Ship part

UBC scientist aboard Russian research vessel navigates uncertainty as Ukraine invades

Dr Evgeny Pakhomov prepares for the deployment of a net aboard a ship off the Pacific coast, examining salmon as chief scientist of the Pan-Pacific Winter Deep Sea Expedition.handout

Evgeny Pakhomov is relieved to be back on dry land after spending the last month aboard a ship off the Pacific coast studying salmon as chief scientist of the Pan Pacific Expedition. winter on the high seas.

The expedition sailed close to the wind, literally and figuratively. Winter weather stirred the ocean. The waves sometimes exceeded six meters. Walking and sleeping were impossible. dr. Pakhomov, a scientist from the University of British Columbia and a Canadian resident, experienced this aboard the R/V TINRO: a Russian ship. He had climbed onto his deck a day after Russia invaded Ukraine in February.

He was the only non-Russian abroad. He was 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 consisted of Russian researchers and sailors.

Dr. Pakhomov wondered if he should also retire, but he was the only crew member who knew how to perform all the required fish sampling. Without it, TINRO would not be able to collect the data it needs. Without him, a year of planning would be wasted.

Nor did Dr. Pakhomov, the crew and the expedition organizers expect the invasion to escalate further.

“There was a decision that I had to go,” Dr. Pakhomov said. “We thought there was no way, for whatever reason, that this vessel wouldn’t be allowed to come ashore for fuel. But obviously, we underestimated the situation.

So Dr. Pakhomov boarded the ship and listened on his satellite radio as Canada and America closed their borders to Russia. The crew was afraid that if they tried to enter territorial waters, they would be arrested. This affected sampling: 30% of the data could no longer be collected because the stations were in the US Exclusive Economic Zone, or EEZ. But more importantly, Dr. Pakhomov was cut off from the ground. He was stuck on the high seas and didn’t know how he would get home.

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

There was a chance the ship would be forced back to Russia, with Dr. Pakhomov trapped overseas. He feared that once he crossed the Russian border, he would not cross again for a long time.

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

Helpless against the current of international politics, Dr. Pakhomov and the TINRO team focused on the job. They deployed trawls to catch salmon and rainbow trout. They opened the stomachs of the fish and examined the contents. This told them how much food was available for 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 readings 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 private F/V Raw Spirit. Dr. Pakhomov’s expedition was the largest pan-Pacific ecosystem survey ever conducted in 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 better understanding of salmon, their genetics and hormones at their preferred ocean temperature and salinity. Researchers hope this knowledge can be used to predict how salmon will adapt to climatic events such as heat waves. It will also allow scientists to predict how many salmon will return each year.

“Salmon populations are an international problem,” said Laurie Weitkamp, ​​a fisheries biologist aboard the US NOAA ship Bell M. Shimada. “[The salmon] are outside together. They do not pay attention to international borders.

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

“With climate change, now is the right time to do this kind of collaborative work,” said Mark Saunders, director of the International Year of the Salmon, the key organization to organize this latest expedition. “We hope that the results of this survey will allow us to predict fisheries, [and build] a continuous and complete system.

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

Plans were underway for him to land at Dutch Harbor in Alaska. As the Russian ship could not approach the shore, a private ocean tug had been chartered. It would meet TINRO at a specific time outside US territorial waters.

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

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

Dr. Pakhomov spent a day in Alaska before flying to Vancouver.

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

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

Dr Weitkamp, ​​who was the American scientist aboard the Russian ship during the 2019 Alaska expedition, was also disappointed.

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

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

“They are not just equal partners around the table, they can bring so much more,” Dr Pakhomov said. “And we can earn a lot more by working with them. … I believe that this whole political situation should not affect science. Science should be international.

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