SAFS Newsletter Masthead

Life on (and in) the High Seas

High Seas website

In 1953, College of Fisheries Director W. F. Thompson initiated the School’s High Seas Salmon Program to help determine how many Pacific salmon from North America were being “intercepted” by the Japanese high-seas driftnet fishery.

In 1955, the International North Pacific Fisheries Commission (INPFC)—comprising Japan, Canada, and the USA—was formed to determine the oceanic migration patterns of Asian and North American salmon. The School’s High Seas staff was contracted to conduct the tagging studies.

In the mid-1960s, the High Seas team focused on the marine life history of major North American salmon stocks. While the foci have changed over time, the goal has always been to improve the management and conservation of Pacific salmon and steelhead.

The Japanese driftnet fishery for salmon and squid was ultimately closed in 1992. This coincided with the expansion of the INPFC to include Russia (and later South Korea), and its name change to the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission (NPAFC).

A reduction in historical sources of funding, along with departures of long-term staff—three who have been with the program since the early 1980s—signifies a new phase. Staff members Kate Myers, Trey Walker, Nancy Davis, and Jan Armstrong reflected on the life and times of the program.

MD: After the driftnet fishery closed, what did you study?

KM:The closure of the Japanese driftnet fisheries meant there was no more funding for fisheries research, so the whole program shifted to a more ecological emphasis.

Through the NOAA Fisheries Auke Bay Lab, we became the US high-seas researchers for the NPAFC. When funding was cut in 2005, however, we started doing research outside of the NPAFC, including US GLOBEC research on Prince William Sound pink salmon, Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim Sustainable Salmon Initiative research on Chinook salmon in the Bering Sea, and Washington Sea Grant research on steelhead in the North Pacific Ocean.

MD: As a team, you each have your specialty, yet you also share the workload.

KM: The program was always staff-run. We decided the best approach was for everybody to work at all levels, from lab tech to lead investigator. That way, nobody would be irreplaceable or lack the skills or knowledge to run the program!

MD:Jan, you’re the “youngest” member of the team.

JA: I joined in 2000 to work with SAFS faculty Dave Beauchamp and his students on Prince William Sound pink salmon. We investigated sources of pink salmon, including hatchery fish, as well as salmon diet, using bioenergetics modeling and growth studies. A highlight was our study on larvacians and pteropods in the diets of early outmigrating pinks. This became a very hot topic because of the effects of ocean acidification on pteropods, which are an important food source for young pink salmon—60% of their diet.

MD: Trey, you’ve been studying salmon vertical distribution using electronic data storage tags.

TW: Since 1998, we have tagged more than 1,000 salmon, recovering about 100 of them. We were surprised to learn about the diurnal patterns of salmon—they are on the surface at night and up and down during the day. We also found that depth distribution varied across species. Recently, I’ve been working on a North Pacific Research Board project on overwinter survival of Chinook salmon at sea, which runs through June 2012.

MD: Beyond 2012, funding is uncertain, but there are still many unanswered questions.

TW: To really know what’s going on in the ocean, you need a committed research effort, and not just for salmon. For example, since the high-seas driftnet fishery ended, flying squid have not been fished in the central North Pacific. That’s an enormous resource that’s not being tapped. And mesopelagic fish represent another potentially huge resource. We need to know how to fish these resources effectively and sustainably.

MD: Nancy, you’re the “queen of the high seas!”

ND: [Laughs] In 1989, I started going on research cruises, racking up more ship time than my three colleagues combined. I originally went as an observer, but Kate encouraged me to do my own research. I didn’t want to interfere with other researchers’ work, so I found something no one else was doing—salmon diets.

MD: But now you’re moving on.

ND: I’ve accepted a position as deputy director for the NPAFC, so I will be working in Vancouver, BC, for the next three years. My major activites will include organizing and producing the Commission’s publications, yearly workshops or symposia, and monitoring the progress of research under the new NPAFC 2011– 2015 Science Plan.

MD: Kate, how has the program changed since the 1980s?

KM: We started doing more work outside the INPFC program, becoming the go-to people for scale pattern analysis in support of stock identification. For example, recently a Chinook salmon environmental impact statement used our work for developing estimates of salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea Pollock fishery.

MD: As project leader, what were your duties? Also, will you remain involved with the program after retiring?

TW: Kate did most of the writing, including all the proposals that kept us going.

KM: Besides that, I do consider myself an expert on ocean distribution and migration patterns of salmon. After I retire, I will continue to do some work. For example, I’ll be writing a chapter on steelhead for a book on salmon ocean life history that the NPAFC will publish.

For more information on the High Seas Salmon Program, please contact Trey Walker,, 206-543-7281.


Photo: Jack Scherting, USC&GS, NOAA