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Dr. Evgeny Pakhomov prepares for a net deployment aboard a vessel off the Pacific coast, surveying salmon as the chief scientist for the Pan-Pacific Winter High Seas Expedition.Aleksey Somov/handout

Evgeny Pakhomov is relieved to be back on dry land after spending the past month aboard a vessel off the Pacific coast, surveying salmon as the chief scientist for the Pan-Pacific Winter High Seas Expedition.

The expedition sailed close to the wind, literally and figuratively. Winter weather whipped up the ocean. The waves sometimes surpassed six metres. Walking and sleeping were impossible. Dr. Pakhomov, a University of British Columbia scientist and Canadian resident, was experiencing it from aboard the R/V TINRO: a Russian vessel. He had stepped onto its deck one day after Russia invaded Ukraine in February.

He was the only non-Russian abroad. He was supposed to be joined by an American scientist, but the scientist had been ordered to abandon ship five hours before setting sail. The rest of the crew were Russian researchers and sailors.

Dr. Pakhomov debated about whether he should also back out, but he was the only crew member who knew how to do all the fish sampling required. Without him, the TINRO would be unable to collect the data it needed. Without him, one year of planning would be wasted.

Dr. Pakhomov, the crew and the expedition organizers also didn’t expect the invasion to escalate further.

“There was a decision that I should go,” said Dr. Pakhomov. “We thought that there was no way for any possible reason that this ship would not be allowed back to land for fuel. But obviously, we were underestimating the situation.”

So Dr. Pakhomov boarded the vessel and listened on his satellite radio as Canada and America shut their borders to Russia. The crew was frightened that if they tried to enter territorial waters, they would be arrested. This affected the sampling: 30 per cent of the data could no longer be collected because the stations fell within the U.S. exclusive economic zone, or EEZ. But more importantly, Dr. Pakhomov was cut off from land. He was stuck on the high sea, and did not know how he would get home.

“I was right in the middle of it,” said Dr. Pakhomov.

There was a chance the vessel would be forced to return to Russia, with Dr. Pakhomov trapped abroad. He feared that once he crossed the Russian border, he might not cross back over for a long time.

“The uncertainty was daunting,” said Dr. Pakhomov. “It was always behind you, always hanging on you. It was tough on me. ... It was really tough not knowing what directive would come tomorrow.”

Powerless against the current of international politics, Dr. Pakhomov and the TINRO crew focused on work. They deployed trawl nets to catch salmon and steelhead. They cut open fish stomachs and examined the contents. This told them how much food was available to salmon in the ocean. Dr. Pakhomov also collected salmon genetics. This data would then be used to determine which river the salmon came from.

Their surveys will eventually be combined with data collected by three other vessels: the Canadian CCGS Sir John Franklin, the American NOAA Bell M. Shimada and the privately operated F/V Raw Spirit. Dr. Pakhomov’s expedition was the largest pan-Pacific ecosystem survey ever conducted during winter. In addition to Canadian, American and Russian scientists, the overall project also included researchers from Japan and South Korea.

The ultimate goal of the research is a greater understanding of the salmon, from their genetics and their hormones to what temperature and salinity of ocean they prefer. Researchers are hoping this knowledge can be used to predict how salmon will adapt to climate events such as heat waves. It will also allow scientists to predict how many salmon will return each year.

“Salmon populations are an international issue,” said Laurie Weitkamp, the fisheries biologist aboard the American NOAA Bell M. Shimada. “[The salmon] are out there together. They don’t pay attention to international boundaries.”

This expedition also builds on two previous expeditions: the 2019 and 2020 Gulf of Alaska Expeditions.

“With climate change, the time is now to be doing this kind of collaborative work,” said Mark Saunders, director of the International Year of the Salmon, the organization key to arranging this latest expedition. “We hope that the results of this survey will allow us to forecast fisheries, [and build] an ongoing, complete system.”

But back on the TINRO, Dr. Pakhomov had his own future to think about.

Plans were being made for him to disembark at Dutch Harbor in Alaska. Since the Russian ship could not get close to shore, a private oceanic tugboat had been chartered. It would meet the TINRO at a specific point and time outside U.S. territorial waters.

When the day of the exchange arrived, the sea was calm and the skies blue. The tugboat lined up next to the TINRO and the samples transferred. Dr. Pakhomov said goodbye to his crew and then jumped down into the tug. “It was almost like a rescue mission,” he said.

The TINRO had eight days of fuel left, precisely the amount needed to return to Russia.

Dr. Pakhomov spent one day in Alaska before boarding a plane to Vancouver.

While the expedition was successful, the TINRO’s failure to collect samples from within U.S. territorial waters will cloud understanding of salmon habits and populations.

“Now for us it is a black box what is happening in the coastal environment,” said Dr. Pakhomov. “Maybe nothing, maybe something. … The idea was that we would sample the whole habitat. But in the end we had to reduce and could only sample part of it. This cut out a big chunk of salmon habitat.”

Dr. Weitkamp, who was the American scientist aboard the Russian vessel during the 2019 Alaskan expedition, was also disappointed.

“As a biologist, I’ve gotten to know the Russians really well,” said Dr. Weitkamp. “It’s really tragic that this war happened in the middle of things. … There is a long history of doing this, of working together and collaborating; it’s just a shame that this couldn’t happen this year.”

Dr. Pakhomov said that Russian scientists have a wealth of data from previous expeditions and that it would be unfortunate to let anything stand in the way of future collaborations.

“They are not just equal partners around the table, they can bring much more,” said Dr. Pakhomov. “And we can gain much more working with them. … I believe that all this political situation should not touch science. Science should be international.”

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