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Marine Salmon Interactions Program

ABL Staff Participate in Committee on Scientific Research and Statistics at NPAFC Fourteenth Annual Meeting

The North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission (NPAFC) held its Fourteenth Annual Meeting from 23 to 27 October 2006 in Vancouver, British Columbia, with representatives from Canada, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Russia, and the United States participating (see Items section). These five nations represent the primary states of origin for salmonid stocks in the North Pacific Ocean and adjacent seas. The NPAFC promotes the conservation of Pacific salmon and serves as a venue for coordination of scientific research on these fishes and on marine ecosystem studies where salmon live. Parties from the NPAFC also maintain aggressive enforcement programs to prevent illegal gill net fishing for salmon in the far reaches of the North Pacific Ocean.

The NPAFC Commissioners for the United States included Jim Balsiger from NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, Alan Austerman from the State of Alaska, and Gary Smith from the State of Washington. Jim Balsiger was head of the U.S. delegation. The Committee on Scientific Research and Statistics (CSRS), the commission’s principal forum for international cooperation in research, met during the annual meeting to consider a wide range of issues concerning Pacific salmon stocks and research activities by member parties. Loh-Lee Low from the AFSC served as principal spokesperson for the 20-member U.S. CSRS contingent. During the CSRS deliberations, Bill Heard, Ed Farley, and Jack Helle reviewed relevant research activities conducted in 2005 by Auke Bay Laboratories.

Several CSRS special working groups also met and developed detailed reports on Stock Assessment, Salmon Marking, Stock Identification, and BASIS (Bering-Aleutian Salmon International Survey). Dick Wilmot of ABL served on the Stock Identification Working Group, and Jack Helle and Ed Farley served on the BASIS Working Group with Jack Helle as chair. Ed Farley was appointed chairperson to help plan and organize a special symposium to be held in the United States in 2008 that will review in detail results from the first 5 years of coordinated BASIS research among the parties.

Consistent with the NPAFC 2006-10 Science Plan, much of the discussion during CSRS and working group meetings centered around broad scientific issues related to the important roles that anadromous stocks and their ecologically related species play in North Pacific marine ecosystems. For example, the commercial catches of salmon by member parties in 2005 were the second highest in recent history, totaling 971,380 t. Pink salmon accounted for 50% of the catch by weight, followed by chum, sockeye, coho, Chinook, and cherry (masu) salmon. The largest catches were reported by the United States (Alaska), Russia, and Japan. This reflects generally healthy northern populations of Asian and North American salmon. However, the United States expressed heightened concern about lower than expected returns of North American steelhead and some southern populations of salmon.

The United States delegation submitted a new proposal to the CSRS to develop a comprehensive Pacific-wide genetic baseline for steelhead. Such a baseline would help fisheries managers to better understand ocean distribution patterns of North American and Asian populations and how warming of North Pacific Ocean surface waters affects marine distribution and survival of specific steelhead populations. Eleven of fifteen population segments of steelhead in the states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and California are at some degree of risk under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Preliminary catch estimates for favorable salmon returns in Russia in 2006 were similar to the large catches recorded in 2005. Alaska catches in 2006, however, showed major fluctuations in abundance. Returns of pink salmon in Southeast Alaska were much lower than forecasted while chum salmon returns were strong. Pink salmon returns in British Columbia were also far below expected levels in 2006. Complicating these fluctuations in abundance are the ongoing consequences of climate change on oceanographic and biophysical conditions affecting salmon production in marine ecosystems.

Possibly related to fluctuations during 2006 were findings from a Japanese research cruise in the western North Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Alaska during winter January-March 2006. Due to extremely stormy sea conditions, winter research cruises in these waters are uncommon but are badly needed to better understand how biophysical conditions function during this period. During the Japanese cruise, immature pink and chum salmon were caught by surface trawls from the research vessel Kaiyo Maru and analyzed by scientists for total lipid content (TLC) in muscle tissues.

Average TLC values for ocean age-1 chum and pink salmon in the western North Pacific Ocean were twice as high as those for salmon in the Gulf of Alaska. Low TLC values for pink salmon in the gulf during this temporal window include values for the same populations of salmon that recorded unexpectedly low adult returns in Southeast Alaska and British Columbia later in 2006. While not conclusive, the Japanese data suggest that less favorable conditions in the Gulf of Alaska than in the western North Pacific Ocean contributed to the unexpected low returns of pink salmon in parts of Alaska and British Columbia.

An overarching goal of cooperative international NPAFC research is to provide better scientific information on the status and trends in marine production of anadromous stocks of salmonids, identify the roles these stocks play in marine ecosystems, and examine the extent to which anadromous stocks, which return to coastal regions, can be used as indicators of conditions in North Pacific marine ecosystems.

By Bill Heard

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