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Researchers launch expedition seeking 'black box' to salmon survival

NOAA's Bell M. Shimada vessel will be launching from Port Angeles, Wash. as part of an international expedition studying salmon populations in the remote Pacific Ocean.
Kirk Siegler/NPR
NOAA's Bell M. Shimada vessel will be launching from Port Angeles, Wash. as part of an international expedition studying salmon populations in the remote Pacific Ocean.

With some populations of Northwest salmon in peril, a team of scientists will launch an international expedition Tuesday into the remote Pacific Ocean, where they hope to find clues to the fish's survival.

"Conditions are rough, you've got lots of really big storms," says salmon biologist Laurie Weitkamp, one of the scientists leading the journey backed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

After the planned launch from Port Angeles, Wash., their 200-foot research vessel will spend a month trawling for salmon in the North Pacific, in waters that are notorious for high swells and dangerous winter storms.

"I've heard many people tell me I'm absolutely crazy to be out there," she says.

Weitkamp is actually thrilled though. This is seen as a first of its kind expedition where four research vessels and sixty scientists from the US, Canada and Russia will cover a huge swath of the salmon's ocean territory at once.

She and her colleagues at NOAA already know a lot about why the salmon aren't making it to the ocean: think dams on the Columbia River and its tributaries, warming rivers, lower river flows. But they understand less about what's going on out in the sea, which may be the most important part of the famed fish's journey and key to its ultimate survival.

"Once salmon leave the coastal ocean, they effectively enter a black box," Weitkamp says. "We don't know where they are, we don't know what they're eating, what eats them, how quickly they're growing."

Or, why and where they're dying. Weitkamp is most concerned about those recent "blobs" of warm Pacific Ocean water off the coast of Alaska.

"The purpose of this is really to dive in a bit more into this warming ocean and try and understand what's going on," she says.

The scientists hope to soon better predict what a year's salmon run or catch will be for many who depend on them.

The economic and cultural stakes of an expeditions like this are high.

"The decline of salmon runs into our waters have been so detrimental to us," says Shannon Wheeler, vice chairman of the Nez Perce Tribe in Idaho.

Wheeler says salmon runs have dropped from the millions a century or more ago to typically just a few thousand today, including the many raised in hatcheries. He says this alarming decline has had wide reaching effects on the environment as well as the tribe's health and culture. The Nez Perce have disproportionately high rates of diabetes and other diseases.

"We can pinpoint that a lot of this wouldn't be happening if we'd had the numbers of salmon we were promised," Wheeler says.

Wheeler says the new research is potentially encouraging. But the Nez Perce are more focused on removing dams closer to home, so that the remaining healthy salmon Laurie Weitkamp is studying actually return in the fall, after the some 400 mile epic journey inland upstream to where they were born.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: January 31, 2022 at 9:00 PM PST
The audio of this story, as did a previous web version, says that salmon are on the brink of extinction in the Pacific Northwest. Some populations of the fish in the Northwest are indeed under threat of extinction and are listed as threatened or endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act, while other salmon species, including in Alaska, are considered healthy. And the audio, as did an earlier headline and earlier web version, incorrectly says the expedition will take place near the Bering Strait. It will take place in the North Pacific.
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.