Seeing beneath the waves

When David Welch first became a salmon biologist in the mid 1980s, world salmon populations were abundant and cellphones were merely oversized curiosities. Fifteen years later, salmon stocks had shrunk dramatically.

When David Welch first became a salmon biologist in the mid 1980s, world salmon populations were abundant and cellphones were merely oversized curiosities.

Fifteen years later, salmon stocks had shrunk dramatically. And so had cellphones.

Now, armed with the same technology that made portable phones a reality, Welch is granting marine researchers their first-ever peek under the waves, and bringing them tantalizingly close to solving the riddle of the disappearing salmon.

Welch is founder of Kintama, a Nanaimo, BC-based company developing a revolutionary ocean network with the unprecedented ability to track the ocean-wide movements of marine life with spellbinding clarity.

First, manufacture small acoustic transponders the size of pop cans and place them on the ocean floor at one-kilometre intervals.

Then, inject tiny tracking devices into some salmon fry.

“About 50 to 100 animals” are enough to accurately gauge a whole population, said Welch.

As the fry grow into adults, the transponders track their every move—providing researchers with a cradle-to-grave map of the salmon’s movements—be it into the nets of a pollock fisher, succumbing to disease or becoming an orca’s lunch.

“It has allowed us to start answering those questions that have always been impossible to even dream of answering before,” said Welch.

It’s impossible, said colleagues.

An understandable charge for a man who wanted to wire the entire ocean.

“This is an outside-of-the-box technology, so you have to be quirky or warped to think of it in the first place,” he said.

“A lot of the criticism was we’d never get it to work in the first place, so don’t bother trying,” said Welch.

“We have, and now the technology question is really, ‘Just how good can we make this as we drive the technology to better and better levels over time?’” he said.

For only $25 million, Welch estimates that he could get a transponder network operating all along the western coast of North America—from the Baja to the Bering Sea—with the potential to track anything from minnows to manatees.

“We’re designing and building high-efficiency permanent infrastructures to answer these scientific questions,” said Welch.

“It was the only thing that might answer the question of how do we directly look into the ocean,” he said.

Considering that billions of dollars worth of fisheries revenue hang in the balance, $25 million is a bargain, notes Welch.

For centuries, the sheer invisibility of the ocean depths has plagued marine researchers.

Scientists could dissect specimens and take samples, but the migration patterns and life cycles of their waterborne test subjects remained a mystery.

Land biologists never had that problem. Anybody with a clipboard and a pair of binoculars could keep tabs on a herd of caribou.

Satellites have only sweetened the deal, giving biologists a bird’s-eye view of their charges.

Marine biologists, meanwhile, remained blinded by the glassy ocean surface.

“What we’ve had to do, is basically put the satellites at the bottom of the ocean,” said Welch.

Kintama technology has already made its debut in rivers across Canada—but is still poised to make a permanent large-scale debut in the Pacific Ocean, a project known as the Pacific Ocean Shelf Tracking project.

In unlocking the secrets of salmon decline, the benefits are as much social as they are biological, said Welch.

When salmon stocks disappear, conflict begins.

In California, BC, Oregon and the Yukon, villages stripped of food, and fishermen stripped of livelihoods have been all too eager to point fingers.

Nobody really knows where the salmon are going, but knee-jerk blame has been cast on everything from dams, forestry, mining and agriculture.

“They all play some role, but the question is, are they playing a dominant role?” said Welch.

As governments rain sanctions and restrictions upon suspected salmon-decline culprits, the fear is that, without proper data, regulators may be sacrificing the wrong sacred cows.

“If we get it wrong, we’re going to hurt someone’s livelihood and their well-being inappropriately,” said Welch.

Welch’s array will provide governments with the clarity they need to make tough choices on behalf of the salmon.

Salmon remain the most politically relevant of the vanishing ocean species, but the tracking project will have invaluable applications at monitoring anything else with fins or gills.

Seeing into the ocean has come at an optimum time, as warming ocean temperatures impose unprecedented habitat changes.

Warm water species have expanded their ranges into northern latitudes, while cold water species have hurried farther north still, clinging to a rapidly shrinking circle of icy water.

“We’re already seeing sardines expanding north from California, and Humboldt squid coming out of Baja, Mexico, up as far as Glacier Bay; as the climate continues to warm, we’ll expect to see those animals move even farther north,” said Welch.

“The question for everyone is, is this just the early stages of global warming, or is this natural cycles of animal populations?” he said.

“If it’s cycles, they’ll come back.”

Even in its most rudimentary stages, Kintama technology has already dispelled several long-held notions of salmon survival.

Researchers initially believed that salmon were mainly going belly-up in the rivers, the oceans being a comparatively safe haven.

Quickly, the technology showed that it was the other way around.

“Probably the most important results we’re going to get are things we didn’t even know we needed to discover,” said Welch.

“My hope is, before I die, that we will have made a significant dent in opening up the oceans and big rivers, like the Yukon, so that the next generation of scientists will be able to make real progress on things that were formerly considered impossible,” said Welch.

Contact Tristin Hopper at

tristinh@yukon-news.com