“Who, in their right mind, would use our most valuable resource – sockeye salmon – as fertilizer, deliberately?”

I had some time this morning to stop by the Cohen Commission hearings in downtown Vancouver… This is the wisdom imparted upon the Cohen Commission today by Dr. Carl Walters:

“Who, in their right mind, would use our most valuable resource – sockeye salmon – as fertilizer, deliberately?”

Maybe it’s a long career studying fish… maybe it’s the dominant view of colonial economics… maybe it’s… actually… I don’t know what?

Dr. Walters recommendations to the Cohen Commission today include returning to a time of killing more fish… harvesting more “pieces”… reaching “maximum sustainable yield” (determined by modeling populations; not actual reality).

We should return to the those higher fishing rates, so that we can also manipulate nature so that there is cyclic dominance of sockeye runs — basically meaning, we need to mess with nature so that every four years there is a larger run than the other three.

Well this makes sense doesn’t it?

It’s all based on theory, hypothesis, modeling, and spreadsheet wet dreams… and the best part is it’s based on about 50 years of data. Much of it collected in various forms… various forms of reliability, various forms of actual collection, and so on and so on.


Sockeye salmon have been around a million years or so and we humans (well…er… doctors) feel that after looking at information from about 10 to 15 life cycles, 20 tops (sockeye generally have a 4-year life cycle) — that we have enough knowledge to fundamentally alter a natural cycle that has gone on for eons.

Much of the entire Pacific Rim is fundamentally built on the backs of salmon, and a collection of (largely) white fellows get together and feel that through the hallowed halls of academia — that we “have it figured out”…  that we know nature well enough that we should catch more fish.

Because really: “Who, in their right mind, would use our most valuable resource – sockeye salmon – as fertilizer, deliberately?”

Well… what the hell were sockeye and other salmon before humans came in to the picture and started f*#@ing things up?

Or to be more accurate, in the last 150 years or so when the theories of Francis Bacon and the Bible dictated that man has dominion over nature, and that nature is simply there for the convenience of colonial powers…

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The absolute absurdity, audacity, and plain silliness of this idea had me shaking my head today as if I was having a grand mal seizure. And almost sadly, laughing out loud… (but that would not be appropriate federal court room behavior).

As the lawyer — representing the commercial fishers granted “standing” at the Commission — carried on his rather obvious and leading line of questions — the absurdity grew.

The esteemed Dr. Walters then suggested that he had detailed spreadsheets and analysis that demonstrate how much ‘potential revenue’ commercial fishers have lost due to an apparent “experiment” by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to reduce harvest rates on sockeye salmon over the last 10 years or so.

(spreadsheets and analysis that no one at the Commission was yet privy to… just casually brought up today…)

See, in a remarkably brilliant thought process a few years back, DFO decided that if sockeye runs are dwindling at alarming rates — maybe, just maybe… harvest rates should be reduced.

Say from the neighborhood of 80% of total run size (e.g. Maximum Sustained Yield — MSY) to approximately 50% of total runs. Harvesting less fish might mean more baby fish could be produced because more adults reached the spawning grounds…

Wow, as many folks suggest: ‘this is not rocket science’.

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However… no… there is this other theory that floated out of the academic world: “over-escapement”.

This bright-light idea suggests that too many fish on the spawning grounds actually reduces productivity — meaning less babies produced. “Density-dependent productivity” they call it.

And so if we kill off 80% (primarily in commercial fisheries) we will actually create more babies… and thus more fish into the future… (Less is more essentially, is where this theory is running)

Is anyone following the flawed logic here…?

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Now here’s where even more flawed economic theories start creeping into the equation. Let’s call this ‘economic creep theory’…  (I just made that up).

‘Economic creep theory’, as observed today at the Cohen Commission, suggest that if we pull out our handy dandy spreadsheets and computer models, we can in fact start to prove how much “lost revenue” commercial fishers have been hit with due to this “experiment” by DFO to reduce harvest rates on sockeye from 80% to 50%.

Seems like simple math doesn’t it… take the approximate run sizes of the last however many years when the 50% “experiment” kicked in, figure out how many more “pieces” could have been harvested. (see we don’t call them salmon anymore when they enter the economic realm…  they are pieces — it’s like the term “collateral damage” to refer to real, actual people blown to bits in bombing campaigns by Western forces in various countries)

Multiply by the market price and presto… look at all that “lost” revenue. Or “lost yield” as it was referred to today.

Because really: “Who, in their right mind, would use our most valuable resource – sockeye salmon – as fertilizer, deliberately?”

That’s just wasteful… think of how much more money Jimmy Pattison could have made through his Canfisco company if we just kept hammering the sockeye runs?

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I’m not an academic per se… but where do we start breaking down the flaws in this logic and my new ‘economic creep theory’…

Even if we use economic arguments… let’s say we put 30% more wild sockeye on the market in those years when harvests were reduced from 80% to 50% — what impact would that have on sockeye prices? (i think this is called “supply and demand”… maybe more fisheries scientists should look this up).

Does this mean that we might have past that magical margin where more product on the market doesn’t necessarily equate to more revenue…?

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Now let’s take a slightly different angle on this economic argument that commercial fishers are out of pocket because of DFO’s apparent “experiment” to reduce harvest rates…

Who are some of the other ‘players’ here — even just on the human side of the equation…

Oh right… First Nations.

Those folks with rights enshrined within the Canadian Constitution.

Before contact, 150 years or so ago, an entire economy, culture, and ecosystem ran on wild salmon returns. In the 1880s (or thereabouts) some colonial folks realized that the salmon were quite a bounty — a significant economic resource.

Canneries blossomed faster than the spread of H1N1 virus and salmon runs were blitzed for the next 40 years and onwards.

And what happened to the hundred of individual Nations that were forced off of fishing sites and cordoned off in “reserves”, outlawed from hiring lawyers, outlawed from holding ceremonies that had been in place for eons, outlawed from voting, had children hauled off to foreign places to learn English and God…?

There’s some pretty decent books on these issues.

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And so… here runs the Cohen Commission… a $25 million (or so) exercise in talking all things BC sockeye… rambling on in legalese and Dr.-ese and ‘economic creep theories’ — and in the meantime discussion of fisheries and all things salmon in the BC Treaty process — are hauled off the table (even though some of these have been ongoing since 1992). With the extension of the Commission, comes another year of delays for those Nations engaged in Treaty negotiations — meaning more debt, loans, and expenses related to this process (millions of $$).

And so, I ask Dr. Walters, where are his calculations on lost ‘revenue’ for First Nations communities…? the lost ‘yields’ suffered by First Nations over the last 150 years…? the ‘cost-benefit’ analysis on the impacts to cultures, to communities, and to families as fishing rights held for eons were ripped from First Nation hands.

With all due respect to the commercial fisher folks… some of whom were/are First Nations themselves… if we want to start using the Cohen Commission to talk “lost revenues” due to ‘conservation’ measures, then lets put all the cards on the table.

Because really:”Who, in their right mind, would use our most valuable resource – sockeye salmon – as fertilizer, deliberately?”

Well… actually… Carl, there are many cultures around the Pacific Rim that realized, and still recognize, that salmon feed more than just humans (and more than just the eagles and bears you alluded to today in testimony).

Salmon, our “most valuable resource”?

Maybe salmon is considered that for some… but I often suggest it’s our brains, which can be used for logic and living in reality rather than computer models and spreadsheets.

15 thoughts on ““Who, in their right mind, would use our most valuable resource – sockeye salmon – as fertilizer, deliberately?”

  1. Brian

    Sockeye migrating upstream are not wasted – only our time talking about how they are being wasted is. Carl Walters has made some good contributions; however, not many people I know really share his view on this matter. I believe nature has it’s own way of figuring out density dependent productivity once the salmon arrive at the terminal areas. A stream will only support so many spawners at one time. Successive spawners will dig up the redds of fish that have passed on. However, all those eggs that did not get deposited and all those carcasses that perhaps did not successfully spawn do go somewhere…..and are not wasted. I do not see prespawns as wasted either. We also have to see this as a chance for streams that had suffered declines in productivity or areas that had not seen sockeye for a long time to again be colonized by strays. Even streams that do not normally have an abundance of a certain timing group now have some of both (and in greater quantities). In some cases this has indeed happened. When we have a mixed stock commercial fishery we likely impact these streams that do not have much to begin with. The commericial fleet did well this year. They should be thankful and feel blessed. Instead I hear bickering from a certain Conservative MP about how DFO screwing his friends over by not being able to keep fishing well into September. Mr. Cummins, I have come to realize that you will never be satisfied so I cast you off to the tar pits so you can join the rest of the dinosaurs that believe that catching more is better. You brought up a good point about First Nations and how much they have lost over the years.

  2. salmon guy Post author

    thanks Brian,
    and you make a good point. Carl has contributed much… somewhat I can’t quite figure this lobbying for the commercial fishery thing, and the absolute absurdity of this “lost revenue” idea.

    The issue of small stocks was brought as well in Carl’s testimony. His analogy was: ‘would your financial adviser tell you to hold on to every stock on the stock market… No, so why should we ensure we preserve ever small stock in the Fraser.’

    There were several analogies that he used comparing fish stocks to financial stocks. As mentioned, maybe a few too many years now of theorizing, spreadsheeting, and modeling. Maybe a little more time with ground-level, feet-in-the-creeks folks might bring him back to reality and the strength of ‘mother nature’.

    Sadly, though, a couple of folks sitting in the Commission yesterday were nodding their head emphatically at Carl’s suggestions. I think I can guess what they represent…

  3. Dave Barnes

    Wow! not to discredit Dr. Carl Walters who has contributed so much to salmonid science but really, I thought that theory was long dead. To not consider the value of these fish and eventual carcasses to the ecosystem surprises me and as Brian alluded, others as well. Kudos to the Fraser Panel and especially it’s chair, Barry Rosenberger, for discarding Dr. Walters’s proposition to harvest more Shuswap bound sockeye. One wonders how many Thompson steelhead, interior coho and Cultus Lake sockeye would have been bycatch.

  4. salmon guy Post author

    thanks for the comment Dave.
    it’s really why i find it so odd. Someone who has contributed much, could basically overshadow all of it with some ludicrous theory and suggestions of lost revenue.

    and, yes it is one of those times where DFO does deserve some credit — although I don’t think it was Mr. Rosenberger per se (he’s just following instructions). And you’re dead on about the potential bycatch of steelhead, coho, and — yes — those other small endangered sockeye stocks.

    yet Walters continues to use financial stock market analogies and economics for looking after biological resources. It’s a shame…

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  7. Dave P

    Following the plight of the salmon over the last few decades, I too wonder where Dr Walters is coming from. It is always convenient, it seems, to people that see the world only through the economic lens, to provide a narrow view of costs and benefits. $ for humans is the default. Costs or benefits that are difficult to monetize, like the 130 odd species that directly benefit from all those ‘excess’ spawning salmon, for example, are not part of the models so let us just discount them and paint an incomplete picture. But it has always been that way and I don’t see it changing. Spin and $, head in the sand. I don’t know how some people are able to sleep at night.

  8. Lawrence Boxall

    Thank for this most interesting piece and the comments.

    I’m not too surprised, though, given that nothing changes ecosystem quite as dramatically as the transformation of its constituent players into commodities with exchange value on the open market. The cheaper the salmon becomes, the greater the pressure to sell more on the market leading to the complete disruption of the nutrient cycle that exists in an integrated ecosystem. As the fish get trucked and flown away, the ecosystem looses nutrients that keep it healthy and those nutrients become pollution somewhere else.

    However, the agile minds of those whose task it is to promote the ever-increasing commodification of natural resources are compelled by capitalism’s incessant need to expand the economy to ultimately destroy the source of the wealth in order to ensure that the next quarterly report looks good. Capitalism, by its very nature is driven to kill the goose that lays the golden egg.

    While we must fight this destructive greed as best we can while the system remains intact, ultimately, we have to understand that the system of rapacious and mindless competition has to be supplanted by a co-operative of freely associating human beings who are able to act as custodians of Mother Earth rather than as destroyers of what belongs to future generations and all of life.

  9. Nick

    Another great piece Salmon Guy. Well thought out and sadly all too accurate when it comes to how this resource has been managed. I just finished reading some articles on how the Basking Shark population in the straights was destroyed by DFO in the 50’s. You see some genius (sound familiar) at the time decided that these magnificent creatures were eating too much sockeye and causing too much damage to commercial fishing nets. So the result was a big sharp blade attached to the bow of several DFO boats that would ram the giant sharks and cut them in half. The result was a continued decline in sockey populations and the elimination of a truly magnificent and harmless fish. Grim indeed…..

  10. Brian

    Unfortunately, people had best of intentions back then but the knowledge about these sharks was not as developed as it is now. It certaintly is not limited to basking sharks…..Look at sharks worldwide and see how people treated them years ago. Bull trout had a bounty put on them at one point. You also had individual perceptions and “perferences” to deal with. When people see a competitor eating fish that they think are meant for them then eliminating the competition is seen as the route to go. Ever see dead seals floating downstream when anglers are fishing for salmon? DFO didn’t shoot them.

  11. Nick

    I beg to differ Brian. I don’t see how the “best of intentions” means cutting giant harmless sharks in half. Also your point about a seal being shot by sport fishermen misses the mark completely. Seal populations have exploded over the last 10 years. When was the last time you saw a basking shark?

  12. Brian

    If you beg to differ you should look into the history of the International Pacific Salmon Fisheries Commission as another example. The IPSFC did some things back then that we likely would not do nowadays; however, the IPSFC was attempting to rebuild many Fraser River salmon runs following dam construction, overfishing, rock slides, etc. The commission made some important contributions to our baseline knowledge and also had many successes, but they also likely made some mistakes as well. These were done with the best intentions. Please read: History of the International Pacific Salmon Fisheries Commission: Restoring Fraser River Salmon authored by John Roos (http://www.psc.org/publications_internationalsalmonpublication.htm#history)

    I was not around during that time those decisions were made in regards to basking sharks back in the late 40s and early 50s (not sure you were either), but I am pretty certain our knowledge (i.e. biology, distribution, and ABUNDANCE) of the basking shark or most other sharks around the world was not that extensive back in the 50s as it is today. Sharks around the world have suffered from quite a bit of human ignorance and bad publicity. We certaintly see sharks in a much different light now with the amount of research and public attention which have changed the stereotypical view of them.

    People at the time probably thought they were helping matters by protecting sockeye from this predator and in turn helping fishermen catch more. I do not believe they were hell-bent at destroying basking sharks for the thrill of it. The first reaction of many people is that if the predator (i.e. shark or seal) is eating what you would like to consume (i.e. salmon) then they figure that those predators are the problem. I am quite certain Canada was not the only country that engaged in practices like this that we would deem today as being kind of barbaric.

    I realize that you are quick to blame the Department of Fisheries back then, but equal responsibility needs to be directed towards the commericial fishermen that demanded action from the government, the public that endorsed it at the time and the media that protrayed the basking shark as a “salmon-killing monster”. There were many “geniuses” back then as you can see. Even today we see many sport anglers and commercial fishermen blaming marine mammals for salmon declines. Different era now, but some people have the same old, narrow-minded attitudes of days long ago about predators. Even though seal populations have increased it certaintly does not make it anymore right to reduce their numbers by killing them. Doesn’t matter if there are more seals than basking sharks. If some people would look around a bit and take in the bigger picture they would see there is much more to it. For your information there is as much or more evidence against marine mammals (i.e. seals) being the cause of declines in Sockeye productivity as for.

    Bull trout were seen as eating too many salmon fry and even had a bounty on them. People thought back then that if they reduced the number of bull trout that the salmon would do better. Again, people back then thought they had good intentions dispite their flawed logic as we see it today. I am surprised that you have not picked up on this classic example as it very similar to the basking shark example. You do not have to take my word on this. Go research it and you will find out for yourself. Not hard to find (type in “bounty on bull trout” into Google).

  13. salmon guy Post author

    thanks for the comments Nick and Brian,
    I’m not so sure that folks shooting seals while sportfishing is the same as a mandated policy practice of eliminating a species. Yes, times have certainly changed… somewhat anyways. DFO also no longer takes machine guns to sea lion rookeries and seal haul outs.

    The issue here is that institutional cultures last a long time and it can become very difficult to change them — even more difficult when the Peter Principle is at work in a bureaucracy where ‘senior’ managers, often protected by a union, can rise to their level of incompetence. With prospects of a healthy pension and not a whole lot of monitoring of accountability and good decision-making (with the exception of some ‘internal’ audits and the occasional Auditor General investigation) — the institutional culture can live on.

    There are senior managers and policy makers with DFO these days that were around through all the days of blaming the “Indians” for salmon declines. That complete false-hood still lives on within the ministry and within some stakeholder groups. Changing an institutional culture, often takes a fundamental shifting of staff right up to the top levels. Don’t know if that’s happening anytime soon. (it’s not to say that there aren’t good people working hard within that ministry… just like there were good people working within Enron… it’s just that institutional culture can be like the rash that never goes away.

    On the seal issue, there is research suggesting that, yes, the seal population has grown in the Salish Sea — however, it is now apparently at historical levels of the past. Research also suggests that they eat a heck of a lot more hake then they do salmon, and that hake eat a lot of salmon fry — so the seals may in fact be assisting salmon populations.

    Andrew Trites is at UBC and he spoke at the SFU Sockeye Summit last year – the proceedings can be found at the SFU Coastal Studies website.

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