Most of us know the story. Dr. Suess wrote the book to help kids learning to read. A fun rhyming story. Although it was red fish, blue fish…
I haven’t seen the book in awhile; however, I don’t think there were any rhymes about “mark-recapture” sonar hydroacoustical split-beam single-beam DIDSON data capturing salmon counting wonder tools.
See if Suess’ fish on the right were captured by one of these techno-gizmos utilized for counting salmon they’d show up as some grainy fuzzy blob resembling a baby ultrasound image.
The “advancement” of techno-tools intended to count salmon is a growth industry. There are in-stream tools for counting salmon utilizing sonar-like technology — and for the last decade or more there have been techno-tools such as radio telemetry utilized in the ocean. Little radio transponders are implanted in little baby salmon and when they migrate out to ocean various radio receivers installed on the ocean floor pick up the signal. Scientists look at the “data” and try to form a picture of where and when those little salmon migrate around parts of the North Pacific.
The other day I saw a presentation on sonar-like device that is installed on a river bank. The device sends out sound waves into the stream, those waves come back to a computer as an image, like a video feed, that can be looked at. Little gray blobs in the shape of a fish moving by can then be counted. The apparent benefit for these types of tools is that they can be used in deeper, larger, maybe murkier streams where visual counting may be more difficult.
Curious enough project… the irony I see is that all of the wires and such from the device run up the stream bank, and are fed into a tiny little shed (basically windowless) situated away from the stream. The salmon “counters” sit in the little dark shed staring at a laptop screen counting gray blobs (I mean…salmon).
One of the problems, apparently, was that the “counters” could only count 20 minutes of data. If the sonar device ran for an hour, or 24/7 pumping out visual images the files would be way too big…
Of course, data capacity of computers is doubling about as fast as you can say “double-shot espresso. ” So, is there a time when a computer program could be written to count the gray blobs, the sonar device could run 24/7 and there would be no need for people? (just ask bank tellers and assembly line workers about how computers replace people rather efficiently).
This brings me to the question — why count salmon?
The basic purpose is to try and determine how many salmon are reaching the spawning grounds. Fisheries management and science calls this: “escapement”.
I have always found this such an odd term; troubling. It gives me memories of movies like “Escape from Alcatraz” and “The Fugitive“.
Escapement — refers to salmon that have “escaped” commercial fisheries and the multitude of predators and gauntlet of natural threats; for example elevated stream temperatures. For example, last year on the Fraser River was the hottest average river temperatures on record. The average was close to 19 degrees Celsius with peaks nearing the mid-20s.
For salmon — that’s akin to sex in a hot, hot tub. Great for the first little bit, but taxing, exhausting, and dehydrating quickly. Salmon can’t hop out and roll in the snow for cool down…
If we run with this analogy — the whole salmon counting business is rather invasive. These “fugitives” are simply trying to get to the best spot for sex, which has been determined by eons of evolution. Trying to get to the ideal reproduction spot entails dodging nets, hooks, teeth, hot water, pollution, and whatever other dangers. Then around almost every bend of stream they get blitzed by sound waves, or swim into a fence that is directing where they need to swim so they can be counted.
And the purpose?
The entire purpose of counting salmon is to plug numbers into equations which then suggest humans can capture “x” number. That “x” number is apparently the “surplus”.
It’s piggy-bank economics. What’s the purpose of counting all your pennies?
To determine “how-much-you-got”.
Counting pennies is pretty easy. The cold, hard copper is right there in front of you. You know it’s a penny, you can read the year it was produced. You can make nice stacks and dream of all the 99-cent iTunes songs you can buy. You can stack the pennies on your elbow and flip down quickly to see how many you can catch before gravity takes over….
Salmon? not so much.
Counting salmon is tougher than laying on your back in the fall and counting all the Canada geese that fly over. Or, counting all the cars attached to a train going by.
Counting salmon is fraught with error: viewer error, counter error, species error, nighttime error, timing error. We simply can’t count all the salmon. And, hence, why counting salmon became pretty big business. With advancing technology, folks assume the better the technology, the more accurate our counting. The more accurate our counting, the better we can base our “harvesting” decisions.
The better we can base our “harvesting” decisions — the better we can “manage” the resource, the salmon.
If the initial numbers (“escapement” estimates) are fraught with error, assumptions, and estimates; then the worse those margins of error become the further we move down the equation.
The original error becomes more and more emphasized the further along we go. Eventually… disaster.
The greatest irony of all this counting — it’s getting easier. It’s getting easier every year.
Why? Because, there are less and less salmon to count.
And soon enough — on our current route — there could potentially be few commercial fisheries. At that point; will there be any point in counting…?
And really, if the technology is fraught with error would we not be better off economically putting the millions of dollars pumped into technology — into people instead?
Could we not hire hundreds of people with the same amount of money to actually physically walk streams, snorkel sections of rivers, and get a good idea over years of observation? They could then potentially observe other things going on out there — like maybe starving bears…
Is there not a rich source of traditional knowledge that suggests how salmon were counted in the past when there was not the same techno-gizmos? How did downstream aboriginal communities make sure salmon got to upstream communities and spawning grounds?
Unfortunately, I can find reams and reams of techno-gizmo studies (that still only produce “estimates”) and basically zero studies that look beyond our techno-gizmo obsession.