Why count salmon? trying to get the salmon story straight…

Dr. Suess wisdom

One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish…

There’s some wisdom in this great old rhyme. And for some reason it is also a very popular search term to find this website which leads folks to this post from last year — Why count salmon?. (Whether folks stick around or not is another story…)

As mentioned in that post:

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.

See that silver streak in the image on the right… that’s a sockeye… red and green fish… can’t you tell?

If you go to this site (Using Sound Images to Count Salmon in the Fraser River, 2004) you can watch a little movie of this blip going by.

That paper also explains: Why would a fish biologist use an imaging sonar system to count fish?:

…Fisheries managers first allocate a portion of returning sockeye salmon to meet annual escapement goals (the number of fish returning to their home stream to spawn to sustain each stock) and then the remaining fish are allocated to harvesting by First Nations, commercial and recreational fisheries.

Reliable escapement data is a key requirement for effective management of sockeye salmon. Historically, the escapement of sockeye salmon stocks for which pre-season forecasts predict more than 25,000 fish will be returning is measured using a mark-recapture program (MRP).

These programs involve capturing and marking returning salmon below their spawning grounds and then constant monitoring of the spawning grounds to determine the ratio of marked to unmarked fish. Knowing the ratio of marked to unmarked fish recaptured and the total number of fish that were marked downstream, the number of fish that return can be estimated.

As a result of stock-rebuilding efforts that were initiated in 1987, the number of stocks exceeding the 25,000 fish criterion (changed to 75,000 fish in 2004) has increased, placing considerable pressure on the resources available for assessing sockeye salmon stocks in the Fraser River. A mark-recapture estimate requires a large field crew and since sockeye salmon begin returning to their streams in July and may not finish spawning until late November or early December, these programs are both labour-intensive and costly to operate. [my emphasis]

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Hmmm. So let’s recap:

Reliable data is a key requirement of effective management… mark recapture studies are labour intensive… we are still “estimating” regardless of method… AND we have changed the threshold of what runs are considered important enough to try and enumerate — it was 25,000 but now it’s 75,000.

Does this then mean that we are only concerned about the larger runs and are focusing less and less on the smaller runs — those smaller runs which are the key components of biodiversity?

And… now our data is actually less reliable because between 1987 and 2004 we were trying to collect data on all runs larger than 25,000. After 2004, it’s now only runs greater than 75,000.

What happened to all of those runs that were less than 25,000? And all the runs that are between 25,001 and 74,999?

And what’s going to happen to runs that were greater than 75,000 after 2004, but have now dwindled to less than 75,000 — do we stop counting?

What happens, for example, if all the Fraser sockeye runs become less than 75,000? Do we stop enumerating?

At that point, the status-quo measurement of ‘economic values’ of the sockeye fishery would be next to nil — and so why would a Department of “Fisheries” and Oceans be concerned about these fish if there were limited “fisheries” focusing on them?

Say for example… like North Atlantic Cod… what is the comparison of resources spent on enumerating and counting cod stocks when there were intensive industrial fisheries — as compared to now after they were “managed” into oblivion?

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One of the main questions I might ask here is: WHY?

For data to be “reliable” it needs to be collected in some form of similarity or compatibility… doesn’t it?

As one meaning of “reliable” suggests: “Yielding the same or compatible results in different clinical experiments or statistical trials.”

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In the same paper, the authors suggest:

What are we doing? We are investigating the dual-frequency identification sonar (DIDSON) technology as alternative method for counting fish in sockeye salmon stocks that are assessed with mark-recapture programs, i.e., large returning stocks. Sonar is a non-invasive, non-destructive technique for monitoring the abundance of fish populations and this is an important advantage given the high esteem for sockeye salmon in British Columbia.

And so… as stated, the DIDSON technology is meant to replace those pesky labour-intensive mark-recapture programs — on large returning stocks.

So what are we doing for the small stocks — vital to biodiversity, and bears, and birds, and bees, and so on?

As the article points out… there are only a few rivers on the entire Fraser (of the 150 or so in the Fraser that support sockeye) that are conducive to utilizing DIDSON technology.

Based on a combination of in-stream testing and site visits in 2004, we found that the physical characteristics and fish behaviour at 9 sites on 6 rivers in the Fraser River watershed permitted effective use of the DIDSON system for counting sockeye salmon…

…We identified six river systems in the Fraser River on which the DIDSON imaging system can be effectively used to count returning adult salmon. All six rivers (Chilko, Horsefly, Mitchell, Scotch, Seymour and the lower Adams River) support large and important sockeye salmon stocks.

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This isn’t to take away from the potential value of utilizing technology like DIDSON in some systems… the fundamental problem here is this automatic focus on “large and important” stocks.

Who is making these assessments on what stocks are “important”?

And based on what criteria?

“Large and important” seems to automatically assume that stocks which are the focus of commercial fisheries — are the “important” ones; simply because they are “large” runs.

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What is the fundamental conclusion of the paper?

Using the DIDSON system to estimate the escapement of some of the major sockeye salmon stocks in the Fraser River is likely to improve data quality in terms of its accuracy and precision and this improvement may be achieved at lower cost to existing stock assessment programs because the labour and operating costs of a DIDSON system are lower than similar costs for a mark-recapture study on the same stock.

So was there a time when the people of BC and Canada suggested to the federal government that certain departments better find a ‘cheaper’ way to enumerate salmon?

Was there a time when folks said: “hey Department of Fisheries and Oceans, could you please just focus on the large and important stocks only please”?

Could one safely assume then, that if we are only doing enumeration programs on “large and important stocks” that we’ve largely given up on the small and vital stocks? That habitat for all stocks is not really all that important? That when ‘economic’ commercial fisheries have largely disappeared that there will be little purpose in counting salmon?

What would the 100,000 or so strong Gumboot Army in BC — folks dedicated to local streams, streamkeeper groups, volunteer NGOs, etc. — have to say about this?

The trend of counting salmon in BC — is brutal — cuts, after cuts, after cuts have meant enumeration programs up and down the coast of BC, all through the interior, and so on have disappeared.

Often meaning we have little year-over-year comparisons to see just how bad the salmon collapses really are — especially in the millions upon millions of small streams in B.C. The small streams that collectively may represent more salmon than any of the big systems, e.g. “large and important”.


3 thoughts on “Why count salmon? trying to get the salmon story straight…

  1. Brian

    With all due respect Dave your post suggests that Sockeye runs less than 25,000 are not enumerated and are not important. I do not agree with this. Visual estimates are used for predicted escapements less than 75,000, but it does not mean that there is not considerable effort involved or that these estimates are not reliable. Reliability of estimates whether they are high precision (mark-recapture, DIDSON, or fence) or low precision (stream walks and aerial surveys) are transparently reported on the DFO escapement website.

    Roving projects (visual surveys) involve quite a great deal of effort covering many different streams on cyclic basis by dedicated crews. Many of these streams are remote and have small abundances which are more ideal for visual estimation methods. I realize there are many reading this, saying: Why would you not want to have high precision on everything enumerated? As I mentioned to you in the past, it is important to know something about the biology of the species you are going to enumerate as well as the physical conditions and logistics (travel distances, budgets, training, interactions with people that do not think very kindly of your presence) when you chose a method of enumeration. ALL methods of enumerations have their advantages and disadvantages.

    For instance, it simply is not possible or practical to put a fence on many streams to enumerate salmon. You need to consider many factors which are required to keep a fence operational during the complete migration period. Fences need attention and cannot be left alone for too long leaving salmon waiting long periods of time to get through, so fences need to be somewhat accessible for crews to get to on a daily basis. Fences that are operated 24hours a day are very labour intensive and can involve a great deal of fence materials and installation effort. Mark-recapture is a high precision method that can provide a great deal of spatial (where on the river), temporal (timing of fish), age and abundance data, but putting tags on a small number of fish can be counter productive if you do not get enough tags applied on a small population or able to recover tags from a small population. Mark-recapture projects involve being able to satisfy certain assumptions. If these assumptions cannot be satisfied or properly accounted for then mark-recapture may not be the best option. In these cases, a lower precision method may be much more appropriate. You should also remember that that although a visual method may be planned for a certain stream/river preseason it does not necessarily mean that a higher precision method would never be considered if inseason abundances are predicted to be much larger. This was the case in the South Thompson area in 2010. Although I realize your scepticism (Boy do I ever…lol), there are people that look at this and try to make adjustments when they can. You should also appreciate that the amount of effort to change gears inseason from one method to another is not a small, insignificant task. It requires staffing changes, budget changes, and equipment mobilization which are not planned for preseason; however, there are people that put their noses to the grind stone and carry out these thankless tasks for general public and stakeholders.

    An important thing to remember is that DIDSON was extensively tested in conjunction with mark-recapture projects in places like Chilko and Horsefly in order to calibrate estimates and evaluate its reliability. In order to have confidence in a new methodology it is important to test it with a known and proven method on large escapements. It was not done just one year, but multiple years. For places like Chilko and Horsefly, DIDSON has shown to be very reliable and comparable to mark-recapture estimates. In addition, DIDSON involves fewer boats and vehicles which also reduces the footprint left behind. This does not necessarily mean that DIDSON can be used everywhere mark-recapture is used currently. In some cases, traditional mark-recapture is more effective. DIDSON, like other methods, has its advantages and disadvantages. Again, when you chose a method you need to take in all factors and judge which is best. I realize your description of DIDSON is “blips” on a screen, but there is more that goes on behind the scenes to count files, verify counts between observers, species correction and identification, and post-season analysis. In addition, experience is involved in selecting the correct site and maintaining the sonar. Although not as labour intensive as a mark-recapture project, the crews that work on DIDSON projects are just as dedicated to their work. Lastly, although the reports you cite are good ones, the technology and the experience of the crews using DIDSON has changed significantly since 2004. It is also used in Alaska, so it is just not BC

    Now, I can take the approach and quickly dismiss your concerns because some of your conclusions I do not agree with; however, after reading your post I do understand your concerns with the lack of resources for doing necessary work on the ground. I am sure you echo the concerns of many that frequent your site. Perhaps the people of BC and Canada did not suggest that governments better find a cheaper way to enumerate salmon or only focus on large and important stocks. However, in response to declining budgets from above (which no reasonable, logical person can deny) and current public priorities (Health Care and Education) which governments are trying to fufill, managers, biologists as well as technical personnel have little choice but to look to other methodologies to get similar results at reduced cost.

    I know you do not honestly believe that people working in the field are trying to rip anyone off (that one is a given). Your heart is in the right place Dave, but your neighbour and the guy down the street from you seem to have a different idea what is important to them. You see it at election time, you see it at the Throne Speech, and you see it in the budget. People these days are told to do more with less – public servants are no different. How many reporters are actively covering the Cohen Inquiry and do you see many articles in the paper other than from Mark Hume? Where is this massive public interest? Or are certain reporters just waiting for the juicy salmon farm stuff to come out before they deem it “in the public interest”? As Cuba Gooding Jr. said in the 1996 movie “Jerry Maguire”: Show me the money!

  2. salmon guy Post author

    thanks Brian, a well thought out and comprehensive comment.
    i’m not so sure I was suggesting the small runs weren’t important — more, that they are in fact vital — and yet enumeration methods, habitat work, etc. has disappeared on these runs over the years — especially if one starts looking up and down coastal BC. There’s all this focus on the Fraser, Skeena, Nass, Stikine — and yet small streams throughout BC have been fumbled and dropped like an amateur quarterback playing in the pros.

    I appreciate the input on enumeration methods and the choices that go into which methods are utilized where.

    Not so sure I agree with the fact that Health Care and Education (as examples) are necessarily higher priorities (however I appreciate the point being made) — these are seeing funding cuts as well (look at the number of rural schools being closed and oversized classes). Plus there’s the convoluted nature of who funds these: a combo of federal and provincial funding and transfer payments and so on.

    On one hand I might agree that some folks have different priorities and think ‘salmon…shlamon…’ — however, on the other hand, i think it’s more a deep-seated cynicism and even apathy in some cases because of an absolute lack of political will to take on an issue such as salmon and salmon habitat. Various estimates suggest somewhere close to 100,000 people in BC — the Gumboot Army, as some affectionately refer to it — dedicate countless weekends and otherwise to working on stream-keeping and other volunteer initiatives.

    Start looking to the lower 48 in the U.S. and this number increases rapidly.

    Or, look at the absolute fascination and throngs of people showing up to see the Adams run — or the thousands that migrate to Haines, Alaska to see salmon, bears and eagles.

    What if Disney pumped out a movie all about the salmon ecosystem — similar to their Oceans, and other recent movies?
    Or simply look at the number of sportie licenses handed out and how many people absolutely pine for catching samon…

    Or, let us throw in this comparison. Last night the BC Liberals elected a new leader — Christy Clark the premier-designate. Apparently the BC Liberal membership elected her in. What was the estimate of BC Liberal membership?

    90,000 members – and that that will probably shrink down to 60,000 now that this leadership campaign is done.

    That’s a pretty small percentage of BC’s voting-age population — and less folks then are dedicated to salmon efforts.

    Compare this again with voter turn out at Provincial elections — last BC election was 50% of eligible voters…

    That’s pathetic.

    What’s the other part of the problem? Party politics. With only two real choices in BC — I don’t imagine either one is putting ‘salmon’ on their voting platform. Yet… poll after poll puts “environment” near the top of many people’s top priority issues…

    this is why organizations like Ducks Unlimited, the Pacific Salmon Foundation, The Nature Conservancy and others that raise a lot of money through dinners and auctions and other grassroots initiatives can be quite successful in those fundraising efforts.

    I’d also be quite curious to hear — if you had access to this sort of information — what the annual budget of DFO is, how much of that is spent and allocated to Ottawa, and how much of that is allocated to somewhere like the Pacific Region?
    How much is allocated to endless meetings and flights – and how much is dedicated to real on-the-ground initiatives?

    A colleague of mine recently mentioned that last numbers seen on this suggested somewhere north of $600 million in Ottawa and $100 million for Pacific Region… Not sure how many salmon they need to enumerate in the hallowed halls of Ottawa?

    And lastly on this issue… for now… and you’ve seen my position on this many times on this website… is that the salmon discussion has become so dominated by techno-jargon, bumpf, and technocrats and bureaucrats; as well as very tired, old, worn-out, polarized arguments — combined with tired, old, worn-out advocates shouting their positions — that many average folks get completely turned off and would rather just keep their feet and hands wet in the creeks doing real on-the-ground work as opposed to flying around to meeting-after-meeting-after-meeting-after-meeting listening to the same old bullshit and fronting the same old moldy arguments.

    The program wasn’t perfect — however, if we returned to something like the old Habitat Conservation and Stewardship Program; $100 million over 5 years — and initiative like Fisheries Renewal in BC (yes, aspects of these were terribly run and little more than feeding troughs for various consultants to fatten up on); yet it was still money on the ground… er… creeks.

    Why aren’t more folks covering the Cohen Commission?
    Because this is the fifth one of these in less than two decades. That’s basically one a salmon life cycle. It’s money largely spent on lawyers and “experts” arguing the merits of their techno-jargon. It’s thousands upon thousands upon thousands of pages of “data” and bumpf.

    My guess is the average person interested in salmon, has a helluva lot more interest in staring in wonder at spawning sockeye in the Adams River, or watching Grizzly bears or eagles or hundred of other critters feed on salmon on some river bank, or sitting in a boat as thousands of salmon ‘fin’ and flip all around them — as opposed to staring in ‘wonder’ at lawyers jockeying their clients arguments in some downtown Vancouver courtroom.

    (it’s not to say that something potentially groundbreaking can’t come out of this… i’m just not holding my breath)

    In my travels — including the bike ride I did 10 years ago throughout the range of Pacific salmon — there is incredible interest and fascination with salmon. From Inuvik, NWT to Los Angeles, California — over three years — I had literally hundreds upon hundreds of conversations about salmon and how folks feel about them. It’s absolutely remarkable.

    It may not be an ‘election’ issue like education or healthcare — however it sure as hell is a heart issue, and people care more then many politicians realize. And that is unfortunate.

  3. Dave

    You were suggesting that DFO feels the small runs are unimportant. I would argue the exact opposite. In many cases, more money is spent per fish counted on the small runs you speak of. Enumerate 4 million Adams salmon for $300K, or enumerate 1000 Chilliwack sockeye for $10K? Yet DFO Stock Assessment fulfills their committment to provide complete spawning ground enumeration on an annual basis.

    As for the cost savings associated with moving to cheaper DIDSON technology. Money gets freed up to provide high precision estimates of other populations that are right in around the 75K threshold (see Eagle, Mitchell, Pitt) that may otherwise be enumerated with a less precise visual estimate.

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