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Map of the expedition (data points from my SPOT messenger)


A few months ago, Deirdre Brennan, a fellow member of the Explorers Club, approached me about a film, “Lost At Sea,” she is making with Eamon de Buitlear about Atlantic Salmon and where they go in the ocean once they leave the rivers.  The ratio of fish leaving the rivers to those returning has declined dramatically in recent years indicating a high mortality of the salmon at sea.  In an effort to learn more about these post-smolt fish, the SALSEA project was created to learn about the oceanic migration of the salmon.  Deirdre asked me to come along on one of the SALSEA expeditions to film and assist in the early stages of the film.  Being the avid fisherman that I am and of course, my desire to know all there is to know about every fish in the sea, led me to participate on this SALSEA expedition aboard the RV Celtic Explorer into the Norwegian Sea to collect and sample post-smolt Atlantic Salmon on their way to their feeding grounds to the North.

I am very excited to be on this voyage and a part of this project as it is one of the first of its kind to do a comprehensive study of salmon at sea.  We will be fishing for the salmon with surface trawls (large nets dragged right at the surface) because the post-smolt salmon, fish just leaving the rivers, are found in only the surface waters no deeper than 3m.  Because the scientists are using genetic markers to identify the fish, every fish captured becomes useful as opposed to only tagged fish in the past.  There are 1360 known salmon rivers in Europe and many of the highly productive rivers have been “genetically mapped” so that the fish caught in the ocean can be identified to their natal river.

We are heading north to an area west of the Voering Plateau where the salmon funnel into the Barents and Greenland Seas.  This “salmon pass” is our target area in our quest to document the salmon migration.  In its second year, the SALSEA project will attempt to answer questions of where the salmon go when they leave the rivers and why they are not returning.


Day 1- Leaving the Dock

After a day of running around Killybegs getting our final medical certificates needed to go on the voyage, we were back on the ship and ready to set sail for the Norwegian Sea.  Before setting sail, we took the tender, the Tom Crean, out for spin to get some shots of the ship from the water.  It was a lovely day (I could have stayed out all day), but we ventured around the harbor, checked out a few things, and then were hoisted back into position on the ship.

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The RV Celtic Explorer

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The ship from the Tom Crean. (Thanks Pat for the lift)

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A scenic area in Killybegs

We pulled away from the dock just after 1500 hours (3pm) with calm seas, light wind, and sunshine.  As always, I was up on the bow as we steamed out of the harbor, past the lighthouse and along the Irish coastline.  It was a beautiful voyage for the next few hours as we passed by sea cliffs and hidden beaches.

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Leaving Killybegs

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The lighthouse on the way out of Killybegs

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The Cliffs of Slieve League (Sliabh Liag)

Now it is a three-day steam until we reach our first sampling area.  Plenty of time to get acquainted with everyone and the ship…


Day 2- June 24, 2009

I arose to a beautiful calm morning on the North Atlantic with the Hebrides to the east of the ship.  We are moving at quite a fast clip up to our sampling area, cruising at around 14 knots.  We have a southerly wind behind us adding to our speed and the calm seas are helping us along.

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Because today we are steaming (transiting), the chief scientists gathered all hands to talk about the sampling plan.  It seems we are going to begin sampling just below 68° N where the concentration of post-smolt salmon should be high as they funnel along the western side of the Voering Plateau.  We are anticipating a high catch in this area on our way to the more northerly sampling grounds.

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The rest of the day was spent exploring the ship to find good places and interesting angles to shoot photos and video of the net coming in.   And of course, enjoying the sunshine!  It was quite warm and very beautiful as we traveled up north, with gannets and other sea birds flying all around the ship.

We have another day steaming tomorrow and should reach our first sampling area on Friday morning.  Because we are heading pretty far north, we may lose internet signal for a few days so the posts will be logged when we are back online.

The science should start soon…I am looking forward to seeing some post-smolts and whatever other species we capture in the nets!


Day 3- Steaming North

I woke up to a foggy morning with calm seas.  We started the day around 63°N and continue to steam north.  The water temperature is a balmy 8.5°C (47°F) and the air temperature is around 10°C (50°F).  The winds are calm so the fog seems to be sticking with us but the wind is supposed to shift tomorrow so it could clear out some of the fog.  I spent some time on the bridge today and saw some passing schools of mackerel on the surface.  They quickly went below when they sensed the ship coming but it is always nice to see signs of life on the open ocean.

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The rest of the day was spent preparing for the upcoming work which is going to be fast and furious.  I have an early morning wakeup call at 3:30 am to get out on deck by 4:00 for the launching of the CTD (Conductivity Temperature Depth Recorder).  We should be passing through the Arctic Circle shortly.


THE ARCTIC CIRCLE: 66° 33’ 39”

As many people know, I set strange goals for myself.  One was to set foot on the seven continents before I was 25, I did this…Well going below the Antarctic Circle and above the Arctic Circle before I am 30 is another of these goals.  With passing the Arctic Circle this evening, I have accomplished this goal! Needless to say, I am very excited so I took a picture next to the map with the location.

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We are now above the Arctic Circle just west of the Voering Plateau…Still steaming…


Northernmost Point of the Cruise (or is it?)- Sampling Begins

In the early morning (0330), We reached the anticipated northernmost point of the cruise, 67.5°N, the starting point for the sampling.  The cruise plan was to head to this point and see what we find.  If we found a large number of salmon, we would continue north.  So with a CTD done and a plankton sample collected, the first trawl of the cruise was put out for one hour to test the waters.  In this first haul, we found only one post-smolt so it was determined that we should turn southward to continue our sampling for the day in as Southerly direction.  Our second haul was far more productive yielding 50+ salmon.

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In addition to the post-smolt salmon, the net captured a few other species that were sampled as well: mackerel, herring and lumpsuckers.  Lumpsuckers are one of my favorite fish.  I don’t know much about them but they are absolutely beautiful with a crazy turquoise coloration and textured body.  The mackerel are in large numbers as we see them on the surface.  The population of mackerel and herring in this region is healthy and almost over-abundant due to the intense management of the stocks in the past years.

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A small lumpsucker

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A large mackerel

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Herring (these made their way into the galley for breakfast)

We are in international waters.  As we headed south, we encountered the Russian trawler fleet, targeting the large mackerel shoals we are seeing on the surface of the sea.  These ships are massive, well over 100 meters.  One possibility for the loss of the salmon at sea is that large numbers are being discarded as bycatch.

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Our sampling trawls stay out for about 3 hours.  In that time, there is ample time to spend on the bridge looking for passing wildlife.  There were some sperm whales cruising by the boat and someone sighted some orca as well.  I missed the orca but saw the sperm whales.  Apparently because of the ridge here, we should see quite a few whales and the sperm whales seem to like this area very much.  I hope at least one of the whales wants to check out this big green boat so that I can have a closer look at him.

With the day of sampling completed, we will turn and head back north to begin sampling in the morning at a spot close to where we began today.  The smolts are moving at approximately 15 nautical miles per day so we must anticipate this movement when choosing where to sample.  Essentially, we are looking for the highest concentration of post-smolts along our journey.


Sampling Hours in the Ocean of the Midnight Sun

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One thing I find interesting on this cruise is that we only sample in so-called daytime hours.  Despite the fact that we are above the Arctic Circle and have 24 hours of sunlight, the fish still sense the change in time of day.  It is not the darkness that determines the fish behavior but the angle of the sun and light penetration into the water has an effect because of the albedo, the reflectivity of the light on the water.  Even though we are in the land (or ocean) of the midnight sun, the fish still move to deeper waters at night.  For this reason, we begin sampling in the early morning and end in the late evening noting that our highest concentration of fish are caught in the middle of the day.

We are also finding very small concentrations of plankton in the area.  This is peculiar but apparently has been the case in this region of the Norwegian Sea for some time now.  One theory is that the abundance of the small pelagic species, herring, mackerel, etc is leading to over-grazing driving the populations down.  This will eliminate food for the young salmon on their way to grow and fatten up in the north before heading back to their natal rivers.

There is so much to learn about the Atlantic Salmon and the possible reasons why they are getting “Lost at Sea.”  We are only just skimming the surface of our understanding and this cruise and the other SALSEA cruises are seeking to answer the question of what is happening to the post-smolt salmon that are leaving the rivers when they enter the ocean…


June 27: Day 2 of Sampling- South and North

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With an early start to the day (0500), back up to the north, the CTD was in the water.  The trawl was in and fishing by 0600 for a three hour tow.  At 0900, the tow came up and was as expected with a nice concentration of post-smolts although they are quite small.  The trawl went out again for four hours on the second tow but the haul had far fewer fish than anticipated.  With that in mind, we steamed north a bit for the third tow.  We are kind of zigzagging along a contour in order to find higher numbers of post-smolts.

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After ending the day with a smaller number of post-smolts, we are steaming farther north to sample tomorrow into the northerly current.  We should be above 68°N in the morning to begin sampling so in fact our first proclamation of the northernmost point of the voyage will be incorrect.

The day was filled with quite a bit of wildlife though.  We saw a few sperm whales cruising on the surface in addition to two minke whales and a fin whale.  There are quite a few fulmars following the ship as well.


Sperm Whale Fluke

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A fulmar soaring past the ship

I am quite excited to be heading so far north.  Perhaps we will get some sunshine but the fog is rolling in so it is not looking promising.

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The Northernmost Point of the Cruise


Explorers Club Flag #81 at 68 degrees North


June 28: Day 3 of Sampling- Back North 68°10’N

Just as we thought we had hit our northernmost position, we turned back north and this morning arose to find ourselves at 68°10’N.  The first haul of the morning was quite successful so the turn back north seems to be the right decision for finding the post-smolts.  We got 50 in our first haul and now the next one is out so it should be interesting to see what we come up with.

The seas are still smiling upon us, as it is calm.  We saw our first glimmers of sun in a few days as well but we are in a blanket of fog.  Hopefully by midday, it will burn off and we will have the perfect day at sea…this may be wishful thinking…I am quite satisfied with the calm seas and lack of wind.

We came about for the second trawl of the day and headed back north in an attempt to stay in the high concentration of smolts.  The numbers were not as good so we are heading back south.


The floats of the trawl coming on deck.

The sun never came back out after noon so the RV Celtic Explorer was in a little bubble of fog for most of the day.  There was not much to see so it was a perfect opportunity to catch up on some inside work and get ready for tomorrow, the final day of sampling.  I got some great shots of the deck work, and look forward to wrapping up the sampling tomorrow.


The Anatomy of a Trawl


Trawls are commonly used to sample fish in fisheries research.  They are also a very common way of fishing commercially for pelagic species (like the Russian trawlers we are seeing fishing for mackerel).  The trawl being used to capture the post-smolts is not huge like those on a commercial vessel and is designed to stay on the surface.  The post-smolts tend to be in the top 3 meters of the water column.  Fishing right at the surface reduces our bycatch as well.  The trawl is towed for anywhere from one to five hours in specific areas to target the post-smolts.


The net coming off the drum…

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The net going out…the teal line is filled with floats to keep the net on the surface.


Floats are attached to the mouth of the net to keep it on the surface.


Large steel doors keep the net open as it is trawled.


The cod end of the net coming on board.


Emptying the cod end of the net…filled with post-smolts.


June 29: Final Day of Sampling

On this final day of sampling, we found ourselves back up north…farther north than before.  It seems that every day we steam north to start the sampling.  The reason for this is to keep up with the migration of the salmon post-smolts.  They are funneling along the shelf here off of the Voering Plateau moving with the northerly current.

With the anticipation of heading back to port, everyone was excited to have a great day here on the calm Norwegian Sea.  With the net in the water, the sun came in and out most of the day and finally stuck around for the entire haul of the last tow.  With the sun shining, the birds were soaring around the ship and the final haul came in yielding a fair number of post-smolts along with an escaped hatchery fish.  This adult fish was in very good condition but had been eating seaweed because it looks like fish pellets.  This is not a nutritious substitute for the small fish and plankton the fish should be eating.

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An Adult Salmon from the Trawl.

We are now steaming back to Killybegs from above the Arctic Circle.  It should be a two and half day steam.  Hopefully the seas will stay calm.

The evening brought a beautiful sunset as we passed below the Arctic Circle.  The sun disappeared behind a bank of fog before we could see it skim across the horizon as it would up here, but it was a stellar evening nonetheless.

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June 30: Steaming Back to Port

After a successful four days of sampling, we are heading back to Killybegs.  We have calm seas for our steam back and light winds.  The sun was shining this morning but now the fog has once again rolled in.  As we were steaming this morning, a large sperm whale cruised by close to the ship.  The size and grace of these animals never cease to amaze me.

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July 1: Still Steaming

We continue to head south on our steam back to Killybegs.  The weather has changed slightly with a low-pressure system to our south sending us some swell and winds.  It is nice to feel the ship move a bit even though it is slight…it actually feels like we are at sea with the gentle roll of a swell.

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Packing up…The net is ready to be offloaded.

The movement gave way to glassy seas once again in the afternoon as we passed by the Hebrides.  The sun came out and glinted off the water and the distant islands making for a beautiful evening on the water.  There were puffins sighted diving for needle fish around the ship.

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With nightfall, the first since leaving Ireland ten days ago, the Irish rains arrived.  It is pouring outside so I don’t anticipate seeing the cliffs of Slieve League and the Irish Coast in the morning, but I will enjoy this final night at sea.  There is something very special and magical about darkness at sea…it is difficult to put into words, but I think that all on board are welcoming this first darkness.  We will be in Killybegs around midday tomorrow.

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Why are the salmon “Lost at Sea?”

As I have written about earlier, the purpose of this research project, SALSEA-Merge, is to understand the life history of the Atlantic Salmon, and to the figure out why they are not returning to the river after their migration out of the rivers and into the sea.  This expedition is seeking to understand what is happening to these smolts along their journey through genetic testing, etc.  With the knowledge or lack there of about what is actually happening, some of the problems facing these salmon are known.

Some of the problems facing these salmon include poor water quality in the rivers, over-harvest, discards of post-smolts as bycatch, sea lice, and lack of food when they reach the sea…to name a few.   The first two are clear, the fish need a good habitat to live in and with development, etc, water quality in the river goes down.  This needs to be improved so that the salmon don’t have to battle poor conditions in the beginning (and end) of their lives.

Overharvest is also straight-forward.  If you take too many fish, there won’t be any spawners left to replenish the populations.  Overharvest is one of the largest problems facing the fisheries of the world and the salmon are right there in this losing battle.

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Two Russian Trawlers in the Distance

Bycatch is another issue that is key to the decline of many fisheries, but with the salmon, it was a new idea to me.  The post-smolts follow a similar migratory path to the shoals of mackerel that are targeted by the large Russian factory trawlers using massive surface trawls to harvest the mackerel in large numbers.  While the actual impact of these trawlers is unknown, it is hard to imagine that thousands of post-smolts are not captured in these trawls and processed with the mackerel.  The mackerel and post-smolt salmon occupy the same water and having seen the number of mackerel we captured in the sampling trawls, it is hard to imagine that with the size of the trawlers, they are not impacting the population of salmon.

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Mackerel bycatch from the sampling trawl…100 post-smolts were captured in this trawl…can you imagine how many are taken in the large factory trawls?  It must be thousands!

The other problems are distinct possibilities as well.  Many of the post-smolts we collected had sea lice on them.  I learned on the voyage that if a post-smolt has a certain number of sea lice on it, it will certainly die.  The sea lice attach themselves to the smolts on their way out of the river past fish farms.  Fish farms are the culprit in this game.  As the smolts pass, the nauplii (1st stages of development of the sea lice which are copepods, small crustaceans) attach themselves to the smolt and develop into adult sea lice which will remain on the salmon for the remainder of its life.  The level of infestation of the sea lice is tremendous and is one of the major problems arising from the use of fish farms to rear salmon.

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This salmon is infested with sea lice giving way to poor body condition.

Finally, the populations of the small pelagic fish, herring, mackerel, blue whiting, have boomed in the past years impacting the density of zooplankton in the Norwegian Sea.  With the increasing populations due to good management of the stocks for maximum abundance, the zooplankton has been grazed heavily leaving a sea nearly devoid of zooplankton.  Without zooplankton, our post-smolts have nothing to eat so their body condition is not good and they will not be able to survive without food.  This may be a cycle but it is largely unknown at this point…more research must be done.

With all of the potential problems outlined above, it may be something entirely different, but it is hard to imagine how one of our tiny post-smolts can survive its year-long journey in the sea to return to the river to spawn.  In fact, given all of the human obstacles we have put in front of them, it is remarkable that any return at all.

July 2: Back in Port

I arose to a cloudy foggy morning off the Northern Coast of Ireland.  Looking out of my porthole, I saw the coast shrouded in fog.  It was nice to awake to land outside my window.  The seas have remained calm so we should be in port early.  At this point in the cruise, the crew gets “the channels” which is the kind of itching to get home that makes you want to go faster, like the expression “like a horse to the barn.”  We are definitely all in what I would call “go mode,” with the knowledge of getting off the ship, it is about the only thing you can think about.  We will be getting in soon and in the meantime, enjoy the scenery and our last few hours at sea…

Around 11am, we were at the dock in Killybegs,  All packed up, it is time to do a few last interviews before I head to Dublin.  It is nice to be on land and reflecting back on a very successful expedition.


The Crew