A curious two days at the Summit on Fraser River Sockeye Salmon: Understanding Stock Declines and Prospects for the Future. Nine speakers panels over the two days – in essence tracing sockeye from the time they rise out of the gravel, through their various life stages until they return back to the Fraser. The “Summit” was also a follow-up to the “Salmon Think Tank” hosted in early Dec. 2009. From that think tank came a press statement.
Adapting to Change: Managing Fraser sockeye in the face of declining productivity and increasing uncertainty. I have commented on this press statement in some of the first posts on this site.
One of the points I made on earlier posts, which I still maintain is something that we can demonstrate in another “graph”:
This is from Jessica Hagy’s blog Indexed.
I’m not sure, though, that when it comes to salmon when we might have reached the bottom of the curve where confusion was the least — maybe prior to European contact…?
As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, this Summit was largely a scientific exercise — and fair enough, it was hosted by Simon Fraser University Centre for Coastal Studies. The folks there did a nice job of pulling this together and have continued to do a nice job over many years hosting the Speaking for the Salmon series of events.
However, it was also not all scientists in the over 100 folks attending, and yesterday — day two — shifted a little more into some curious discussions such as “putting a value on salmon”, “what actions can be taken?”, “what tools do we have?”, and “how do we move forward?”. In these sessions, the voices of some commercial fishermen and community activists started to surface more — and some strong messages that parallel my post from yesterday: managing fish, especially salmon, is not really a scientific exercise; it’s a political exercise.
This is evident around the world in the decline of fisheries. One does not have to look much further than the iconic Bluefin Tuna and the challenges of protecting this species in the face of serious declines.
As I lay in bed trying to fall asleep last night I pondered the many perspectives that surfaced ranging along a spectrum of opinion about what happens next. That’s probably a book in itself… however, one of the strong notions that continues to surface in my mind is that “fisheries science” also ranges along a spectrum of opinion. Sure it’s opinion backed by a lot of charts and graphs, and various letters behind people’s name, and empirical methods and so on — however, as was made clear on the first day of this summit there are as many “models” for attempting to predict fish populations and patterns (especially salmon) as there are models in a Sears Christmas Wishbook or Victoria Secret catalogue.
Now, I mean no offence to learn-ed individuals that have spent years in hallowed institutions counting, measuring, tagging, and chasing fish. Many of these individuals make valuable contributions to the discussion.
Yet, in my mind, after looking at so many differing charts and graphs and hearing that salmon scientists have their own meetings where they have “salmon pools” — like a hockey pool. One presentation explained how various “salmon scientists” met this past year and a bottle of wine was wagered for the person who had the most accurate salmon forecasting model.
The most entertaining aspect of this idea is how the hell does anyone confirm who was right; who wins the bottle of wine?
To accurately “forecast” salmon returns, one would need an accurate count of how many salmon actually returned to confirm the forecast.You know, like weather… when we forecast rain, and it doesn’t rain; forecast was wrong. Not that this ever happens…
To count how many salmon actually return is a highly variable exercise — especially in the Fraser River. Counting salmon that actually reach spawning grounds is barely even guess work at best. Some rivers are flown by helicopter or otherwise over a period of a few days, some rivers use mark-recapture methods to extrapolate (i.e. estimate) over the whole run, other streams are walked every few days, and many streams are not even looked at because of sheer numbers of streams and large geographic area.
I’m thinking maybe that bottle of wine should be put in someone’s cellar and opened in a hundred years. The bottom line is that when it comes to wild salmon — the “science” when it comes to numbers, is largely guess-work; estimates; opinions.
It is one part endless charts and graphs, one part chasing rainbows, and another part endless computer modeling. Throw in a dash of guess-timate, a dollop of estimate, and a whole lot of mystery.
After seeing how many different “models” exist out there to try and estimate salmon returns and estimate salmon populations from the time they leave the gravel, migrate through the North Pacific, and return to their home streams I was reminded of the story I’ve heard about how salmon arrived on Haida Gwaii (sometimes referred to as the Queen Charlotte Is).
As I’ve heard the story, Raven brought salmon to Haida Gwaii. On a visit to the mainland, Raven in his trickster ways managed to roll up rivers, lakes and streams and the salmon they contained — into his beak — fly back over the Hecate Strait and drop them onto the islands. (the story is so much more interesting then my short paraphrase)
Throughout the historic range of wild salmon are aboriginal stories of how salmon came to be in those lands. Often these stories aren’t too far separated from the stories of human creation — they often involve Raven or Coyote or other supernatural creator beings.
I find more solace in those stories than I do in the “scientific” method. It seems that those stories guided humans for thousands of years in how they co-existed and co-evolved with wild salmon. It seems that those stories guided a sustainable relationship — sure there were some hard times; however, those stories are generally few and far between.
Yet, in a mere hundred years or so, “scientific” methods of “fisheries management” have taken us down a road of fisheries declines and collapses the world over. And, not just science — but worse yet, the political decisions on top of the science.
Curiously, I looked up the definition of science on Wikipedia and this is what it states:
Science (from the Latin scientia, meaning “knowledge”) is, in its broadest sense, any systematic knowledge-base or prescriptive practice that is capable of resulting in a correct prediction, or reliably-predictable type of outcome. In this sense, science may refer to a highly skilled technique, technology, or practice, from which a good deal of randomness in outcome has been removed.
When it comes to science and wild salmon… we have not, and most likely will never, remove randomness in outcome. Yes, there are systematic knowledge based practices, even some prescriptive practices — however often resulting in poor predictions, and far from reliably predicted outcomes.
Once we can get past the thought that “science” is going to solve this one for us; once we stop saying “let’s delay action until we do more studies”; once we get past wavering politicians with the inability to make brave decisions on wild salmon; once we get past looking for the “smoking gun”; once we get past the largely useless exercise of expensive public inquiries that keep saying the same thing — then maybe we can take more fricking action.
Taking action is an individual choice — not a scientific one.