Supporters of a proposed wild salmon research voyage include fish farm operators, according to Dr. Richard Beamish. Photo by David Gordon Koch/Campbell River Mirror

Supporters of a proposed wild salmon research voyage include fish farm operators, according to Dr. Richard Beamish. Photo by David Gordon Koch/Campbell River Mirror

Retired DFO scientist plans wild salmon research expedition in Gulf of Alaska

Expedition outlined during fish farm industry meeting in Campbell River

A retired scientist from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) says he’s planning an international expedition across the Gulf of Alaska to shine light on changes to salmon stocks that he describes as poorly understood.

Dr. Richard Beamish outlined his plans for the venture – which he said is supported by fish farm operators – during an aquaculture industry conference that took place in Campbell River on Friday. During his presentation, Beamish said that scientists understand very little about the ups and downs of wild salmon returns.

“We still don’t know the mechanisms that allow us to accurately forecast salmon,” said Beamish.

For the proposed expedition, scientists would trawl for salmon in the Gulf of Alaska, identify the origin of the salmon using DNA samples, and then estimate their abundance in the region.

Russian vessels have conducted similar studies over the past 20 years on the east coast of Russia, said Beamish, who was formerly director of the DFO’s Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo.

RELATED: Wild salmon council draws skepticism

The proposed study would examine a vast area of ocean that’s crucial for B.C. salmon stocks, said Beamish.

“No one has ever done this in the Gulf of Alaska, where the bulk of our salmon are in the winter,” he said.

The voyage would involve chartering a Russian vessel for roughly $900,000, he said.

He noted that “the contract hasn’t been signed yet” but that money for the project had been secured in recent days.

Beamish said during his presentation that “salmon farmers are a major supporter of this expedition” but he declined to name the donors.

“At this time, because it’s privately funded, it’s up to the donors whether they want that information released,” he said.

The project also has the support of Canada and other governments, he said, adding that the project would involve a team of scientists from Korea, Japan, Russia, the United States and Canada.

The data would be stored at the University of B.C., where it would be publicly available, according to Beamish.

He spoke about the project during the Seafood West Business Summit at the Thunderbird Hall in Campbell River.

During the presentation, he discussed a number of findings about wild salmon stocks that he said remain unexplained.

READ MORE: Federal government not protecting wild salmon: Blaney

The total Pacific wild salmon catch has massively spiked in recent years, he said. In Russia alone, it reached 650,000 metric tonnes this year, he said, describing that as a record-breaking figure.

“This catch is so large that [it] will shake up the science all around the North Pacific while people try to figure out what has happened,” said Beamish.

Those figures, he said, can’t be explained by changes to fishing practices or hatchery production, but indicate increased rates of ocean survival.

In terms of Canadian stocks, he noted that chinook salmon are declining throughout their distribution. He also cited a federal inquiry into declining stocks of sockeye salmon led by commissioner Bruce Cohen.

That study came amid a decline that Cohen described in his 2012 report as “steady and profound.”

The decline occurred between 1993 and 2009, when sockeye abundance fell to 1.36 million returns, the lowest level recorded since the 1940s. Stocks then rebounded in 2010, reaching 29 million, but have since declined, with perhaps 15 million expected this year.

Cohen recommended a number of changes, including various restrictions on fish farm licences in the Discovery Islands, and a removal of DFO’s mandate to promote fish farming.

The Cohen report came as opponents of the aquaculture industry argued that salmon farms discharge harmful materials and contaminate the environment, spread sea lice and diseases among wild fish, and allow Atlantic salmon to escape, posing a variety of risks to wild stocks.

Beamish didn’t directly address the alleged dangers of farmed salmon during the industry event, but noted that Cohen found “no smoking gun” to explain changes in salmon stocks. Beamish argued in favour of more efforts to understand fish population dynamics.

READ MORE: B.C. municipalities call for shift to closed-containment fish farms

While Beamish retired from DFO in 2011, he remains involved with the department as a scientist emeritus.

According to DFO spokesperson Lauren Sankey, the role of scientist emeritus is unpaid but “can include transferring knowledge, experience and expertise to DFO employees and being involved in previous or new research projects or programs.”

She noted that “[t]hese individuals present their own views.”

At least 85 people were in attendance for the presentation Friday morning at the industry meeting.

The event came on the heels of a members-only annual general meeting of the BC Salmon Farmers Association, the aquaculture industry’s business association. That meeting took place on Thursday at Thunderbird Hall.

There were 135 people registered for the two events, according to an organizer.

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