satisfying charts and graphs and equations and …

Salmon Think Tank -- Dec. 2010

This is a slide from the recent “Salmon Think Tank” gathering a few weeks ago in Vancouver at SFU’s downtown campus.

As mentioned in previous posts, I wasn’t all that struck by a group of scientists getting together and coming up with the tag line on this particular PPoint slide:

“where to direct future science efforts and how to conduct it?”

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There is quite a debate out there these days over “science” and “traditional knowledge” (whether that traditional knowledge is First Nations or non-First Nations — or maybe simply ‘community knowledge’).

Canada’s courts have had to grapple with this issue. For example, how does aboriginal oral history get treated within the confines of the colonial law system?

Court cases over the last few decades (in many colonized nations) have started to give this question, many varying answers…

And now, scientists are even paying more attention to traditional and community-based knowledge.

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Oddly enough, scientists must have paid some attention to this knowledge over the last century or so when it comes to “fisheries science”… the image above is the present-day salmon smolt (baby salmon) counting fence on the Chilko River out on the Chilcotin Plateau, west of Williams Lake in the territory of the Tsilqot’in people.

The flow of the river in this picture is from right to left. As baby sockeye begin migrating downstream to the ocean, they meet this weir and are directed into the central opening where the small buildings are located.

As the baby fish pool up in their instinctual downstream push, they are ‘counted’ through a system of various electronics and cameras. Data sets for portions of an hour are then used to predict how many fish are moving each hour, this is extrapolated to 24 hrs, etc.

The end result is an estimate of how many baby sockeye leave this particular river and head out to ocean each spring. This number can then be compared against returning adults 3-5 years later — most returning after 4 years.

This is not an “exact” science… and sadly, often many smolts can die in this counting process as fish gather in holding tanks and get squashed, etc.

But, it’s for the good of science…

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Seton Lake - Portage Fish Weir 1903

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Fish weir -- Cowichan River 1900s

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Fraser Lake fish weir 1908

With some irony, all of these fish weirs pictured above were for upstream migrating fish. Aboriginal people from northern Alaska to southern California used these types of structures to capture upstream migrating salmon — and harvest them selectively.

Often times, weirs like this would be located at various points along a stream or river — with Nations upstream depending on the nations downstream to allow fish past.

Most of these weirs — and looking after salmon (e.g. enter buzzword: stewardship) — were tended through elaborate rituals and traditional systems handed down for eons.

Simple principle really: catch too many fish and die a few years later due to starvation.

Or… catch too many fish downstream and suffer the wrath of starving nations upstream.

However, aboriginal fishing weirs and traps were outlawed by colonial laws in the mid to late 1800s — too much competition for the newly expanding salmon canneries.

And thus, very selective in-stream fisheries gave way to mixed stock, non-selective ocean fisheries…

And… elaborate systems of charts and graphs and equations and formulas and licensing and government bureaucracy and the Peter Principle and so on…

This isn’t to say that the traditional systems weren’t perfect and ripe for misuse — however, the checks and balances over thousands of years had allowed a pretty skookum system to entrench.

And thus now, what are we left with?

Stellaquo River 2010 -- Upper Fraser counting fence

“Counting” fences.

They provide some work for folks — however, function little according to their original intention: Food and selective harvest.

Now the counting fence is largely a tool to satisfy the charts and graphs and equations.

And to attempt to satisfy eco-bumpf suggestions of ecosystem-based management and sustainability and conservation… all terms that are entirely relative according to who is speaking them (or including them in their most recent annual report or greenwash campaign).

Upper Sustut 2010 -- Skeena River salmon counting fence

Of course, the original counting fences did serve a “management” function. In addition to serving as tools to facilitate food harvest and selectivity — they were used to gauge the strength and health of each particular salmon run, including looking at ratio of females to males.

Now though… these weirs (i.e. counting fences) largely serve to count the many dieing, dwindling, disappearing salmon runs. When a river’s salmon run becomes too small — it becomes “uneconomical” to continue operating the counting fence.

Not enough fish to count… no point in having a fence to try and count ghost fish.

Maybe someone could do a tally of the number of fish ‘counting’ fences that have disappeared, been de-fenced (you know…as in de-plane) over the last 2-3 decades?

That would probably be a pretty good indication of salmon run health coast-wide…

Sort of like the numerous other salmon “enumeration” programs that have gone the way of the Rivers Inlet sockeye (for example) or East Coast Vancouver Island Coho or Fraser River early-timed Chinook, etc. etc.

It’s not all doom and gloom — it just seems some priorities are sadly twisted, and that history and community knowledge are bounced out the back of the bus and run over by the logging truck rumbling behind….

6 thoughts on “satisfying charts and graphs and equations and …

  1. Brian

    Quote from Salmonguy: “As the baby fish pool up in their instinctual downstream push, they are ‘counted’ through a system of various electronics and cameras. Data sets for portions of an hour are then used to predict how many fish are moving each hour, this is extrapolated to 24 hrs, etc.”

    Other than the cameras, what are these various electronics?

    Quote from Salmonguy: “This is not an “exact” science… and sadly, often many smolts can die in this counting process as fish gather in holding tanks and get squashed, etc.”

    Once again you are looking for “exact”. Unfortunately, you will not find “exact” in traditional methods either. Actually, I don’t think there is much that can be called “exact” in biological sciences. I am sure the individual giving the presentation said that the number of smolts leaving the lake were “estimated” rather than producing a exact count which is practically impossible. Not only is it practically impossible, but what is further gained by knowing 15 million smolts as compared to 14,999,999 smolts or 12,000,000 smolts compared to 11,598,100 smolts. Have you ever had the opportunity to see the number of smolts outmigrating from Chilko Lake? You are trying to sell the idea that if science (in this case fisheries) is not exact that is serves no useful purpose. That’s not realistic, but we have gone down this path many, many times already so I am not going to fall into this quicksand all over again. The only things in life that are for certain are death and taxes.

    Where are the “holding tanks” in the first picture where these fish are getting squashed? Do you know what those “buildings” are and what is inside of them? If you do not know please do not try to BS you way through this as I am sure there are some people out there reading this that may have some intimate knowledge of this setup.

    Quote from Salmonguy:
    “Counting” fences.

    They provide some work for folks — however, function little according to their original intention: Food and selective harvest.

    Now the counting fence is largely a tool to satisfy the charts and graphs and equations.”

    I realize that you have visited the Stellako fence, but did you take the opportunity to see what is done at the fence beside the food fishery; and what is done with the data collected? Apparently not as I have gathered from your knowledge so far. Could it possibly be a local First Nations initiative (staffed with a large component of First Nation fisheries technicians and including their own fence material) with DFO assistance? Could it be possible that fence materials have changed over the years to improve the integrity of the fence, which in turn assists First Nations in the area obtain food fish?

  2. salmon guy Post author

    thanks again Brian for reinforcing ‘exactly’ the points of the posts.

    the point here, as in many other posts: isn’t ‘science’ defined as: “an enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the natural world”? (Wikipedia).

    To be testable, doesn’t science need to be repeatable by anyone looking at the same parameters?
    Don’t scientists accept that the observations and the results of science must be “objective”? That is they must be repeatable, testable and confirmable by other scientists, even (and especially) skeptical ones.

    thanks for the continued engagement… with the number of comments you’ve left you may want to consider starting your own blog. You appear to have lots of information to pass along.

  3. Brian

    Quote by Salmonguy: “To be testable, doesn’t science need to be repeatable by anyone looking at the same parameters?
    Don’t scientists accept that the observations and the results of science must be “objective”? That is they must be repeatable, testable and confirmable by other scientists, even (and especially) skeptical ones.”

    “Exactly”…and that’s how it should be and how it is. That is why a study that is published in a peer-reviewed journal (such as Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences….A journal many government scientists publish in) has a methods and materials section where other researchers (even skeptical ones) can replicate the work if they so wish.

    It seems like it depends on which camp you reside in these days in order to say if one is truely “objective”. I guess anyone can make a case as to how someone is more or less impartial, but a study that is done well should stand on its own merits regardless which side did the study. I believe the word “bias” gets thrown around a lot these days, but the people doing the accusing seem to be more focused on the authors and their affliations than with the actual content (nuts and bolts) of the work. I think we need to focus more on encouraging people to critically analyzing studies and ask those tough questions themselves rather than have some environmental NGO interpret reports and ask the questions.

    No blogs for me. Creating elaborate systems of charts and graphs and equations and formulas as well as using a variety of electronic gagets (that you indicated in your post) is taking up most of my time. However, I thank you for allowing a variety of opinions even if they do not fall “exactly” in line with yours. I cannot say the same for the other blogs.

  4. salmon guy Post author

    thanks Brian, I appreciate the continued engagement. As with everything, there are multiple ways of looking at things — if I ran around purporting to have all the ‘answers’ then life would be a little too rigid and boring. We all come from traditions of storytelling, and everyone has varied interpretations of those stories…

    my point with the repeatable, testable, confirmable comment — the final piece to that is: other scientists under the same parameters should get the same results — shouldn’t they?

    Simply because something is ‘peer-reviewed’ — at least in my mind — is no guarantee of veracity. Peer review is important – yes – however, no guarantee. Simply because “peer” means: “a person who is of equal standing with another in a group” and thus we have a danger of “groupthink”. (I’ve often wondered if maybe scientific journals should look to try and have folks from completely outside of their discipline review results and ask the tough questions).

    Let’s look at salmon farming for example. Multiple articles are published in peer-reviewed journals, such as the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences — yet, many of the articles refute each other. Many articles, if opened to comment in peer-reviewed journals, are lambasted by other scientists with a different ‘opinion’. Or the basis that different scientists used the same parameters and came up with different results.

    Or, the example I use often — the wave-particle duality of light. Depending on what one is looking for, light can display the properties of particles, or properties of waves. Yet, neither can be seen at the same time when looking at the same thing.

    And thus, one ‘fisheries scientist’ looking at fish farms may very well see the particle properties of fish farms — and another looking at the same thing may see wave properties.

    Neither is completely wrong; nor is either completely right. (throw in an economist and some lawyers and we have a real mess…)

    Add further complexities to it. A group of peer reviewers of the particle paper are all ‘particle seers’ and thus the hard questions about waves are not asked. Another group of peer reviewers may be ‘wave seers’ and the same occurs.

    This was the case this summer as the big Fraser sockeye run returned. Some well-respected fisheries scientists such as Dr. Carl Walters were suggesting we nuke the run, e.g. harvest over 80% of the run otherwise there’d be an “over-escapement” issue. Other well-respected fisheries scientists and even peer-reviewed papers were suggesting we should get as much fish up the river (e.g. nutrients) as possible to feed the ecosystem.

    And so where does the ‘truth’ lie in that spectrum?

    I agree with your suggestion of having other folks other than NGOs interpreting reports — however, one of the challenges with this is the wide variety and wide scope of ‘peer-reviewed’ studies. What the heck is an every-day passionate salmon person supposed to interpret?
    Plus,
    the incredible amount of paper produced on salmon issues. It’s a veritable orgy of data and bumpf — of which most average every day folks don’t have interest in, time for, or desire to wade through.

    Where does this leave us?

    Back at marketing.

    The scientists that can best translate their own bumpf (or elaborate systems of charts and graphs and equations and formulas) and get it into the media or out into the general public — or get it sold within the halls of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans — or at the great, huge amount of research funds at institutions such as UBC — win the game.

    I really don’t see a lot of difference between some fisheries scientists hawking their theories, and ‘financial advisors’ or mutual fund companies hawking their latest portfolio picking strategies.

    marketing is everything, everything is marketing…

  5. Brian

    Quote from Salmonguy: “Simply because something is ‘peer-reviewed’ — at least in my mind — is no guarantee of veracity. Peer review is important – yes – however, no guarantee. Simply because “peer” means: “a person who is of equal standing with another in a group” and thus we have a danger of “groupthink”. (I’ve often wondered if maybe scientific journals should look to try and have folks from completely outside of their discipline review results and ask the tough questions.)”

    You want guarantees? Then look towards death and taxes as an investment. When you eventually find this Utopia please let me know.

    What would the benefit be if these other individuals do not have an understanding of the field of study. Then you run the risk of a bunch of opinions from people that have no understanding of the biology at the base level. It would look more like “Letters to the Editor”. That is the problem right now with all these people demanding to look at raw data. Fine and dandy, but unless you have some experience and/or education to interpret it you are just wasting time. So you would have a plumber review a sea lice paper for the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences?? I do think that people in almost similar fields can provide some useful insight, but would you feel comfortable having a pizza delivery person offering an opinion on your X-ray. I didn’ t think so.

    It is not uncommon to have conflicting studies and it is not just confined to biological sciences. People will disagree to the end of time. In the salmon farming example, there are many peer-reviewed studies but instead of getting into the score card mentality (i.e. we have more papers than you do) a person needs to look at what the study can logically state and what it cannot. Sometimes a study will infer more from what their results can logically imply so the authors will be challenged on it. Many people have their minds made up on this issue and are unwilling to accept any new information that comes there way. This is not the fault of science – this is the fault of agenda driven individuals who utilize the media (tv, youtube, blogs) and misrepresent the “facts”. It becomes more a battle over perception than science based knowledge. What I am finding out is that people choose to see what they want to see because it best fits the agenda. It is more “us vs. them” rather than the fish themselves. Ultimately, the public becomes confused and scared.

    Quote from Salmonguy: “I agree with your suggestion of having other folks other than NGOs interpreting reports — however, one of the challenges with this is the wide variety and wide scope of ‘peer-reviewed’ studies. What the heck is an every-day passionate salmon person supposed to interpret?
    Plus,
    the incredible amount of paper produced on salmon issues. It’s a veritable orgy of data and bumpf — of which most average every day folks don’t have interest in, time for, or desire to wade through.”

    So we should have some folks outside look at these studies – reviewing results and asking tough questions, but somehow you seem uncomfortable with average day folks or the every day passionate salmon person being able to interpret these studies. You kind of contradict yourself here and at the same time reinforce my point on peer reviewing.

    I agree that most everyday folks will likely go to the press for their knowledge on issues like the one you use as an example (i.e. salmon farming), but those that show a keen interest in these issues and/or have some biological background should be able to get a general understanding of what the study concludes and what it cannot. They do not have to inspect every formula or equation like Einstein. What I am finding is that people can be very interested in an issue, but would rather be spoon-fed from other sources than to become self-educated about the issue. For instance, many are willing to believe that BC salmon farms currently use hormones. This myth gets spread though many environmental NGO blogs and the media. Now if a person stops there then they are inclined to believe that is the truth, but if they actually look into it a bit more (maybe asking a fish farmer….sounds like a good idea) they are likely to find that the fears are groundless. The information is out there, Dave. It’s up to the individual whether they want to be informed or not.

    Quote from Salmonguy: “The scientists that can best translate their own bumpf (or elaborate systems of charts and graphs and equations and formulas) and get it into the media or out into the general public — or get it sold within the halls of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans — or at the great, huge amount of research funds at institutions such as UBC — win the game.”

    Actually environmental NGOs have been far more successful with elaborate systems of charts, graphs, formulas and equations and getting this out to the media and general public than any government agencies can ever muster. They do not need to sell it in the “halls of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans” for maximum impact as you can see with the amound of attention gained. From this stems many annoymous attacks from the general public on the credibility of scientists and their work; many of the opinions are based on bumpf. They are the ones that are clearly winning the game.

  6. salmon guy Post author

    in your haste for a response, you seem to have interpreted some of my post curiously… fair enough. Appreciative of the continued effort and conversation.

    Will let you know, first, there’s a third guarantee here on planet earth: Gravity. (death, taxes and gravity). And curiously enough there are many great investments in the first two… government bonds anyone? And no shortage of money spent that relies on the third — jet flights, Star Wars, satellite-based missile defence shields, etc.

    I have some plumber friends that might take exception to your comment… and yes, actually some of them might be more than adept at reading the CJ of Fish and aquatic sciences. You might be amazed at who reads what these days… (maybe read today’s post on the open source movement… average folks are capable of pretty impressive stuff).

    And funny really, how plumbers take a rap — yet, when folks really, really need them… like when the basement is knee deep in shit — plumbers become superheros, more preeminent than any scientist might become… (with respect to scientists who have had impressive discoveries).

    There’s a reason why ‘letters to the editor’ continue to be published in almost any publication. They are probably one of the most widely read sections. I generally find the wide range of opinions on things, incredible fascinating – and hence, why i’m open to a range of comments on this site. It’s also why the blogosphere is so popular and widely utilized.

    In my humble, respectful opinion — it is exactly your borderline scientific pompousness that sits at the root of some of the issues. Many folks ‘educated’ in the halls of scientific academia often have this tendency to get a little snooty and start sounding off about how average every day folks just don’t have the brainpower or “understanding” to interpret scientific studies, or raw data, or just simply won’t get it.

    As I’ve said often enough… salmon and humans had a pretty darn good relationship well before charts and graphs and equations and science. And really it’s “fisheries science” that largely ends out being the contradiction. For so many years many of its most practiced practitioners advocated for “maximum sustainable yield” — and still do in some cases. And yet the world over, fisheries stocks are in deep shit…

    Why is it that only scientists can ‘do science’…?

    And, no, not a contradiction on my part… you need to read the first word “interest.”

    It’s the analogous to phoning Telus, or whatever other big company, and getting the bullshit automated response: “your call is important to us”. If it was so damn important then why isn’t anyone answering immediately, and why did i have to run the gauntlet of “press 1 if you want to…” “press 2 if you want to…” to then get stuck on hold?

    If some studies are largely inflated bumpf, some scientists own biased (conscious or unconscious) interpretation, and little more than spouting off the answers that the funders of the study want to hear… then what’s the point in the first place? (not to say that i’m that cynical about all scientific reports or papers… it’s simply that, as the mass education system teaches, the more pages in a report the better it must be. A sad, sad error).

    I’m often more interested in hearing the 10-second elevator speech on who? what? where? when? and why?.
    As in, why is this important?

    On the “success” of NGOs… and that they are winning the game?
    Sorry, can’t buy that electric kool-aid — if that was the case Elizabeth May (Green Party leader and former Chair of Sierra Club of Canada for many years) would be Prime Minister, and the BC Green Party would be taking a run at the BC Premiership.

    Do enviro NGOs have some sway and effect? — sure. But winning the game?… come on Brian.
    Last time I checked Harper wasn’t conferring with Suzuki about climate change policies….

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