Despite the invasion of Ukraine, the United States and Russia are still working together to solve the mysteries of the salmon

The R/V Tinro, a Russian research vessel, is shown in this photo provided by the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission. (Photo: C/R Tinro)

Tensions continue to simmer between Moscow and Washington following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In many respects, the gap between East and West is widening: oil companies are canceling partnerships with Russian firms. State lawmakers are asking the state’s sovereign wealth fund to get rid of Russian investments. President Joe Biden announced on Tuesday that the United States would close its airspace to Russian planes.

But the United States and Russia continue to work together on at least one issue: salmon.


There is a map dotted with orange, green, blue and red dots covering most of the North Pacific above 46 degrees latitude.

On the map are three flags of the Arctic nations: the United States, Canada and the Russian Federation.

“This interaction between countries in this area is really something that has never happened on this scale before,” said Mark Saunders, executive director of the five-country North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission.

He talks about the 2022 Deep Sea Winter Pan Pacific Expedition.

Ships on both sides of the Pacific are braving high winds and 13ft seas as they criss-cross the ocean from the edge of the Aleutian Range to the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

A map showing the current expedition as well as previous surveys in the Western Pacific and the Gulf of Alaska. (North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission)

All in the name of researching the challenges of wild salmon runs that are important to people on all sides of the northern Pacific Rim.

A historic shortfall

Last year, the chum salmon run on the Yukon River collapsed.

“Last summer, the Yukon River did not fish for food. Zero,” said Mike Williams Sr. He is the chairman of the Kuskokwim Intertribal Fish Commissionan organization that manages and studies fisheries using a combination of traditional knowledge and Western scientific methods.

Never before had so few fish made it up the nearly 2,000 mile river. Regulators have closed all fishing in the Yukon to preserve the few remaining runs.

Williams says in recent years he is saw the races on the Kuskokwim also decrease. In the past, he says fishing was relatively unrestricted: residents would return to their fishing camps soon after the ice broke up on the river in the spring.

But in recent years, he says, residents have had to wait until June – long after the snap – to start stockpiling the essential staple.

“We depend on salmon to sustain us through the winter, and we are very concerned about the returns of our salmon to all the rivers in western Alaska,” Williams said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

This is unclear what was behind the collapse. The Intertribal Commission—and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, for that matter—devotes most of its effort to studying what’s going on in freshwater. But that’s only a small part of a salmon’s life.

“Something’s Happening in the Ocean”

“The salmon spawn in our springs, they come down to the ocean and something happens in the ocean,” Williams said.

And it’s not just western Alaska that has struggled with salmon runs in recent years – in the southeast, Chinook runs from Haines to Ketchikan are classified as stocks of concern. Salmon fishing on the Unuk River has been simply prohibited for years.

Some, including Williams, say too many Bering Sea and North Pacific salmon are being taken out of the ocean as by-catch trawlers scraping the seabed for sole and flounder. Others say hatchery fish all around the northern Pacific Rim are native fish in competition. Some say climate change affects the food web — or a combination of all these factors.

But one thing is clear: something is happening to chum and chinook salmon on the high seas.

“We know that much of the low survival of chum and other salmon is tied to the marine environment,” Saunders of the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission said Tuesday from his home office on the Vancouver Island.

There are a lot of known things about how the ocean changes“But you have to know where the fish are and have actually touched them, and understand how they interact with the environment,” Saunders said.

“I think a lot of it is a big black box – in particular, this winter time that we know very little about,” he added.

He says the aim of the investigation – the largest ever – is to shed light on this black box.

Scientists hope to map the distribution of salmon in the North Pacific using new DNA techniques developed over the last decade to understand where salmon interact with predators, prey and each other – not to mention a generally warmer and more acidic ocean.

“And the big question is, how is the evolution of the North Pacific Ocean affecting our salmon? And improve our ability to understand how this change will affect people, fish and fisheries in the future,” he said.

This brings us back to the map.

A screenshot of a live USA, Canada and Russia ship tracking map during the 2022 Winter Deep Sea Pan Pacific Expedition, March 2, 2022. (YearOfTheSalmon.org)

A long-planned trip meets geopolitical realities

Earlier this winter, ships from the United States, Canada and Russia set sail for the North Pacific. Each is assigned its own area to sample: the United States and Canada are attacking areas in the Gulf of Alaska and western British Columbia, and a Russian vessel is surveying a huge expanse of oceans covering areas south of the Alaska Peninsula to the end. the Aleutian Range southwest of Adak.

Survey work on the Russian ship began late last month – it actually docked in Dutch Harbor a day later Russian troops have begun their assault on the Ukrainian capital, Kiev. The Port of Unalaska director told KRBD the visit was being closely monitored by U.S. border agents.

Bill Templin, Alaska’s chief salmon scientist, says a few thoughts crossed his mind as he watched the invasion unfold.

“My primary concerns were for the Ukrainian people,” Templin said by phone Wednesday. “But then when I walked into my office, I sat down, I thought, Oh, OK, so what does this mean?”

He says this is not the first time international tensions have arisen in his work with the five-country commission. He recalls that Russian scientists included islands disputed with Japan on maps of salmon stocks – all for fun, as he recalls.

“The first two years they passed me, and the Japanese had to come and correct me very politely,” he said.

But it’s more tense than usual.

Saunders, the head of the Anadromous Fish Commission, said an American scientist was to board the Russian vessel to allow it to study in the 230-mile US Exclusive Economic Zone.

A photo of the Russian R/V Tinro at sea courtesy of the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission. (Photo: C/R Tinro)

This does not happen. And that means the Russian research vessel cannot work near the Aleutian Range, where some salmon are thought to overwinter. Templin says that means salmon activity in this area will remain a blank spot for now.

“It does not spoil the results. It’s not a failure, but it’s going to limit what we get,” he said. “And it’s taken years to coordinate this winter, so that’s a little disappointing.”

But Templin says scientists in Japan, Canada, South Korea, Russia and the United States have always put their jobs first, and the policies of their political leaders second. And he says it will continue.

“The salmon all go to the same place. So they all graze in the same field, so to speak. For all of us to work together to understand what’s going on there and how it’s affecting our nations is – I think it’s a big deal,” he said. “And I would hate to see it go.”

So far, geopolitical tensions have not overshadowed the need for cooperation, at least not when it comes to preserving wild salmon.

Contact Eric Stone of KRBD at 907-225-9655 or [email protected]

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