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British Columbia Sweeping study aims to find why salmon stocks collapsed

Dr. Brian Riddell, President and CEO of the Pacific Salmon Foundation, is photographed at the False Creek Fisherman's Wharf in Vancouver, British Columbia, Saturday, October 13, 2012.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

With almost $10-million in funding raised from private donors, corporations and non-profits, the Pacific Salmon Foundation has started a salmon research project unlike anything the government ever attempted.

Launched on the 20th anniversary of the collapse of coho and chinook salmon stocks in the Strait of Georgia, the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project is aimed at finding out why the crash happened – and determining what can be done to restore the runs.

Brian Riddell, president and CEO of the Pacific Salmon Foundation, said the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, where he used to be lead scientist, never tackled the problem in the holistic way his organization intends to.

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He said the research department he headed at DFO for many years, before joining the non-government, not-for-profit PSF in 2009, wanted to do this kind of broad-scope project, but could never get funding for it.

"We tried to do this several times. And we could never do it," Dr. Riddell said. "The funny part of this whole thing is that right after I left government [to take the PSF job], a donor came and said, 'look, you want to do something useful now' – and that really got me thinking."

Dr. Riddell and the PSF have come up with a plan to do an across-the-ecosystem study, using small teams of researchers scattered in communities around Georgia Strait.

The teams of what he calls "citizen scientists" will be equipped with a fleet of small boats loaded with sampling equipment and trained to measure a myriad other environmental factors, including everything from the health of eelgrass beds, to herring spawn density. They will work in conjunction with researchers from the University of British Columbia, the University of Victoria and DFO, which will be doing related studies.

Dr. Riddell said when chinook and coho stocks began to plunge in the Strait of Georgia, he and other scientists at DFO wanted to know why. But he said the government studies that were launched all had narrow, specific focuses and didn't try to assemble the big picture.

"The science was fragmented," he said. "Lots of good creative work had been done, but on a very limited scale."

Dr. Riddell said the Salish Sea project will try to "put the entire picture together" by finding the missing pieces of the puzzle and by "looking at everything at once."

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He said the project wouldn't have been possible without private-sector money that allowed his team to design a sweeping research strategy that didn't fit traditional, bureaucratic research models.

Among the financial supporters are Rudy North, president and chief executive of North Growth Management, Goldcorp, Port Metro Vancouver, the Ritchie Family Foundation and the Sitka Foundation.

Ross Beaty, who runs Alterra Power, Vancouver's largest clean-energy company, donated to the project through the family-run Sitka Foundation.

"My view is that many people support people things like schools and hospitals and so on but few support those vital things around us that have no voice – the natural world that gives sustenance to humans in so many ways," Mr. Beaty said in an e-mail. "We support the PSF for that reason alone, and also because, as a native Vancouverite, I grew up fishing for salmon. And am very concerned about their collapse in my lifetime in the Salish Sea where I live."

The Salish Sea is a body of water that includes the Strait of Georgia, Juan de Fuca Strait and Puget Sound.

Starting in 1994, chinook and coho stocks in those waters began a steep and persistent decline, within a few years falling to such low levels (to less than one-tenth of historic levels, where it now remains) that the retention of wild salmon was soon restricted. The sport fishery that exists today relies largely on hatchery salmon.

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"I know what caused their collapse – overfishing of both the salmon and their pelagic feedstock like the herring and herring roe, habitat degradation and industrial and urban pollution into our waterways. This is not rocket science and it's reversible if we change these destructive habits," Mr. Beaty said.

Dr. Riddell agrees – but says the five-year study is needed to pinpoint precisely what went wrong and to lead to the development of management policies that will restore stocks.

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