Published at the Globe & Mail today — another article by Mark Hume, reporting from the Cohen Commission into declines of Fraser Sockeye:
The disappearance of millions of sockeye salmon from the Fraser River has been compared to Murder on the Orient Express by two scientists helping a federal inquiry solve an environmental mystery.
Andrew Trites and Villy Christensen, both professors at the University of British Columbia Fisheries Centre, made the comparison to the Agatha Christie whodunit as they testified Wednesday at the Cohen Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River.
Led by B.C. Supreme Court Justice Bruce Cohen, the commission has been given more than two years and a $25-million budget to figure out why sockeye salmon stocks have been in decline for the past two decades, and why only about one million fish returned to spawn in 2009, when 10 million were expected.
Let me ask the simple question — in 2009 was it disappearing fish, or simply a blown forecast?
Maybe, it’s kind of like the weather – we have thousands more tools, expertise and ‘science’ for forecasting weather – yet forecasters blow it all the time…
(“today we can expect cloudy periods with a chance of salmon…”)
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As part of the inquiry, Judge Cohen has assigned teams of scientists to look at 12 different issues, examining everything from climate change to sport fishing to determine the impact on salmon.
Curiously, I don’t remember reading anything in the Commission’s terms of reference about sport fishing — or in the 12 ‘scientific’ reports… However, I suppose maybe one can assume that sport fishing is covered in “policies and practices of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans” .
(I haven’t seen this particular report yet, as Commission transcripts and “evidence” are not posted on the site until weeks after the date; however, the reports I’ve reviewed thus far are more like literature reviews then scientific studies. I wonder if the Commission could have saved some of its $25 million budget by having Masters’ students do the same literature reviews?)
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The article continues:
In a report on predation, Dr. Trites and Dr. Christensen tried to find which, among the myriad predators that feast on salmon, could have been responsible for killing so many sockeye as to decimate the population.
They came up with a long list of suspects and then narrowed it down to the six most fearsome killers: salmon sharks (220 kilograms and so aggressive they sometimes bump fishing boats), blue sharks (triangular teeth with finely serrated edges), daggertooths (the name says it all), sablefish (black cod with gaping mouths), lamprey (jawless fish that suck blood) and the common murre (a bird that dives 60 metres deep and can swim faster than a fish).
“It’s six,” Dr. Christensen said of the top suspect list. “We could have made it eight or 10. … It’s subjective. Salmon shark is at the top of the list. For the rest, it’s hard to say [how to rank them]. We found evidence for all of these six, that they might have considerable impact.”
In their report, the two science investigators say they are unable to point the finger at any one suspect, because so many factors are at work. They compared their dilemma to the one faced by the detective Hercule Poirot, who finds a passenger has been murdered while the Orient Express is speeding across Europe.
So let me ask this then?
Where were “the myriad predators that feast on salmon” last year — 2010 when somewhere around 30 million Fraser sockeye made the journey home?
I guess they must have hopped onto the Siberian Express as opposed to the Orient Express…??
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“The murderer had to be on board,” states the report. “M. Poirot interviewed everyone on the train, but there was no ‘usual suspect,’ no smoking gun and no butler. Rather, it seemed that all of the passengers (save M. Poirot) had a motive and an opportunity. That made for a difficult case – who did it?”
The scientists concluded the mysteries on the Fraser River and on the Orient Express had the same answer: “All the suspects played a role and all are guilty.”
They state that while all the predators feed on sockeye salmon, none of them does so exclusively, and none to such an extent that it could explain the population collapse. And predation alone, even by all the suspects combined, cannot fully explain the long downward trend of the sockeye population or the sudden collapse in 2009, they say.
Yes — brilliant deduction Wats…errr… Poirot.
An excellent point, and about dead on.
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“For the Fraser River sockeye, it may well be that the declining survival trend over the last decades was caused by a combination of effects, and not by any single one,” they write. “If predation had been the smoking gun in the disappearance of Fraser River sockeye salmon, it should have been smelled by now.”
Dr. Trites and Dr. Christensen said the study was hampered by a shortage of up-to-date data and they called for more research on what happens to Fraser River sockeye after they leave fresh water and enter the ocean.
Well… there is one predator that Drs. Trites and Christensen forgot in their investigation — a key suspect:
No, not the United States — but us… humans.
And… well… better yet — Mother Nature… which includes us humans, and… well… predators… and prey… and so on…
And, what to our wonder… there’s that great “not enough data” must “have more research” thing… again.
Dr. Christensen said the last major ocean research projects on salmon were undertaken in the 1950s and 1970s, and a new effort, using modern technology, is warranted.
Perhaps it might even solve the mystery of what killed all the salmon.
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Let’s ponder this for a moment…
Even if this particular study concluded that salmon sharks, or black cod, or lamprey, or even the vicious yellow-bellied sapsucker were implicated in the deaths of so many sockeye — a veritable sockeye massacre — what we do about it?
Try those “predators” in the Hague? Bring them to justice at the International Criminal Court? Start a lamprey massacre in return?
(certainly has been done in the past when sea lion rookeries were strafed with machine guns from patrol boats…)
Or what if we find that ocean conditions are the #1 problem — the great sockeye salmon killer?
Are we then going to try and seed the North Pacific with ash mimicking a giant volcano? Are we going to try misguided fertilization attempts similar to freshwater environments? Are we going to pull icebergs down from the Arctic to try and cool North Pacific ocean temperatures resulting in more phytoplankton?
…Put giant underwater shopvacs on ‘blow’ mode under the North Pacific to create more upwelling? … get the entire Canadian Navy (all five boats) to line up and drive around in circles to improve the current circulation around the North Pacific?… Tell the Pacific decadal oscillation it’s not welcome?…
Well… NO. We’re probably going to realize that we need to be a heck of a lot more “PRECAUTIONARY” in how many fish we harvest.
At this point in time we have no control over the rate of climate change impacts or ocean acidification or El Nino events… We’re simply along for the ride.
We have to learn RESILIENCY & ADAPTABILITY in a hurry — unfortunately (and fortunately) wild salmon are incredibly resilient and adaptable. They survived the last Ice Age quite well. However, they don’t do well at adapting to the wall of nets they face when they return to spawn — and they don’t survive the canning process very well… and if a big hunk of water that they need to spawn in is sucked up to irrigate fields, or roads, or natural gas drilling processes… well… they don’t do well.
Maybe we just need to catch less for awhile, and look after the things that we can have an effect on…? … like… freshwater habitat.
And maybe we need to remember what we learned in Grade 2 about food chains… predators are not culprits, they’re simply part of the system — everything plays its part.
(unless they’re human and taking more than they need).
See… Bears don’t sell salmon, nor do salmon sharks, or blue sharks, or seals. They just take what they need and leave the rest for other critters in need…
(and Bears certainly don’t set up Exchange Traded Funds on the New York Stock Exchange to capitalize on common property resources…)