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Science Based Ocean Stewardship

During the past several decades, pacific Salmon have been in decline.  Despite good work in restoring salmon habitat in streams and rivers, cleaning and repairing spawning beds and removing debris barriers that block the migration of salmon to their spawning grounds, the numbers continue to decline.  No matter that more and more juvenile salmon are released, fewer return from the Open Ocean.  Clearly the problem is in the Ocean, where salmon spend the majority of their lives.

In 2010 an event occurred that profoundly altered our understanding of the ocean ecosystem.  Sockeye runs to the Fraser River were forecast to be almost as low as the dismal run of 2009 when only 1.5 million fish returned prompting the Federal Government of Canada to call the Cohen Commission to investigate the disappearance of the fish.  As Cohen Commission salmon experts and commercial fishermen were holding their collective breaths and desperately hoping for a decent 2010 Sockeye return something interesting happened - the largest Sockeye run in recorded history returned to the Fraser River.  Surprisingly none of the experts predicted this massive run.  The juvenile salmon that migrated out of the Fraser River in 2008 were unremarkable in quantity or in their physical characteristics. Therefore something must have changed in the ocean ecosystem to manifest such a massive return.

During the summer of 2008 as the young salmon swam to their ocean feeding grounds a volcano erupted in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. For a few days the volcano erupted throwing a vast cloud of volcanic dust into the air. Airline flights were re-routed and cancelled due to this thick cloud of mineral dust. As the dust drifted in the wind and settled onto the Northeast Pacific the mineral micro-nutrients (chiefly iron) it carried were observed to be deposited in the Gulf of Alaska.  Just a few days later ocean observing satellites observed the largest plankton bloom ever seen from space. It seems the young salmon of 2008 arrived to this plankton feast, survived in great numbers, and gained strength and endurance to continue the ocean cycle of their life. If there were questions that the fortuitous volcanic dust was responsible for the apparent cause and effect benefit to the sockeye salmon one only needs to look to the second largest sockeye salmon return in history. That second largest run of sockeye was the 1958 return which followed two years on the heel of another rare Aleutian volcanic eruption. 

Although these iron stimulated plankton blooms were truly massive in size, involving millions of tons of iron dust, to date there have been no observed negative effects to the environment. Only a dramatic improvement in the west coast fisheries was observed.

Therefore, we set out to simulate a micro-nutrient enrichment of the open ocean, hundreds of miles from land in the deep open ocean to answer the following question "Does adding a trace amount of iron to a High Nutrient Low Chlorophyll (HNLC) cold core ocean eddy located in a known salmon migration route cause phytoplankton to grow, and if so, what are the resulting environmental benefits or costs"?  We created a plankton bloom that was directly within the known migratory routes for Pacific salmon. We used the most cost effective and sophisticated oceanographic technology available, conducted one of, if not the most comprehensive privately funded ocean science projects in Canadian history, and we are currently studying our findings and sharing our data with researchers and interested parties.  

In the fall of 2013 we received a message from a Department of Fisheries and Oceans funded organization that pink salmon returns in Howe Sound were at an all time high.  Commercial fishing was opened in Howe Sound for the first time in 50 years.  Record returns have been seen in the Nisqually (Washington) and Campbell Rivers and Alaska had its largest commercial salmon fishery ever.  The Fraser River was expecting 9 million salmon, and currently 26 million have returned and the number is increasing.  Could our plankton bloom have caused this?  It is not yet possible to say, however, we collected millions of plankton and fish samples among which may be the answer to that question. 

By making our data public, conducting public information sessions, participating in conferences and working with regulators we hope to stimulate discussion on the deep open ocean, the worlds’ largest ecosystem.  Further we hope our efforts spark a global discussion about stewardship of the only planet mankind currently can reside upon. 

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