High Seas Expeditions

The Expeditions

Driven by the vision that a high seas winter survey of Pacific salmon could be a transformative vehicle to galvanize five countries around a pulse of effort to understand the processes driving the production of salmon, Dr. Richard Beamish has lead a campaign to make this a reality. Along with Dr. Brian Riddell from the Pacific Salmon Foundation, funding from governments, NGOs, academic partners and private industry has been raised to make the 2019, 2020, and 2022 expeditions possible.

Throughout the course of the International Year of the Salmon’s 5-year initiative, three High Seas Expeditions have been planned to study the winter ecology of salmon and try to identify the mechanisms regulating salmon abundance and production. The 2019 International Gulf of Alaska Expedition, which took place on the Russian research vessel Professor Kaganovskiy, was the first successful comprehensive study of the stock abundance, composition, and condition of the stocks of 5 species of Pacific salmon (coho, chum, pink, sockeye, and Chinook) at the end of their first ocean winter in decades. ​The second expedition in March 2020 aimed to build off this research, and was a continuation of the international scientific effort to establish greater international research capacity for understanding the consequences of future environmental conditions. A cruise plan for the 2022 Pan-Pacific Winter High Seas Expedition is currently under development for the third winter ecology survey of salmon in the North Pacific Ocean.


Pacific salmon are an important cultural, commercial, and biological resource for countries of the North Pacific Rim. The geographic distribution of Pacific salmon spans the North Pacific Ocean, where they occupy a variety of ecosystems and water masses throughout their ocean life history. As a changing climate and associated anomalous events in the large marine ecosystems of the North Pacific Ocean continue to expose Pacific salmon to conditions that are outside the ‘normal’ climate cycles, society will be progressively confronted with new issues. Some of these include the future of the cultures and subsistence life-styles of local Indigenous communities, potential impacts to industrial activities, changes to regional ocean carrying capacity, and the resilience of North Pacific marine ecosystems. Overall, an international effort from all major salmon producing nations distributed in the North Pacific is required to detect and monitor changes both within Pacific salmon and their ecosystems.

There is a general understanding that ocean and climate conditions are major factors regulating salmon abundances. However, the factors regulating salmon abundances in the ocean are not well understood, and there are significant gaps in our knowledge of the mechanisms that regulate distribution, productivity, and survival in coastal and high seas environments. More scientific effort is required to explain how the rapidly changing ocean ecosystems will affect the processes which are driving salmon survival and productivity. The overarching scientific objective of the High Seas Expeditions is to ultimately discover fundamental mechanisms that regulate salmon in the North Pacific Ocean.

How it started...

In a keynote presentation Dr. Beamish gave a few years ago in Tokyo, he concluded that the IYS is an opportunity for researchers to work as a team, but also to inform the public how an understanding of the dynamics of Pacific salmon is an understanding of our impacts on the ocean ecosystem. Dr. Richard Beamish, C.M., O.B.C., PhD., DSc., F.R.S.C., an Emeritus Scientist at the Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo, B.C. and a key figure in the planning and implementation of the IYS, likes to say that we know a lot about Pacific salmon, but what we need to know, we mostly do not know. The concept of the International Year of the Salmon was first proposed in the Long-term Research and Monitoring Plan for Pacific Salmon developed by the NPAFC. It was an idea tucked into the last pages of the commission document and was later described in more detail in the NPAFC Doc. 1425 (Beamish, 2012). The intent of this idea was to use international cooperation to understand the mechanisms that regulate the abundances of Pacific salmon after they enter the ocean. The history of Pacific salmon production is a history of surprises. International fisheries science now has the ability and technologies to make the discoveries that can optimize economic opportunities and ensure a future of responsible stewardship. 

As the IYS developed, it was apparent to Dr. Beamish that we needed studies in the Gulf of Alaska similar to the salmon research carried out by Russia. Governments and committees can sometimes have trouble organizing new things –so Dr. Beamish and Dr. Brian Riddell (Pacific Salmon Foundation) organized two expeditions in the Gulf of Alaska. This was a unique effort that received tremendous support from colleagues, donors and governments. Dr. Beamish and Dr. Riddell are confident that the results of the three years of expeditions will show the value of teaming up internationally to understand the mechanisms that regulate Pacific salmon production. 

Left to right: Mark Saunders (Director, IYS), Dr. Brian Riddell (PSF), Dr. Richard Beamish (Emeritus Scientist, DFO) at the 2019 IGA Expedition Reception 

Providing greater sustainability:

The first two Expeditions directly address understanding the determinants of sustainable salmon production, and provide an enhanced understanding of changes in the ocean ecosystems that may ultimately provide a basis for new forecasting tools that provide greater sustainability of fisheries and salmon production. What we learn from these expeditions will inform the development of a proposed multi-vessel survey in 2022 that will span the entire North Pacific Ocean. 

These efforts build on successful international research endeavors by the NPAFC and its precursor the International North Pacific Fisheries Commission (INPFC) such as the Bering-Aleutian Salmon International Survey (BASIS; NPAFC Doc. 579, Rev 2).

Read more about the findings from the 2019 International Gulf of Alaska Expedition in our NPAFC article: 
“Proven Potential of Integrated Ecosystem Research in Expanding Human Understanding of the High Seas Environment” 

International Effort

Pacific salmon originating from Canada, Japan, Korea, Russia and the United States are believed to intermingle in the Gulf of Alaska, and impacts to salmon here can impact salmon around the Pacific Rim.  The scientific community believes that 1/3 of all Pacific salmon spend their winter in the Gulf of Alaska, and there is evidence that returns from salmon rearing in this area have been highly variable. Because there have been limited surveys in the Gulf of Alaska, the driving factors behind the variable returns and survival remain to be determined. 

Learning how to merge scientific cultures and practices from five countries is not trivial. Salmon stocks from all major salmon producing nations are distributed within the North Pacific Ocean, intermingle in international waters, and migrate across the national economic zones. Because of this, an effort that focuses on  discovering the mechanisms regulating production and abundance through international collaboration is crucial to the success of research endeavors. 

Photo: Chrys Neville, DFO

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