Where Have All The Salmon Gone?

International Science Project to look at Survival of Wild Salmon at Sea.

The continuing poor survival of Irish salmon stocks this year  has highlighted a problem identified by scientists for the past decade or more: salmon are dying at sea in increasing numbers and we don't know why!! But help may well be at hand. Proposals for a major international project to determine the fate of wild salmon at sea have gained support from the inter-governmental salmon conservation body NASCO - the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organisation and it's sister body the International Atlantic Salmon Research Board (IASRB).

The original concept document, drafted by a team of European scientists, including staff from Ireland's Marine Institute, called for international co-operation across the whole of the North Atlantic to solve this fundamental conundrum.  Agreement has now been reached to build on this initial plan and many of the world's experts on Atlantic salmon met in Dublin, in early October of last year, to draw up a detailed implementation strategy. The focus of their activity was  to examine in detail the many factors affecting the survival of wild salmon between the time they leave freshwater and their return to spawn and to flesh out a detailed programme of research to meet these challenges .

"Over the last twenty years, scientists have noted a severe drop in the overall marine survival of some stocks, particularly those from the more southerly countries including Ireland and the UK" said Dr Ken Whelan, Director of the Marine Institute's Aquaculture and Catchment Management Services Team and recently elected President of NASCO. "In the past decade there has been concern that the survival of stocks in the southern North Atlantic has been consistently poor."

The project, known as SALSEA, will draw together partners from across the North Atlantic who are determined to pool intellectual and scientific resources in a determined effort to locate the major causes of marine mortality of Atlantic Salmon. It will attempt to answer questions on how Atlantic Salmon use the ocean, where they go and how they use the ocean's food resources. SALSEA will also examine the critical factors affecting the range of their migrations and their overall survival at sea. It will encompass the use of cutting-edge technology and stretch the most sophisticated information gathering techniques to their very limits in providing a unique insight into life at sea for one of nature's long distance migrants.

"This is a gargantuan task equivalent in many ways to the launching of the first space probes," said Dr Whelan, "but we believe the time is right and the technology far enough advanced to give us an excellent chance of success."

The origins of SALSEA date back to November 2002, when European scientists were invited by Dr Whelan in his capacity as EU Board Member of the IASRB, to Dublin to discuss priorities for marine salmon research. At a second meeting in Dublin in February 2003, it was agreed that a detailed proposal was required. This in turn led to a weeklong workshop in Bergen in October 2003, from which the SALSEA concept proposal emerged.

The Dublin meeting last year built on the template produced in Bergen a year earlier and produced a detailed research programme encompassing all aspects of the salmon's marine life from smoltification to return as adults. It identified the need for greater international cooperation in relation to near shore marine research and a requirement for significant additional resources to tackle the high seas component of the programme. Once the report is agreed later this month the International Atlantic Salmon Research Board will commence an intensive fund raising initiative geared primarily towards the public sector, which will include parallel initiatives in Europe North America and Russia. The SALSEA proposals include:  

A series of proposals for the pooling of existing resources between the North Atlantic nations and to tackle the mystery of near shore migration and survival. 

 Refining novel genetic fingering printing techniques which will be capable of assigning any salmon caught at sea to their country and eventually to their river of origin.

 A detailed investigation of the distribution and migration of salmon on the high seas.  

A comprehensive communications package to distribute the information gained to all interested parties.  

The project will also involve the development of novel fish tracking technologies such as sophisticated data storage units capable of tracking temperature, depth and  geo-location on an hourly basis while the fish is at sea.  It will also include the collection of a broad range of biological, genetic and physiological data on migrating salmon, and the use of DNA fingerprinting to identify the various stocks at sea.

"While newly developed statistical techniques and DNA "fingerprinting" from the scales and tissue of salmon have improved our understanding of the life cycle of salmon, there are still major gaps in our knowledge," said Dr Whelan, "particularly in the oceanic phase. There is overwhelming scientific support currently to take advantage of new and developing technologies to open up the "black box" and throw new light on the causes of the decline in Atlantic salmon stocks."

Great emphasis will be placed on communications throughout the programme and web technology will be used to promote the project to a wide international audience. The overall cost of the programme will run to many millions of euro and will be organised on the basis of a giant, international, public private partnership. Every effort will be made to pool existing resources but the balance of the funds will be sought from the private sector. The task of sourcing these funds will lie with the International Atlantic Salmon Research Board (IASRB). 

"We have set ourselves the ambitious goal of raising millions of dollars from the private sector over the coming years, but  the scientists and managers who attended the IASRB sponsored Dublin meeting last October have truly risen to the challenge and have provide us with an innovative and exciting  state of the art research programme. I am confident that we can find private sector sponsors willing to support this vital international initiative", said Dr Malcolm Windsor Secretary of IASRB.