Tag Archives: SFU salmon think tank

Cohen Commission: “No data means no answers, sockeye inquiry told”

Dead sockeye -- Flickr "Watershed_Watch"

That’s the headline on Hume’s article today in the Globe & Mail.

The lack of hard data on the ocean environment has become an important issue to a federal commission investigating the collapse of sockeye salmon stocks in the Fraser River.

Repeatedly, scientists testifying at the Cohen Commission have said they don’t really know what happens to salmon once they have left fresh water and headed out into the “black box” of the Pacific Ocean. They have complained about a shortage of data, or no data at all, and have said there are limited funds available for research.

Well… it’s not just the ocean environment that has a lack of data. Pretty much every life stage of Fraser sockeye has big black boxes of little to no data. (hard or soft…)

Sure some life stages and critical habitat have been studied more than others, and some folks think they know — but then of course they don’t know what they don’t know, and sometimes they think they know what they don’t know… and so on…

The cold hard reality that Justice Cohen is going to be faced with — or is already faced with — is that we just don’t know. For example, we don’t know how many sockeye juveniles leave the Fraser every year, we don’t even know how many juvenile sockeye leave the majority of the 150 rearing areas where they spend some time as babies.

(DFO only looks at two rearing lakes in any detail… or depth.)

What we know of the population dynamics of Fraser sockeye — and wild salmon in general — is limited to about the simple fact that we know they swim in water… when compared to all of what we don’t know.

No amount of systems theory, chaos theory, or computer modelling is going to shed much more light on things either.

Not only do we not know much about sockeye we know very little about the rest of the dynamics surrounding them. Just as the article suggests:

One of the papers filed with the commission identifies a “hotspot” in Queen Charlotte Sound, for example, where more than 10,000 sharks gather on a main salmon migration route – but nobody knows why the sharks are there, how long they are there, or what they are feeding on.

Black bear cub with sockeye -- Flickr: Gillfoto

Gee… this sounds like grizzly bear research in BC. Or black bear research. Or eagle research. Or coastal wolves research. Or mink research. Or osprey research… or… or…

We simply… just don’t know.

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If we can’t even predict our own brain patterns, then why do we think we can predict behavior and nature of wild salmon runs?

(for example, does anyone have an explanation on what the heck happened last year? — with 30 million or so returning sockeye to the Fraser. We’ll never know…)

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We call it ecosystem-based planning or ecosystem-based management… but we don’t know shit about the ecosystem…

Management is defined as: “The process of dealing with or controlling things or people”.

News flash… we can’t control wild salmon… but we sure as hell can control people if need be… (look at the great federal Conservative crime plans…)

Planning is defined as: “The process of making plans for something” .

Well… what are we making?

An ecosystem?

(well… that’s what the engineers of things like “no-net less to habitat” policies would have us think… we can just “re-create” ecosystems better than Mother Nature did in the first place over millenia…)

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One of the definitions of plan suggests: “A systematic arrangement of elements or important parts; a configuration or outline” .

Hmmm… so what are the “important parts”…? And what are we trying to “configure”? And how can we know what we’re trying to configure if we don’t really know much about things in the first place (e.g. the “black box” of the North Pacific)?

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The article continues:

The knowledge gap caused Tim Leadem, a lawyer representing a coalition of conservation groups, to wonder out loud Thursday if the Cohen Commission will ever get a definitive answer on what caused the Fraser River sockeye population to collapse. The commission was appointed in 2009 after only one million salmon returned to spawn instead of the 10 million expected.

“What was the cause of the 2009 decline?” Mr. Leadem asked a panel of scientists testifying about the impact of predators on salmon. “I expect at the end of the day … [it will be an inconclusive] death by 1,000 cuts.”

Gee. Maybe Mr. Leadem has seen my cartoon:

Salmon... death of a thousands cuts

I sense a certain frustration or defeatism in that comment…

Yes, Mr. Leadem it is a thousands cuts or so… but the worst ones, the mortal ones for some sockeye runs — have been inflicted by us.

Through direct action (harvest)… or inaction (how’s that enforcement of the Fisheries Act going?)

Pick your killer; our knives are sharp. We’ve filleted Fraser sockeye runs faster than the old terribly named: “Iron Chink” used in salmon canneries.

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Article continues:

Mr. Leadem noted most of the science teams that have presented papers to the Cohen Commission have concluded by saying more research is needed.

“This is perplexing,” he said. “If we are depending on science [for guidance], where are we going to find the funding? And who’s going to be pulling the strings and saying what science goes forward?”

Mr. Leadem said it appears scientists “are in a world where you are scrambling for dollars” while facing a growing list of questions.

“Yeah, we are scrambling for research funding and it is going to be the nature of science that there are always more questions that need answering,” said Andrew Trites, a professor and director at the University of British Columbia Fisheries Centre.

EXACTLY MY FRIGGING POINT!! (thank-you Dr. Trites).

We don’t have to depend on just science for the “answers” — because it won’t have any.

It might be able to provide gentle guidance, or thoughts, or an ‘answer’ here or there — however, at its fundamental core answering one question through science only opens up two more questions. It’s like the mythical beast Hydra — cut off one head, and two more pop up to replace it.

And so, when it comes to “fisheries” science,  it is not really a practice of “truths” and “facts” — and cannot provide all the “answers”. At its heart it is a practice of questions and theories… and analysis of things that we will never understand (e.g. the ocean).

We don’t have all the answers for how our brain works, yet we still function on a day-to-day basis. We still design teaching curricula for our children and send them off to school. And, amazingly, we can actually function and “think” on a day-to-day basis without knowing everything about our brains…

We don’t know the “answers” for the magic of how a child comes into being in the meeting between sperm and egg… We don’t know the “answers” about how we develop a soul, or even the magic occurring between our brains, hearts, lungs and every other organ working in unison. It’s a true magic mystery…

Yet we still carry on day-in and day-out…

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The article:

Mr. Justice Bruce Cohen, the B.C. Supreme Court judge who is heading the hearings, asked if there is an overall strategy for addressing the many unanswered questions about the ocean environment. “Within DFO and within the larger community of science … is there an overarching body that does a macro analysis of all the science that’s taking place? Who’s going to draw the agenda? Is this a scrambled situation … or is there actually a game plane here?” he asked.

“My perception as an academic . . . in terms of fisheries management … I don’t feel there is a game plan,” replied Dr. Trites, who appeared on a panel with John Ford, head of cetacean research in the Pacific for Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and Peter Olesiuk, DFO’s head of pinniped research.

No… no game plan indeed.

There never has been — and never will be (with all due respect).

And even if there was… what difference would it make?

“Salmon management”… “fisheries management” is a game of politics — not science.

Science can provide some gentle guidance — however it is certainly not the game plan.

(Just like “science” isn’t the game plan in the Vancouver Canucks’ current run at the Stanley Cup — it assists, but is not the plan).

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Our relationship with wild salmon is simply that… A Relationship.

What is that… a ‘relationship’?

Well… dictionary.com suggests: “The way in which two or more concepts, objects, or people are connected, or the state of being connected.”

Just like the relationship between our hearts, minds, and lungs… the relationship between white blood cells and our immune system (our most ancient of systems)… the relationship between children and parents… the relationship between dogs and owners…

What does connected mean?

Joined or linked together;

Related by family.


And curiously, even in mathematics it means:

Not decomposable into two disjoint nonempty open sets.

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Salmon and people are both concepts and objects…

And… well… here along the Pacific Rim — we are connected. We are in a relationship.

And unfortunately, this is not a balanced relationship. This is not an equal give-and-take relationship.

We’ve been more on the taking end…

take, take, take... over 80% for 100-years or so...

When people get married, or make commitments, or talk about their relationship — they don’t look to science, nor even tout the latest studies or research, or engage in a peer-review process…

If you talk to a couple that’s been married for 60 years, they don’t tell you about how the marvels of science kept them together.

No… they generally talk about the hard work… the commitments… a knowing… and call it cheesy, or hairy-fairy… but there’s also (as the song says) “a whole lotta love…”

If salmon are as important as certain surveys suggest (e.g. more important to BC’ers as French is to Quebecers) — not that we need surveys to tell us this — then why this great reliance on science… on data… on research…?

The article concludes:

Lara Tessaro, junior commission counsel, later asked the witnesses to name the DFO managers who are directing scientific research in the Pacific, a line of questioning that suggested the issue may be revisited as the hearings continue.

I think most of us know the answer to that question… (and unfortunately, from what it says in the recent Commission status update, we won’t be getting  Project 11 – Fraser River sockeye salmon: status of DFO science and management

(which was to include an analysis, including an economic analysis, of DFO activities in Fraser River sockeye management since 1985;  DFO science and research expenditures related to Fraser sockeye; and  an analysis to evaluate DFO’s ability to meet its stated management objectives relative to Fraser sockeye since 1985).

The great department of Oceans sails a rudderless ship… and will it be exposed as to just how rudderless?

I’m curious to hear the answers to this and who’s at the helm (or not, or will it be like the story of the Queen of the North..? including the stifling of the truth…) — Yet, I sure hope that in the multiple thousands of pages that are being produced by the Cohen Commission that a little more time gets spent on plain language to describe our relationship with wild salmon.

Our connectedness… and how the relationship needs to improve… drastically.  And “data” is not the answer… it’s simply a tool, one piece of the equation… one piece of the relationship… one piece of the connectedness.

Are your salmon depressed?

Are your salmon depressed?

Here’s the solution… just put them in the nearest city wastewater stream.

There, they will get a good dose of prozac, cialis/viagara, and estrogen from birth control pills.

CBC reported in January:

Antidepressants in Montreal waste water

A significant amount of antidepressant medicine exists in Montreal’s waste water, affecting fish tissue and brain activity, a study by the University of Montreal’s chemistry department has found.

The study says the phenomenon likely occurs in many cities around the world because Montreal has a typical sewage-treatment system.

The controlled study involved brook trout exposed to varying amounts of effluent Montreal water over a three-month period.

“We have data that does show that antidepressant drugs do accumulate in fish tissues — there’s significantly more in the liver than in the muscle, but there’s also more in the brain tissues,” [Dr.] Sauvé [main researcher] told The Canadian Press.

“[The brain] is a bit more of a cause for concern because we have a molecule that’s known and used for brain alteration functions in humans, so if we do have an accumulation in fish brain, it raises a question of what the impact is on the fish.”

And so now at least Montreal has happy, erect, non-reproducing fish swimming around in the St. Lawrence…

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Jest aside… this is no small potato issue. One thing that struck me… the study estimates that one in four folks in Quebec are on Prozac-like medication. Yowsers.

The CBC report turns quickly to the human fear-factor issue… “oh my god, what if I eat the fish?”.

Not a big issue.

But what if you’re a depressed salmon in the Fraser River — like a sockeye?

Well… flush it out of sight, flush it out of mind.

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At last summer’s Fraser Sockeye Summit hosted by SFU, Ken Ashley an instructor at the BC Institute of Technology (BCIT) reported on this issue.

Ken Ashley_SFU salmon summit_March 2010

His report is also summarized in the proceedings from the Summit:

Emerging concerns about wastewater
There is an emerging concern about wastewater and the array of chemicals that are being produced by society and usually end up going down the drain. Endocrine disruptors are of particular concern, and there is a large range of these compounds; for example, the compound Bisphenol A which led to a debate over plastic water bottles and the banning by Health Canada for some baby bottles.

Another endocrine disruptor is Triclosan, a thyroid hormone mimicker that acts as an antibacterial agent. PCBs (polychlorinated biphenols), POPs (persistent organic pollutants) and fire retardants such as PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) are other compounds of concern.

Numerous pharmaceuticals, such as Viagra and Prozac that are also found in wastewater. The latest compounds of concern are nanoparticles, such as nanocarbon, nanotitanium and nanosilver. Nanosilver is now used by some washing machines to disinfect clothing (silver has been known since the Middle Ages to have antimicrobial activity). All of these compounds usually end up in the drain being discharged into either the marine or freshwater environment.

The question is: how effective are wastewater treatment plants at keeping these compounds out of marine and freshwater environments? The answer is that they are not…

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Effects of effluent on salmon migration

Recent research has show that incidents of sex‐reversal in salmonids have been observed in the effluent plume. The presence of EDCs [endocrine disrupting compounds -- the things that mess with our most ancient internal systems, like the immune system, etc.] may also interfere with the typical olfactory imprinting process during early life cycle development stages in salmon.

There is a period when the smolts go through the parr‐smolt transformation, where the thyroxin hormone levels become elevated in the blood. It is known that juvenile salmon detect the unique odour of their natal streams; this phenomenon is referred to as olfactory imprinting, and this is how salmon migrate to their natal stream once they return into the freshwater environment (in the open marine migration they are guided by magnetic compass and sun height). Evidence suggests that juvenile salmon ‘imprint’ odours of the streams on the way to the ocean during the parr‐smolt transformation period.

Elevated thyroxin levels stimulate neural development of the olfactory cells, and this facilitates olfactory imprinting. However, this process may be interrupted when the smolts move through effluent plumes containing Trislocan and other EDCs.

Ashley also goes on to point out the issues around PCBs and PCBEs:

PCB and PBDE trends in Strait of Georgia
Research has been conducted under the direction of scientists at the Institute of Ocean Science where sediment cores were obtained from the Strait of Georgia and examined for organochlorines, PCBs and PBDEs among other compounds. The presence of PBDEs is universal; for example, they are in your furniture cushions and in computer cases.

On a side note to the presentation:

The orca found dead on the Olympic Peninsula earlier this year carried a level of contaminants that was among the highest if not the highest ever measured in killer whales, laboratory tests show the 22 foot long female orca was so full of polychlorinated biphenyls that when scientists first attempted to test her fat, the result was too high for the machines to read it.

[the carcass of this whale basically had to be disposed of like toxic waste]

There are ongoing issues and concerns surrounding the health of Fraser Chinook which comprise a significant part of the SARA-listed (Species At Risk Act) resident orcas in the Salish Sea.

After his presentation Ashley answered a question with this info on what needed to be done in the City of Vancouver and Fraser Valley area:

It all comes down to dollars and the issue right now is that the Iona plant is outdated and needs to be rebuilt and it will cost about $1 billion. The Lions Gate plant is out of date, it is a fish killer, and to upgrade it will be about $0.5 billion. Annacis, Lulu and Northwest Langley plants all need significant midlife upgrades. If you add it all together, the cost is about $1.75 billion.

The issue is that Metro is currently following a funding model where they want to pay everything off in a 15‐year amortization period. This has gone to the finance committee twice and the liquid waste management panel has suggested that instead it be spread over 30 or 35 years. These are multigenerational facilities that will be here for a long time.

…in order to enable politicians to do their job this time at the local government level, you need to talk to your city councilor or mayor who is on the Metro Vancouver wastewater management committee and tell them to adopt a 35‐year amortization period and rebuild all of these starting at the same time and with the best available technology. If they get hung up on the 15‐year amortization period, they will drag the upgrade out for 20 or 30 years.

Certainly could leave one wondering where the almighty Department of Fisheries and Oceans is on these issues? As they are supposed to protect salmon, and orcas and marine resources and so on, and so on…

Bullshit Bingo Card

Salmon Think Tank

Last night I attended the Simon Fraser University sponsored Speaking for the Salmon Series: which consisted of a recent “Scientific Think Tank” presenting its findings from a recent “Think Tank” on: The Ups and Downs of Fraser River Sockeye.

It was an interesting presentation by some good folks that have spent a lot of time ‘studying’ salmon. Many folks that I have respect for in their dedication and energy in exploring these issues. I can also appreciate that the group last night approached the issue with a certain amount of openness to other perspectives.

However, just as I mentioned in my comments last night at the public presentation — what really can one expect the outcomes to be from a gathering of some 35 scientists?

Well… from the summary paper given to attendees last night:

“efforts should be made to develop a coordinated multi-disciplinary research program to address these issues” (e.g. ups and downs of Fraser sockeye).

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So a group of scientists get together, 23 listed on the sheet from last night, 21 with “Dr.” preceding their name — and a big recommendation coming from the Think Tank is: “more science, more research.”

My thoughts passed along last night… if we got 20+ economists together to discuss the salmon issue — they would most likely suggest an approach that would explore: ‘supply & demand’, ‘cost benefit analsyis’, and marginal benefits…

If we got 20+ teachers together to discuss salmon issues — they would most likely recommend curriculum development, teaching tools, and classroom activities…

If we got 20+ lawyers together (e.g. not much unlike the Cohen Commission) — they would most likely recommend some legal analysis, constitutional rights, and legal precedent…

If we got 20+ politicians together — they would most likely launch into the importance of ‘democracy’ and ‘justice’ and ‘open & transparent processes’ and the importance of their ‘constituents…

And thus scientists recommending more science  — isn’t too surprising.

(of course they did also turn up the pressure on implementation of the Wild Salmon Policy too…)

I sort of ponder what would happen if we got 20+ salmon together to discuss the issue…

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As I mentioned last night, and in posts on this site —- what if instead of repeated Commissions and Inquiries and Auditor General reports, we established a process not much unlike the Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform which finished its work in BC in 2004.

With this type of process, there are no experts, or preeminent scientists, or folks that tend to use lots of big words, or bureaucratic drivelers or politicians — driving the process. Those sorts of folks are just advisers making recommendations.

It’s average joe and jill folks, randomly chosen, that evaluate the information and release their recommendations. Good plain old common sense, intuition, and street smarts — all used to look for ideas, potential actions, and solid recommendations. And, in the case of the Citizen’s Assembly, it went to a referendum.

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As with any ‘group’ of people — when a group gets together that is all versed in the same language and mode of thinking, it can become challenging to really step outside the confines of that world and really think with some innovation. (even good, well-meaning individuals like salmon scientists).

One of the other problems is that some language becomes common-place — when used in the world outside of the room, average folks need some serious translation. And sometimes, after awhile, some words just don’t really mean anything at all — they become like the empty nutrients in a chocolate bar, or Coke Zero, or something to that effect…

“ecosystem-based management” as one of the finest examples of this.

For this purpose, I had a post awhile back on Bumpf-Word Bingo.

Last night, this idea came up in casual conversation — and for any of those folks attending the Cohen Commission or other fisheries meetings — we can politely rename this Bullshit Bingo.

And here is your playing card. Standard Bingo rules apply: when you black out a line, or an entire card, you shout out “Bullshit”!

stewardship conservation implementation plans ecosystem objectives variables
sustainability ecosystem restoration benchmarks policy
strategic planning biodiversity transparency best practices safeguard
performance indicators extirpation establish linkages baseline monitoring ecosystem integrity
comprehensive escapement data management adaptive management framework

This would be all the more interesting if some folks would put up some prizes for the game… happy playing.

Salmon science and the “Ikea effect”.

So here’s a thought… have you heard of the “Ikea effect”?

I came across this idea and term in two different places. First, on a great weblog by Jonah Lehrer called Frontal Cortex, which is now hosted by Wired magazine – the post is: Why making dinner is a good idea (he also has a great post today on precognition). I also came across it in a Harvard Business Review from 2009: When Labor Leads to Love.

HBR List 2009 logoLabor is not just a meaningful experience – it’s also a marketable one. When instant cake mixes were introduced, in the1950s, housewives were initially resistant: The mixes were too easy, suggesting that their labor was undervalued. When manufacturers changed the recipe to require the addition of an egg, adoption rose dramatically. Ironically, increasing the labor involved – making the task more arduous – led to greater liking.

Research conducted with my colleagues Daniel Mochon, of Yale University, and Dan Ariely, of Duke University, shows that labor enhances affection for its results. When people construct products themselves, from bookshelves to Build-a-Bears, they come to overvalue their (often poorly made) creations. We call this phenomenon the IKEA effect, in honor of the wildly successful Swedish manufacturer whose products typically arrive with some assembly required.

In one of our studies we asked people to fold origami and then to bid on their own creations along with other people’s. They were consistently willing to pay more for their own origami. In fact, they were so enamored of their amateurish creations that they valued them as highly as origami made by experts.

Finally, the IKEA effect has broader implications for organizational dynamics: It contributes to the sunk cost effect, whereby managers continue to devote resources to (sometimes failing) projects in which they have invested their labor, and to the not-invented-here syndrome, whereby they discount good ideas developed elsewhere in favor of their (sometimes inferior) internally developed ideas. Managers should keep in mind that ideas they have come to love because they invested their own labor in them may not be as highly valued by their coworkers – or their customers.

Lehrer on his blog discusses other studies on the Ikea effect:

It turns out that the Ikea effect also applies to food, at least in mice. The experiment was simple: Mice were trained to push levers to get one of two rewards. If they pressed lever A, they got a delicious drop of sugar water. If they pressed lever B, they got a different tasting drop of sugar water. (This reward was made with polycose, not sucrose.)

The scientists then started to play mind games with the mice, as they gradually increased the amount of effort required to get one of the sweet rewards. Although the mice only had to press the lever a single time to get the sugar water at the start of the experiment, by the end they were required to press the lever 15 times.

Here’s where things get interesting: When the test was over and the mice were allowed to relax in their home cage, they showed an overwhelming preference for whichever reward they’d worked harder to obtain. More lever presses led to tastier water. (The scientists measured these preferences in a variety of ways, including an analysis of “licking microstructure”. Preferred foods lead to a faster rate of initial licking and longer duration of “licking bursts.”)

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I received an email today announcing another Salmon Think Tank:

Salmon Think Tank

The Ups and Downs of Fraser River Sockeye” – Public Presentation, hosted by SFU December 6, 2010.

The public presentation is a follow-up to: “An invitational think tank of independent scientists” being hosted on Dec. 2/3.

On the SFU website, are lists of “associated resources” that are already accessible. Quite a curious list. For those on the “A” list of the invited independents… it includes nine separate reports.

Three on volcanic ash — the latest and greatest theory to enter the media realm — one on the damaging effects of algae in the ocean, a couple of syntheses from earlier conferences (easy night time reading…) and one from Dr. Carl Walters titled “where have all the sockeye gone?” which consists of a few points that will be sure to stir controversy.

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The number of theories surrounding salmon declines and salmon inclines (such as this year) is more numerous then all the bolts in an IKEA kitchen set that one must build themselves.

As suggested above: “Labor is not just a meaningful experience – it’s also a marketable one.”

So is science. Marketing is actually quite a key component of science – always has been, always will.

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“When people construct products themselves, from bookshelves to Build-a-Bears, they come to overvalue their (often poorly made) creations.”

Now, I’m not suggesting that some of the science backing the great salmon debate is “poorly-made” — like my homemade bookshelves made from scrap wood and old bricks — but maybe more that: “managers continue to devote resources to (sometimes failing) projects in which they have invested their labor, and to the not-invented-here syndrome, whereby they discount good ideas developed elsewhere in favor of their (sometimes inferior) internally developed ideas.”

Or, maybe:

“When the test was over and the mice were allowed to relax in their home cage, they showed an overwhelming preference for whichever reward they’d worked harder to obtain.”

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See, I am curious whether the Cohen Commission will endeavor (or has) to look far past the Fraser River and even the faltering management regime here in Canada that has the specific responsibility to care for salmon.

As I repeat repeatedly… humans are the cause for salmon declines; the death of a thousands cuts — almost all exacted by us. The Fraser River flows through the most populated areas of BC — an ever-growing population — yet still not at the density of other places that Pacific salmon roam.

So where is the seeking information from places like Japan and Korea where wild runs of Pacific salmon have been virtually eliminated? Or the outer reaches of Russia where Pacific salmon still thrive? Or Alaska, or just north of Los Angeles where the historic range of Pacific salmon reaches its southern zenith?

Sure there’s a limit to the reach of research and the mandate of the Commission — but what about these “Think Tanks”?

The challenge is exploring the breadth of the thinking. The nice thing with my salmon think tank above is that it has glass walls and once can actually observe outside of the box — unfortunately, I think many of the great gatherings these days to “think salmon” result in a few too many theories on how to build the IKEA dresser within a confined, curtained-in tank. (…need to keep it dark so everyone can see the PowerPoint better…)

This is a perplexing issue — salmon that is. More confusing then if IKEA sent out entire homebuilding kits that one had to assemble…

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If you’d like further “IKEA effect” — you may need to watch this video… I do wonder if this might somewhat mirror how Justice Cohen feels these days about the salmon debate that he finds himself mired in.

please be forewarned with the standard… this video does contain scenes of coarse language…

It’s unfortunate when the media gets it wrong…

There’s a story running on the CBC  website today:

Salmon prices high despite strong sockeye run

I had to leave a comment on the story as the article suggests:

After a series of lean seasons in which sockeye runs were paltry on B.C.’s southwest coast, at least seven million and as many as 11 million of the highly prized salmon are expected to return to spawning grounds this year.

As I mentioned in my comment on the story: No, there will not be 7 – 11 million sockeye reaching the “spawning grounds” this year. Those numbers are pre-season forecasts of total run size. Before reaching their spawning grounds those sockeye need to run the gauntlet of killers including: sticky trigger fingers at DFO to open commercial and sport fisheries, predators such as seals and orcas and bears, First Nation fisheries, and the deadliest killer of all HOT water.

The Fraser is running temperatures well above avg and now approaching 20 degrees C. It is also running between 20-25% below average water levels. Less water generally means easier to heat. I wouldn’t want to know the temperatures in the Thompson River right now after weeks of stinking hot weather.

When B.C. is burning and there are air quality warnings up around the Province due to smoke from fires… that probably means the rivers are running a little warm…

As I mention in my comment to the article, we’ll be lucky to see even 3 million sockeye actually reach their “spawning grounds”, some of which are over a thousand kilometres from the Fraser estuary and Salish Sea (Georgia Strait) where commercial fisheries are hammering  on Fraser sockeye right now.

Remember this graph?

From the Simon Fraser University convened  “Salmon Think Tank” in late 2009:

Salmon Think Tank graph produced by Pacific Salmon Commission Chief Biologist

See that average productivity of less than 2 adults returning per spawner. By my rough math… if we’ll be lucky to see 3 million Fraser sockeye spawners this year, and average productivity is 2 returning adults (of which you can see that the big red dot of 2009 is significantly less than 2). That equals about 6 million returning adults in four years.

My rough math suggests 7 to 11 million pre-season forecast this year, lucky to get 3 million to the spawning grounds – that’s an average of about 43% to 27% of total run actually reaching the grounds (which is prob. pretty optimistic). In four years, a total run of 6 million, and we’d be looking at 6 million x 43% = 2.6 million on the grounds OR 6 million x 27% = 1.62 million.

So then we could be looking at between 1.62 million to 2.6 million spawners, giving a total run size in four years of…

Death Spiral?

I think you get the picture, it’s a downward death spiral.

It’s not that I want to be a pessimist about productivity returning to Fraser River sockeye… it’s simply that if the decline is as dramatic as the graph above suggests, then shouldn’t we be WAYYY more precautionary in opening up fisheries?

Shouldn’t as many Fraser sockeye as possible reach the spawning grounds?

Don’t buy the good old “over-escapement” story, you know, the too many sockeye on the spawning grounds spoils the broth…

Estimates suggest in the 1800s almost 160 million sockeye alone returned to the Fraser River. Yeah, that’s 160 million… and this year we’re talking 7 – 11 million total run size forecast.

What happened?

road trip doodling — salmon models — salmon think tanks

This week I am traveling; drove from Prince George to Victoria for a family function. Had some time in the sun on the ferry crossing.

Last week I heard a senior DFO manager explain the number of variables affecting salmon forecasting — things like Humboldt squid, changing ocean conditions, freshwater productivity, and so on and so on.

I asked: “do you think that setting maximum sustained yield (i.e. fishing mortality) at 60% of a run is all that responsible then?”

There was some significant back tracking…

salmon guy doodling


I have always found the term “escapement” to refer to salmon that enter rivers that may — or may not — spawn, a very bizarre term… a very human-centric term… a very western science term…

breaking the barriers to migration

Maybe the addition of one of those fish that hasn’t broken out of jail:

“whoa folks… slow down the computer model says only a few of us should make it through…”

In December 2009, Simon Fraser University and others convened a Salmon Think Tank. Little did they know, these have been around for awhile…:

salmon think tank

The salmon reconvened in the 90s:


last year... dreaming of more Fraser sockeye


thinking outside the box?

Is it “good news”, or, are we jumping the gun?

Link to an article out of Oregon:

Record Columbia River sockeye run is a bounty for Northwest fishermen

Apparently this year’s sockeye run on the Columbia is one of the best in quite some time, edging towards 330,000:

from Oregonian article

This is pretty decent news, and good for folks to be able to secure some income from selling fish.

However, there is a pretty key sentence that should keep things in perspective:

Before dams were built on the Columbia and Snake rivers, sockeye run estimates reached 3 million fish.

That was only about a human generation ago. In the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Similar story as the Fraser River sockeye. Estimates from the Fraser River suggest sockeye runs peaking at 160 million  in the 1800s, and runs approaching 100 million in the early 1900s.

Last year… 1.3 million or so.

Before everyone starts getting too ecstatic, maybe numbers should be put in perspective. Department of Fisheries and Oceans also likes to put out graphs of Fraser sockeye populations that only go back as far as the 1940s as well.

A gentle reminder may need to accompany those numbers: in the 1940s world population was also only about 2.3 billion… it’s just under 7 billion now according to United Nations estimates in 2008.

The population of Oregon was a little over 1 million in the 1940s; it’s now about 4 million. Washington State was about 1.7 million; it’s about 6.7 million now. Seattle and metro areas were well under 1 million in the 1940s, they’re now approaching 3.5 million.

Vancouver, B.C. and metro area has grown from a few hundred thousand in the 1940s to over 2 million now.

_ _ _ _ _

Is there not a trend here?

is this familiar?

Part of the problem (at least south of Alaska – however I won’t mention the preponderance of salmon ranching to support Alaskan salmon fisheries) is that the moment that salmon runs demonstrate a glimmer… a glint… a smidgen of positive news, government management institutions and lobby groups exclaim:


And yet, many folks seem to have lost track of the historical – or just choose to ignore it. Not all that often do government reports, scientific research, or bureaucratic brethren draw the link between the trend lines I sketched above. At best, it gets passing mention…

And isn’t there another trend in here?

shit to salmon

I recognize “shit” is not a very technical term… in this case it captures a wide classification including: shit-shit and the increases of which a much larger population excretes into waterways; prozac/ estrogen/cialis and other endocrine disruptors showing up in alarmingly increasing amounts in sewage treatment plants; “shit” in a figurative sense; and so on…

_ _ _ _

If salmon habitats (e.g. ocean and freshwater) are displaying lower productivity than in the past, for example, look at the Fraser River estimates of sockeye productivity (from the Pacific Salmon Commission and part of the late 2009 Salmon Think Tank statement):

Salmon Think Tank -- Fraser River sockey productivity estimates

Remember that for a population of almost anything… there must be at least two reproductive adults per “spawner” reaching sexual maturity — ideally one female and one male — to allow any critter to simply maintain a population, let alone provide for ‘growth’.

It might be suggested that at present productivity even a “record” sockeye run would not even reproduce the same size run in four years — even if left entirely alone.

For example, if 15 million sockeye showed up in the Fraser River this year, at a productivity of less than 1 adult returning per spawner — the run four years from now would not even be the same size; it would be smaller. And this… even if we leave the runs entirely alone (i.e. no fishing).

And thus on the Columbia, a “record” run of over 300,000 (despite recent historical runs over 3 million) and everyone wants to go fishing. I’ll quietly put in here that the cost of that 300,000+ return is massive… hatcheries, barging baby salmon past dams, habitat restoration, controlling dam flows, dismantling dams, and so on, and so on…

Will we see the same on the Fraser River this year?

Early indications suggest some higher than predicted run sizes, or at least in the lower probability range (as DFO likes to call it). Will there be a push to go fishing?

There is on the Skeena River (northwestern B.C.) right now… Skeena Fisheries Blog. Nothing like “harvestable surplus”…

British Columbia wild salmon: denial stage

In the late 1960s psychologist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross wrote a book: On Death and Dying. In that book Kübler-Ross described the Five Stages of Grief:

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

Initially these five stages were applied to people dealing with terminal illnesses; however over the years they’ve been applied to various big events such as divorce, job loss, tragedies, and so on.

When it comes to wild salmon; many folks seem to be exhibiting classic grief stages. It’s hard not to when we look at what’s happened to wild salmon along the Pacific Coast — for example, Fraser River sockeye in British Columbia:

150 years of Fraser River sockeye

Or the current situation with early-timed Chinook on the Fraser River (see yesterday’s post) — which are facing extinction at current numbers and forecasts, with the added threat of Chinook sport fisheries open coast wide in BC right now.

Unfortunately, far too many individuals are only in the first stage of grief: DENIAL.

A few weeks ago I attended the Simon Fraser University-hosted Summit on Fraser River Sockeye: Understanding Stock Declines and Prospects for the Future.  I listened to a very senior biologist with an international organization responsible for assisting in managing Fraser sockeye suggest that the declining productivity of sockeye in some rivers “has a silver lining”.

The “silver lining” as he explained is that many of these rivers with declining runs and productivity — for example the Bowron River up near where I live in Prince George — have small runs of sockeye and thus we don’t have to be that concerned with the significantly declining productivity.

During the question period I made it very clear that the Lheidli T’enneh First Nation didn’t see any “silver lining” in the “small” run of the Bowron declining rapidly. So rapidly, that the Bowron run, which spawns in the world famous paddling route of the Bowron Lakes is looking at potential returns this year of less than 1000. This despite maximum runs of 35,000 over the last 50 years. Lheidli folks have voluntarily not fished the Bowron run for somewhere near 30 years. There is absolutely no “silver lining” for them.

Many other scientists at the Summit also exhibited classic denial characteristics, as did the “Fraser Sockeye Think Tank” convened in late 2009. The Think Tank advocated for more research to deal with the issues and suggested that overfishing was not the problem…

In meetings this past week, I listened to Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) deny that there are serious issues with early-timed Fraser Chinook. Their denial is further proven by the fact that DFO figures the run is healthy enough to support having sport fisheries open on the BC coast right now. If sport fisheries are open, DFO is implicitly suggesting that First Nation food, social, and ceremonial fisheries will be fulfilled — as the First Nation fisheries have priority due to Constitutional and legal obligations.

One has to wonder: why the denial? At the scientific and government levels?

Any thoughts?

Free money – Part I

I have a proposition for you. I have a fail-proof investment scheme that is guaranteed free money. And trust me… some folks suggest there is no such thing as a “free lunch”. Yet, I’ve got it right here.

It’s called my: Free Lunch/Investment Return Tool (FLIRT). Here’s the concept:

You have some money; principal, let’s call it… say $1000. This FLIRT is so good that I guarantee if you take 80% of your principal every year ($800), the 20% ($200) that’s left in the account will be sufficient to bring back $1000 the next year and thus financial returns large enough so that you can take 80% again the next year, and the next year, and the next year. Take 80%, and 100% of the original principal returns year after year.

This tool is so damn good — FLIRTing let’s call it — that we don’t even have to worry about all that other crap out there like: stock markets, surrounding business environment, or even what your neighbour is doing. It is so simple that we only have to ensure we grab that 80% surplus every year (this is the Free Lunch – FL). In fact, you actually have to take the 80% every year because if you take less than that — like say 60% — this will result in less return the next year.  You must be vigilant in taking your 80% – and actually if you accidentally take 90% – FLIRT will still produce; maybe even better.

The reason we must be vigilant — i.e. take our free lunch: 80% return annually –  is that if we let the remaining annual principal  ($200) get any bigger, all that extra free lunch (i.e. returns) will just get stale, moldy, and impact our future returns (i.e. free lunches). We only have so much carrying capacity in our accounts — we don’t want to use that all up, overcrowd it, and so on. Say for example, we lose our FLIRTing vigilance and we only take 60% on an annual basis — leaving $400 every year in our account — the returns the next year just won’t be as robust. Too much free lunch is a bad thing and ensures we’ll get a worse lunch the next year, and so on.

my sketching

FLIRTing ensures that every year we generate the “maximum sustainable yield”; year in and year out.

Yet, the reality is that taking 80% ever year is flirting with disaster, too many free lunches, and a downward spiral is underway for all involved.

Ok, so do you want to FLIRT? Sound ridiculous?

It is.

However, this is how salmon, and many other fisheries, have been managed for over 50 years. The concept of “maximum sustainable yield” came out of some hallowed educational institutions in the 1930s. It took over salmon management in the late 1940s and 50s and is still part of the current Wild Salmon Policy adopted in 2005.

The assumption is based on an old fisheries concept called stock recruitment. (Remember that military analogy from the other day?). Now I mean no disrespect to the individuals that created these concepts, they were cutting edge in their time — but so were PCBS, and asbestos, and atomic bombs. Just because they were cutting edge at one time does not mean blades remain razor sharp, or, even rust-free for that matter.

The stock/recruitment (S/R) relationship theory suggests a certain amount of spawning fish (stock) reproduce a certain amount of baby fish that return as adults at the end of the life cycle (recruits). The theory suggests that in a natural state, the number of babies (and eventual recruits) produced by a salmon run begins to level off and even drop as the number of spawners increase — otherwise growth would continue indefinitely.

The graph is assumed to demonstrate a “dome-like” relationship, as shown in the sketch graph above.

There are comparisons with the classic salt curve or taxes curve. A little is good and effective up to a point, once the tipping point is reached though; too much quickly becomes very bad — for our health, for society, for everyone.

Fisheries science suggests that too many spawners is actually bad — overcrowding, disease sets in, spawners dig up each others’ eggs, and so on. Thus, the theory holds that a certain amount of spawners may be harvested without necessarily having a detrimental impact on the overall population. And in fact, in most cases harvesting fish may actually make the reproduction of babies ( and eventual recruits) more productive. More recruits means a higher harvestable surplus when spawners return. The theory being that if we find that magical point on the upswing of the “dome”, we can actually make spawning that much more effective (i.e. free lunch).

The theory suggests further… we need to determine the sweet spot where free lunches grow on trees; the sweet spot at which a certain amount of spawners produces the optimal amount of recruits. Once we know that sweet-spot number of spawners (optimal escapement or benchmark) required to produce the optimal number of recruits that can be harvested and theoretically reproduce the same size run four years down the road (i.e. typical salmon life cycle) — we have then apparently determined the Maximum Sustainable Yield.

When it comes to Fraser River sockeye, for close to 50 years the Maximum Sustainable Yield has apparently been 80% of the run. Fisheries science, and the institutions that “manage” salmon, figured that catching 80% of the Fraser sockeye population and expecting 20% of the run to reproduce the same size run four years down the road was a good idea, was sustainable, and was optimal for the health of the salmon.

Here’s the graph showing harvest levels on Fraser River sockeye over the last 50 years.

Statement from Think Tank of Scientists 2009

Remember that mention of the invention of bombs… MSY has turned out to be a bomb for salmon populations — especially Fraser River sockeye.

Of course, this is my humble, un-Dr’ed. opinion.

I’ll also add that many individuals much smarter than I, look at this blue line graph and the red line graph below demonstrating levels of Fraser sockeye productivity — and suggest there isn’t really a relationship. That we need more research, we need a “smoking gun”, we need conclusive evidence, it must be out there in the ocean…

Statement from Think Tank of Scientists 2009

I guess maybe I subscribe more to the less rigorous approach of a “balance of probabilities” as opposed to “beyond a reasonable doubt” when we start considering evidence.

One of the relationships between these two graphs appears to be the sad failure of stock-recruitment analysis in considering productivity of an ecosystem. Stock-recruitment accounts for nothing more than one relationship — the relationship between recruits and spawners.

The S/R model assumes a static ecosystem. This many spawners, results in this many babies, which results in this many ‘recruits’ — end of story. Yet, the red line graph shows a disturbing trend in Fraser salmon productivity. A ‘train wreck’. As other individuals suggest, the slowest train wreck you’ll ever see… but a train wreck nonetheless.

S/R analysis has no way of recognizing train wrecks in productivity. It only looks at two things: spawners and recruits a few years later…

Still want to FLIRT for free-money?

the curious thing about science…

Vancouver Sun

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).

Haida Raven Decal - Billy Bedard

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.