Ocean Expedition To Study Salmon in Winter Was a Unique Experience for Scientist, In Many Ways

  • April 16, 2019
The Professor Kaganovskiy in Vancouver, BC, before the cruise. Photo: Laurie Weitkamp.

To listen to Laurie Weitkamp compare life on a Russian fisheries research vessel to life on an equivalent American research boat, is to conjure images of a cozy, cluttered cabin on the one hand, and the clean room of a research facility on the other.


For example: The cozy, if rusty, Russian boat, the Professor Kaganovskiy, had lace curtains on its porthole windows. No lace curtains on an American research vessel. The closet-sized lab of the Kaganovskiy had what only could be called a cluttered look, a disarray of lab tools, measuring devices, containers, and so on. In her experience, laboratories on American research boats are more precisely organized, Weitkamp said. On the Kaganovskiy, the laboratory refrigerators for fish tissue specimens also held food and drink left there by the scientists and crew.


It was a unique experience to be sure, five weeks last February and March for Weitkamp, a fisheries biologist with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. She was part of the first-ever international research expedition to study salmon in the Gulf of Alaska in winter. The vast research area encompassed roughly 10 degrees of latitude by 10 degrees of longitude. The purpose was to gather information on a fundamental mystery of Pacific salmon  -- where do they go, and what determines whether they live or die? The winter lives of salmon have been particularly mysterious, but the expedition shed new light on the question. She recounted her unique experience at the Council’s April meeting.


The expedition was envisioned as a means of showcasing 2019 as an International Year of the Salmon. Dr. Dick Beamish a retired fisheries biologist for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and Dr. Brian Riddel, Executive Director of the Pacific Salmon Foundation in Vancouver, BC, led an effort that raised $1.2 million to charter the Russian vessel.


Salmon from Canada, Japan, Korea, Russia, and the United States mix in the waters of the Gulf of Alaska. Scientists from those countries were among the 21 scientists on the cruise. A link to the expedition homepage is here.


Scientists believe that one third of all Pacific salmon spend winters in the Gulf, where salmon abundance can be highly variable, but it is not clear why. So DNA tests of fish tissues collected during the cruise should help improve this knowledge. It will be the first time so much genetic information from salmon in the winter Gulf will be available, and it will be shared with the public.


When she first saw the ship at its dock in Vancouver, BC., “I had some serious reservations about going out to the Gulf of Alaska on it in the middle of winter,” Weitkamp said at the Council meeting. She said an associate, told of her impending journey, said, “are you nuts?”

Working in the cramped laboratory. Photo: Laurie Weitkamp.

“And this ship doesn’t have a great reputation,” Weitkamp said. “At times the crew has gotten scurvy because the food was so bad,” she said, adding, “this also was the rustiest ship I have ever been on. I am happy to report, however, that we had reasonable food, it was clean, and we had no breakdowns for 30 days. We went almost 5,000 miles, we sampled at 60 stations, and we had absolutely fantastic weather. The crew and officers were helpful, my fellow scientists were fantastic people, and so overall it was a very successful expedition.”


Unlike the highly structured, highly polished, pinpoint precision of the research vessels she was used to, Weitkamp wrote in a NOAA blog that the Kaganovskiy had a vibe that was “homey, lived-in -- our comfortable home away from home,” made all the more enjoyable by the helpful and friendly crew – most of whom spoke only Russian. It wasn’t just the lace curtains, or the even the ship’s cat, which had the free run of the boat, but the very lived-in feel of almost every hallway, corner, nook, and cranny that made the experience at once so foreign and also familiar. In her blog, she wrote about the “interesting mix of equipment for science and for living, such as hot-water kettles and tea- and coffee-making supplies in every lab and on the bridge.” She wrote that the back room of the fish laboratory “had two electric frying pans, various cooking utensils, and three cases of pasteurized milk, in addition to totes of scientific supplies, boots and rain gear, and a stock of drinking water.”


And there was the cognitive dissonance of time -- as in the time of day. Upon departing from Vancouver, BC, the scientists discovered that they no longer were on Pacific time, but on Vladivostok time, the home port of the boat. That meant they were two hours behind but one day ahead of Vancouver, which at that point must have still been in sight.


The unique cruise had some unique goals:

  • For the first time, identify Pacific salmon distributions and abundance in the Gulf of Alaska in winter
  • Document the health and condition of salmon
  • Test key hypothesis regulating salmon production such as distribution in various water temperatures and competition among species

The initial results were unique, too.

  • Coho salmon were the second-most abundant species caught on the expedition (behind chum), but coho are considered a near-coastal species not usually found in large numbers so far out in the ocean.
  • Chum salmon, while they were the most plentiful of the salmon caught, showed a big variation among sizes. In the same haul, some fish were large and appeared well-fed, while others were scrawny with empty stomachs, suggesting they came from different, so far unknown, places.
  • Almost no pink salmon were caught, and they are considered the dominant species in the open ocean. So, where were all the pinks? They also are considered cold-water fish, but all were caught in the warmest water of the cruise.

Much more science will come as the shore-based research teams that supported the scientists on the cruise analyze the tissue, stomach contents, water chemistry, plankton, and other samples collected on the cruise.