why count salmon?

one fish, two fish, red and green fish…

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?

Simple really.

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.

Big problem.

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.

What happens when you try to build a tower when one of the walls is slightly shorter? Eventually it comes down like a house of cards.

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.

8 thoughts on “why count salmon?

  1. Brian

    Quote from Salmonguy: “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.”

    Advancements in technology is not just to have better estimates. With the present example you use (one that I am very familar with) it serves many other purposes. Using these other methods helps to reduce the “footprint” and any perceived impact from conventional enumeration techniques which utilize more crews, more vehicles and more boats.

    Quote from Salmonguy: “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.”

    Kind of simple answer, but it doesn’t appreciate what is actually involved in counting salmon. Actually it is getting more challenging. Numbers can fluctuate, but the phyiscal conditions on the ground (i.e. lakes, glacial systems, river blow-outs during heavy rain events) still remain and add challenges to counting. Crews still have to be aware of bears, travel many kilometers a day surveying streams and lakes and deal with people that wish to do them harm. Although your post was in March 2010, if you were to see the abundances of sockeye in some areas last season you would notice that these were not easy to enumerate. People also want better forecasts.

    Sorry Hayley…..I did not mean to make you revisit your ecology homework. Dave and I are involved in this eternal tennis match that just goes on and on…lol.

  2. Dave

    “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…”

    Ummm, this is exactly what does happen. Every single sockeye spawning stream in the Fraser watershed gets looked at by DFO. Every single stream gets counted in one way or another. Over 90% of those streams are counted by someone walking, rafting, or flying over it and counting. But you wouldn’t want to let the facts get in the way now, would you?

  3. salmon guy Post author

    Appreciate the comment. Pretty strong words. All I can say is: “prove it”…
    90% of the streams in BC are counted by someone? — that I highly doubt.

    For example, every stream on the coast is counted? Every stream on Haida Gwaii? Every stream on the outlying coastal islands? What about the streams that are too deep, too murky, too brush covered?
    90% is a big number…

    Plus, i’m not really one for calling flying over a stream in a helicopter or fixed-wing — “counting”. That doesn’t really give someone a feeling for the rest of the ecosystem surrounding a stream, changes in habitat, etc.

  4. Brian

    In the Fraser River watershed, DFO surveys all known sockeye populations. The history of where these areas are and the surveys done over the years is very extensive and documented. You also have to keep in mind that Sockeye life history is linked to freshwater nursery lakes (with some exceptions), so the areas in the Fraser where the major and not so-major populations are is not a big mystery. However, it does not mean that biologists and technicians do not opportunistically explore new areas to find spawning sockeye or follow-up on information provided by the public, First Nations, the province, or private consultants. Sockeye crews also collaborate with other sectors such as Chinook/Coho crews and Habitat Biologists from Oceans and Habitat Enhancement Branch (OHEB). When these other sectors find sockeye during their surveys in areas where Sockeye crews are not they pass this information along. If you look at summaries produced annually you will notice that there are new areas surveyed. This was again the case in 2010 where there were many areas surveyed for the first time. The fact is that the people that count Sockeye do not work in isolation nor do they consider that there is nothing to learn from new areas.

    On of the main reasons why these new areas are surveyed is due to the fact that DFO hires outstanding field crew members to carry out stock assessment activities on the ground. DFO also works with local First Nations on many of these stock assessment projects. Instead of just doing the minimal effort, these crew members take their job seriously by exploring new areas. When you consider how busy 2010 was from a Sockeye perspective, surveying new areas is not a small task.

    Aerial surveys are a low precision, visual method which does has its place. Some rivers are not as favourable to count from the ground due to wetted width (too wide to see from one side to the next). Some may be too remote for crews to access by foot in a timely manner (access by boat or vehicles may be limited). There might also be safety reasons why aerial counting is better than then having surveying on the ground. There are also budget considerations that have to be weighed also when you have a whole host of other areas that require attention also. However, although a river is aerially enumerate it is still necessary in many cases to be on the ground the next day to recover carcasses for sex ratio, success of spawn and biological sampling (scales, otoliths, DNA and lengths) for the Pacific Salmon Commission.

    “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…”

    This is already being done and has been done for many, many, many years. DFO hires many seasonal staff to work alongside indeterminate staff to survey streams and lakeshore areas. As I mention above, DFO staff also work with First Nation fisheries technicians to survey these areas. Some roving projects (visual surveys) can consist of 40 different streams and lakeshore areas. This can involve a great deal of stream walking and time in a boat. You can also encounter bears on these walks. Because of the nature of the work, DFO crews are often in these areas where many people do not frequent or do not visit very often. Crews are very observant and often collaborate with other agencies (MOE) to help carry out projects.

  5. Dave

    Prove it?


    I was referring to the Fraser watershed.I think I was pretty conservative with my 90% estimate. If anyone knows of a sockeye spawning stream that wasn’t surveyed, pass the info along because I’m sure those folks doing the counts would love to know. And I would consider hovering over a sockeye river in a helicopter at treetop level “counting”, because it sure beats trying to count from a boat or the bank on many systems. I’m nor sure how you decide that you can’t get a feel for the sourrounding habitats from the air. Is looking at it not good enough? You seem to make judgments on all sorts of things you have zero firsthand experience with; how is it inadequate for field staff to observe an entire watershed on a weekly basis from the air and not get a “feeling” for it.

  6. salmon guy Post author

    thanks for the clarification.
    My comments are not only referring to sockeye, nor just sockeye in the Fraser — fair enough that that’s the main theme in the post.

    It’s kind of exactly my point… much of DFO’s resources are focused on the large systems (esp. the Fraser) and the small sockeye streams of the rest of the Province are left to fester in their functional extinctions.

    ditto I suppose on the judgments. Some folks seem to jump to some interesting conclusions, judgments, and assumptions in some comments on this website.

    I think I’ll leave your question/comment about enumeration and getting a ‘feeling’ for streams — from the air to other readers… although I’m not so sure bears, birds and otherwise are all that fond of hovering buzzing aircraft at a key feeding time in the year. Nor would I think people would be all that fond of being “counted” while they’re trying to mate… (just a thought)

    Appreciate the comments and the growing diversity of experience and knowledge in the comments being left on this site. Glad to see more DFO employees and/or contractors engaging.

  7. salmon guy Post author

    thanks Brian.
    i certainly don’t intend to question the dedication of individuals doing the work on the ground… My experiences in this type of work were some of my absolute favorite work experiences.

    However, I don’t think anyone can question the fact that decisions made in DFO Ottawa, and resources dedicated to DFO Ottawa’s paper enumeration methods, have had a significant impact on the actual on-the-ground work and crews. Not to mention gutting of the Provincial MOE over the last decade or so.
    thanks for the continued engagement.

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