The High-Seas Salmon Program

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An ongoing research program initiated over 40 years ago at the UW School of Fisheries has led to an understanding of the oceanic distributions and migration patterns of Asian and North American salmon. Results of the research were key in discontinuing the Japanese high-seas salmon fishery and in banning the use of high-seas driftnets--the so-called "curtains of death" which caused indiscriminate killing of dolphins and other marine life.

In the years following World War II, Canada and the U. S. became concerned over the renewal of Japan's high-seas fisheries and its potential expansion eastward in the North Pacific and the Bering Sea, particularly the expansion of Japan's high-seas driftnet fishery for salmon in the Aleutian area. At that time, little was known about the migration patterns of salmon, including whether there was intermingling of North American and Asian salmon stocks in the Pacific.

In 1953, a treaty was negotiated among the three countries, forming the International North Pacific Fisheries Commission (INPFC). The treaty established a provisional abstention line for the Japanese high-seas salmon fisheries in the North Pacific at 175° W longitude. The Commission launched a research program in 1954, formulated by a standing Committee on Biology and Research, comprising two scientists from each country. Among them was UW fisheries professor William F. Thompson, the first director of the UW Fisheries Research Institute, who was well-known for his work on the Alaska salmon runs (see Alaska Salmon Program). The overall goal of the program was to determine the oceanic distributions and overlaps, if any, of the salmon stocks originating on the two continents, and to determine the best dividing line separating Asian and North American stocks. It was called "the largest coordinated and unified fisheries research program ever to be undertaken."footnote 1

The UW Fisheries Research Institute played a key role in that effort from the very beginning.

Under contract from the U.S. Government, UW researchers carried out a tagging program, developing methods to capture, handle, and tag both mature and immature salmon on the high seas.

From 1955 to 1960, UW researchers tagged salmon primarily in the central Aleutian area. When an unexpectedly large 1960 run of Bristol Bay sockeye salmon was accurately predicted based on data collected by the UW tagging vessels, it drew quite a bit of attention. From then on, forecasting of the Bristol Bay run became a regular component of the UW tagging and sampling activities.

Over the period of 1955 to 1978, the researchers tagged 196,341 salmon, comprising 75,422 sockeye, 63,447 chum, 44,791 pink, 8,426 coho, 3715 chinook, and 540 steelhead trout.footnote 2 By monitoring these tagged fish, the researchers determined the migratory paths of specific stocks of Asian and North American salmon during their ocean lives and the degree of overlap of the distributions of these stocks. Their findings made it clear that fisheries on the high seas were intercepting salmon stocks that originated all around the Pacific Rim--from Japan, Russia, Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon.

The U.S. declaration of fisheries jurisdiction within its 200-mile zone precipitated an agreement in 1978 to amend the INPFC Convention. Greater restrictions were placed on Japan's drifnet salmon fishing; scientific studies on salmon were extended to include steelhead trout; and new research was aimed at determining the origins of salmon species migrating in the waters south of 46° N latitude, an area where extensive Japanese driftnet fisheries were being conducted. Then, in the early 1980s, when Japan, Taiwan, and Korea expanded their drifnet fisheries for flying squid into convention waters, new concerns arose about the effects of these practices on salmon stocks.

In 1982, UW researchers initiated studies of the distribution of salmon relative to the squid driftnet fishery. Studies led by Robert ("Bud") Burgner and colleagues showed that Pacific Northwest and Canadian steelhead undertake widespread migrations across the North Pacific, making them vulnerable to driftnet fisheries that formerly operated far to the west in the North Pacific.

The High-Seas Salmon Program "was successful in revolutionizing knowledge of salmonid life history and ocean environment in the North Pacific and Bering Sea," says Burgner. The wealth of new information gained in the project continues to provide a foundation for "rational management" of salmon stocks in the North Pacific. "Information and technology developed by the program have been used to successfully prosecute those involved in high-seas poaching," adds UW Fisheries Director Marsha Landolt.footnote 2

  1. "Review of High Seas Salmonid Research by the United States," Robert L. Burgner, in Y. Ishida, K. Nagasawa, D. W. Welch, K. W. Myers, and A. P. Shershnev, eds., Proceedings of the International Workshop of Future Salmon Research in the North Pacific Ocean, p. 11-17, National Research Institute of Far Seas Fisheries, Shimizu, Japan,.
  2. Information provided by Robert Burgner, Kate Myers, and Marsha Landolt is gratefully acknowledged.

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