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A sockeye salmon is reeled in by a fisherman along the shores of the Fraser River near Chilliwack, B.C., Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2010.Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

Government and private groups on both sides of the border are joining forces to try to find out what is affecting salmon survival in the waters off the coasts of British Columbia and Washington State.

Brian Riddell, president and CEO of the Pacific Salmon Foundation, said it is hoped that an initial grant of $5-million can be expanded to $20-million over the next five years.

The focus of the research project will be the Salish Sea, a geographical area that combines the waters of the Strait of Georgia, Puget Sound and Juan de Fuca Strait.

Those sheltered waters on the east coast of Vancouver Island and around the southern tip, and in the inlets north of Seattle, are the primary rearing area for salmon that migrate out of numerous coastal rivers, including the Fraser. Scientists have long believed that conditions in those inside waters drastically affect the survival rate of salmon in the early stages of life.

"The importance of the Salish Sea in determining salmon production has been overlooked for far too long," said Dr. Riddell, whose B.C.-based non-profit foundation is dedicated to conserving and rebuilding Pacific salmon stocks.

The initial funding for the project is being provided jointly to the Pacific Salmon Foundation and to Long Live the Kings, a U.S. non-profit named after king or Chinook salmon. The Pacific Salmon Commission, an international organization formed under the Pacific Salmon Treaty, and the Southern Fund Committee, a related entity, are providing the initial funds.

"This is the largest grant ever made to a bilateral research effort focused squarely on determining the influences on early marine survival of salmon and steelhead," said Larry Rutter, the U.S. federal commissioner to the Pacific Salmon Commission, who is also a member of the Southern Fund Committee. "We believe that this joint project will ultimately lead to healthier salmon and steelhead stocks in both U.S. and Canadian waters."

"The marine waters of the Salish Sea are critically important to the survival of many stocks that are of great significance to the U.S. and Canadian commercial, recreational and tribal fisheries," said John Field, executive secretary for the Pacific Salmon Commission.

Some 20 federal and state agencies, tribes, academic and non-profit organizations are expected to be involved in the project.

Catches of Chinook and coho salmon and of steelhead in the Salish Sea have been at historic low levels in recent years, but it isn't known what has caused those declines. Other species, such as sockeye, have been varying widely, with a record-high return coming back to the Fraser River in 2010, for example, following a record-low in 2009. Scientists hope clues to the mystery can be found in the Salish Sea.

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