The High Seas Salmon Research Program is one of the longest-running research programs at the University of Washington. From 1953-2005, the US Government contracted us for research on issues related to Pacific salmon (Oncorhynchus spp.) in the North Pacific Ocean and to participate in the deliberations of the International North Pacific Fisheries Commission (INPFC, 1955-1992) and the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission (NPAFC, 1993-2005). Our US government-contracted NPAFC research ended in 2005 because of programmatic changes within NOAA Fisheries (Alaska Fisheries Science Center). The faculty, staff, and students of the High Seas Salmon Research Program continue to conduct research on a variety of issues related to the biology and ecology of Pacific salmon and steelhead trout in the open ocean.
The rapid expansion and large catches of the Japanese high-seas driftnet fisheries for salmon in the early 1950s helped lead to a treaty between Canada, Japan, and the United States that instituted the INPFC. The treaty established a provisional eastern boundary line in 1954 for the Japanese high seas salmon fisheries in the North Pacific Ocean at 175°W longitude and required the scientific determination of which line would best divide Asian and North American salmon in any areas of intermingling.
As directed by US Government and salmon industry concerns, the specific objectives of the High Seas Salmon Research Program have changed with time following changes in research priorities and scientific techniques. The results of our research were used by the US Section of the INPFC in negotiations with Japan and Canada, mostly regarding the exploitation of American salmon by Japan's large high seas driftnet fisheries. In the early years, research focused on extensive tagging and general distributional studies. The original program objective was to delineate the oceanic migrations of Asian and North American salmon with respect to the provisional treaty line at 175°W longitude. By the mid-1960s this objective had been largely achieved by our high seas salmon tagging studies, and new research was directed toward a description of the marine life history of major North American salmon stocks to provide a basis for more precise management. Research during the years 1964-1968 was designed specifically to provide information on distribution, migration, and ecology of juvenile salmonids during their first summer in the ocean. These studies provided the first coastwide model based on empirical data for juvenile salmon migrations in the Gulf of Alaska. In the late 1960s and 1970s, a major program objective was to obtain an index of the abundance of the immature sockeye salmon south of Adak Island in the summer. This index was used to forecast, one year in advance, the runs of sockeye salmon to Bristol Bay, Alaska. The forecasts were used by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the salmon industry in planning the regulation and harvesting of Bristol Bay sockeye. In the late 1970s and 1980s, research shifted to an intensive effort to determine stock origins of salmonids in the area of the Japanese mothership and landbased driftnet fisheries, and this stock identification research continued until the demise of both the salmon and squid driftnet fisheries in 1992. Information from tagging, scale pattern, and parasite research is presently used when needed to estimate interceptions of North American salmonids on the high seas. After 1982, the program did not have enough funding to charter vessels for high seas field operations, but tagging and sampling research was continued through a cooperative program with the USSR from 1983 to 1991.
Beginning in 1993, by international agreement, directed fisheries for salmon on the high-seas were no longer allowed. The NPAFC (established by a treaty signed by Canada, Japan, Russia, and the United States in 1992) calls for extensive cooperation among member-nations in conducting scientific research for the purpose of conservation of salmon and identifies impacts on salmon of changes in the productivity of the North Pacific Ocean as a critical issue. High-seas salmon research at the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences was incorporated into both the US portions of the NPAFC Science Plan and the Ocean Carrying Capacity research program developed by the NMFS Auke Bay Laboratory to address this issue.
In 1997, the American Institute of Fisheries Research Biologists presented its Outstanding Group Achievement Award to the INPFC and its successor NPAFC for "outstanding scientific contributions to understanding the life history of Pacific salmon on the high seas." The "work was truly pioneering science accomplished under very harsh conditions during all seasons of the year far from land." The High Seas Salmon Research Program is proud of the contributions we have made to the work of these organizations and to the conservation of Pacific Rim salmon resources.
While the objectives of high-seas salmon research have changed considerably over the years, cooperative efforts among scientists of the salmon-producing nations continue to provide new scientific information that can be used to improve the management and conservation of Pacific salmon and steelhead resources. Currently, we participate in cooperative high-seas fieldwork aboard Japanese salmon research vessels operating in the Bering Sea and North Pacific Ocean. We are using new field data and the long-term historical database to address mounting concerns about the effects of global climate change on the distribution, growth, and survival of salmon and steelhead in the open ocean.