gliders will be utilized to test their potential to enhance monitoring of salmon and the ecosystem.
Recent advancements in DNA analyses allow researchers to determine the river of origin for salmon caught during the expedition, which enables scientists to understand how different stocks of salmon are distributed across the North Pacific, and potentially identify compromised ecosystems for early salmon survival.
eDNA analyses will allow researchers to assess the full range of the biodiversity, especially for species not captured in traditional sampling gears.
The Raw Spirit team has a crew of 10 and a science team of 10, and will be at sea for approximately 25 days.
The departure time from Port Alberni was delayed a few days due to the supply chain, and modifications to the nets that did not arrive as ordered.
“Looks like our timing is about as imperfect as it could be as we will be heading into a storm as we go out,” said Bouillon.
“But behind every storm there is some good weather.”
Follow the progress of Bouillon and the Pan-Pacific Winter High Seas Expedition at yearofthesalmon.org/2022expedition.