Tag Archives: SFU salmon think tank

a whole lot of charts and graphs…

This week I am in Vancouver at the Summit on Fraser River Sockeye Salmon: Understanding Stock Declines and Prospects for the Future hosted by Simon Fraser University. I had hoped to post some updates from the conference; unfortunately there is no internet access within the conference facilities.

Some interesting information at times; however, I don’t think I have sat through so many charts and graphs and PowerPoint presentations… ever. Probably the most telling aspect of the day was watching the movie “End of the Line” at the end of the day. Obviously many people had reached the end of their line, as less than half the over 100 people attending stuck around for the showing.

And really, a room full of fisheries scientists… who wants to listen to the fact that what they’re doing is pretty pointless. Fisheries decisions are political… not scientific.

In the conference program, quoting from the movie it states:

We are given glimpses of hope and… this shines from the eyes of… eminent marine biologists. Each speaks with an insistent optimism, and as the story unfolds it is obvious why. This is not an insoluble problem. The answers are already known — all that is required is to get them into the minds of those making the decisions. After decades in the wilderness, warning about coming crisis, people are starting to sit up and pay attention. No new knowledge is required — just action.

throw out the baby fish with the bath water?

Seth Godin has got a couple of great posts this last few days. Short, to the point, and leaving me pondering. Godin is generally referred to as a marketing guy – and he is – but really what aspect of our lives isn’t marketing, or affected by marketing…?  Godin is also more than just marketing; he’s a thinker and now with his last few books running along the edge of motivational speaker.

Today’s post TEDThink refers to the TED Talks which are quite the thing – as the tagline to the talks suggests “Ideas worth spreading”.  If you get a chance many of the talks are quite fascinating.

Godin’s post today starts with an algebraic equation and he highlights that during our school-age education we were being taught to “play with numbers in our head. Abstract numerical thought is an important skill among educated people.”

However, as Godin suggests listen to the TED talks and try to get ahead of the speaker….

basically, it’s similar to a quadratic equation. If you need the other person to slow down and explain every little bit, you’ve missed the point. The point is to do abstract conceptual thought. To get in practice taking the accepted status quo and questioning it, at least for a little while, at least this or that part of it.

I think this is a skill, a rare one. The ability to be facile in the manipulation of ideas, both theoretical and established, is a valuable one…

…The trick is to be able to leap to, “if we did A and B, would that get us C? Would C be a good thing? Is it possible to do A and B if we really commit?” and then move on to the next one. And that takes practice. Why wouldn’t it?

So let me throw this equation into the mix:

The simplest way to model harvesting is to modify the logistic equation so that a certain number of individuals is continuously removed:

 \frac{dN}{dt} = rN(1-\frac{N}{K}) - H

Where H represents the number of individuals being removed from the population – that is, the harvesting rate.

This is one of the model equations for Maximum Sustainable Yield from Wikipedia. Personally, looking at this stuff makes me feel like… well… smashing my laptop screen down repeatedly on my fingers until I’m down a digit or two…

Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) is the dominant “concept” worldwide for “managing” fish populations and fisheries. It is even in United Nations documents and guidelines – and still in Canada’s Wild Salmon Policy.

Although it is widely practiced by state and federal government agencies regulating wildlife, forests, and fishing, MSY has come under heavy criticism … from both theoretical and practical reasons. The concept of maximum sustainable yield is not always easy to apply in practice. Estimation problems arise due to poor assumptions in some models and lack of reliability of the data . Biologists, for example, do not always have enough data to make a clear determination of the population’s size and growth rate. Calculating the point at which a population begins to slow from competition is also very difficult…

Biologists do no always have enough data to make clear determination of the population’s size” – I restate this as this is key when it comes to wild salmon. There is a lot of water in the historical range of Pacific salmon. There are a lot of streams in the salmon range.

No fisheries management institution can  – and ever has – physically counted all salmon that reach spawning grounds. Plus if you’ve ever seen a huge salmon run, there is no “counting” – it is all estimation. And let’s remember “estimation” means an opinion, or a rough calculation, or a “judgment based on one’s impressions”. This is not exact science.

As a management goal, the static interpretation of MSY (i.e., MSY as a fixed catch that can be taken year after year) is generally not appropriate because it ignores the fact that fish populations undergo natural fluctuations (i.e., MSY treats the environment as unvarying) in abundance and will usually ultimately become severely depleted under a constant-catch strategy. (Wikipedia)

Here’s a graph from the “Adapting to Change…” press release from the Salmon “Think Tank” in December at Simon Fraser University.

The graph shows the percentage of the Fraser River sockeye harvested over the last 50+ years. From the 50s to the 90s that percentage was in the range of 75-85% of the run.

Most numbers suggest that 90% of that is commercially harvested, 4-5% is First Nations harvest, and a small percentage is caught in sport fisheries.

Here’s a problem (or two).

A press release in relation to the Think Tank gathering:

More research and action is needed in the case of declining Fraser River sockeye stocks, according to a think-tank led by Burnaby academics. (my emphasis)

Well… if you buy into Godin’s line of thinking maybe that’s part of the problem? – too much abstract numerical thought and not enough abstract conceptual thought.

Here’s an equation to consider based upon Godin’s:

if we did A (fish the crap out of salmon runs for 50 years – as in take 80% of the population) and B (log, mine, throw pesticides in, draw water from for agriculture, urbanize the river mouth, etc. in salmon fresh water habitat) would that get us C (blown forecasts and potentially the lowest sockeye run in the history of the Fraser River) ?

Would C be a good thing?

And yet good respectable folks (many of which I have met and think highly of) are suggesting:

According to the think-tank, overfishing is not the reason productivity is declining.

So someone answer me this… how is it that a sockeye run of greater than 60 million in the early 1900s went to less than 1 million in a little over 100 years?

How is it that a population of First Nations anywhere between 2 million to 6 million prior to European contact throughout the Fraser River watershed (one of the most densely populated areas of North America prior to contact) was able to harvest anywhere between 10 million to 50 million salmon (approximately 8 fish per person) for a darn long time – sustainably?

No offense intended to those of you who have slaved on these issues for years – however, sometimes the thought processes that got us into a pickle need to be tossed out (sorry, recycled).

Maximum Sustainable Yield is a “concept” created in a time when smoking cigarettes was considered healthy, fireproof suits were made from asbestos, and dropping atomic bombs was considered an act of peace.

Time for new concepts.

And maybe it is time to blow the entire salmon discussion up? Maybe a lot less numerical thought and a lot more conceptual thought? Fewer scientists and “fish managers” and academics and a lot more local community folks, entrepreneurs, marketers, conflict resolution and facilitation experts, streamkeepers, artists and fishers, and definitely a lot more women, mothers, and creative thinkers.

salmon think tank statement

In reviewing the various articles, one of the points I didn’t see highlighted are the startling graphs from the “Statement from Think Tank of Scientist“. Again, not directed as criticism towards the think tank or individuals involved; however, the graphs paint a clear picture for me.

This graph is showing sockeye salmon production in the Fraser. The steep red line running to the right hand bottom corner is worse than the steep red line to the bottom right corner of most of the world’s stock markets this time last year, or returns on most people’s RRSP.

This graph is showing the percentage of the sockeye salmon run caught in the Fraser. Harvested also means killed.

I’ll point out some of the things that stand obvious to me:

1. How and why fish ‘managers’ figured that catching 80% of a run for over 40 years (at least by this graph) is a good idea – or sustainable – blows my mind.

At some point in time, the assumption that leaving 20% of a salmon run to produce the same size runs year after year was going to fall apart. Salmon are not wheat or canola or trees, and the ocean is not some pasture that produces the same results every year.

That’s part of the problem we have now. (However this is not a rant on the concept of maximum sustainable yield.)

2. Compare the falling red line of the production graph with the not-so-falling blue line of the catch graph. If the runs were continuing to fall through the mid-1990s and into the 2000s then why did the salmon killing  jump back up to around 60% in the early 2000s? I’d like to know who was responsible for that set of bonehead decisions.

3. If scientists have known for at least the last decade that ocean conditions were changing (I was coming across research in the late 1990s that suggested ocean conditions were changing/declining)  – and that Fraser sockeye runs were on massive declines – then, again, who made the decisions to kill between 20-40% of the run through the early 2000s?

One has to wonder if the upcoming  judicial inquiry will actually name names?

(highly doubtful).

CBC – salmon 'think tank'

The press coverage of the results of the early Dec/09 think tank are ranging in their identifying potential issue leading to the completely blown DFO forecast for Fraser River sockeye this year (i.e. over 10 million forecast; just over 1 million returning)

The CBC covered the results of the gathering: “Sockeye decline linked to climate change: Change in ocean conditions in 2007 likely behind mass death of stocks.

The article states:

“Using their combined expertise and as much official data they could gather, the scientists concluded the missing sockeye likely vanished when they were still young and migrating toward the sea.

They suggested that in either late spring or early summer of 2007, ocean conditions probably hurt the fish’s chances of survival.

“If you’re looking at warmer temperatures and a lack of food, that could well be a cause of mortality for large numbers of fish,” [Mark] Angelo said.

However, the group didn’t rule out other factors, including pollution and lice from fish farms.”

Pollution is not raised in any of the other articles I’ve seen yet; however, living immediately downstream of a couple of pulp mills in the Upper Fraser and having traveled through much of the rest of the Fraser watershed – maybe there is a larger connection here?

Or, maybe the hundred or so small streams that have been lost around the mouth of the Fraser due to urbanization might also have a significant impact? As far as I understand, salmon fry need to spend some time undergoing significant physiological changes when moving from fresh to salt water and vice-versa.

My point here is not to question or belittle the scientists that made up this think thank  – I just find it a little disappointing that at this point in time, with the level of decreases that we’ve seen throughout the Pacific salmon range, that more brave, decisive steps are not being taken. And that a clear, decisive message is not being communicated about the issues.

The analogy I drew the other day in a discussion with someone is this: at the beginning of the H1N1 ‘pandemic’ if the federal government had stalled along suggesting ‘we need more research’ before we can say or do anything definitive – what would have been the public reaction? Instead the government spent billions on vaccines, clinics, and public outreach.

Sure enough, there are many individuals (and conspiracy theorists) that are avoiding the vaccines – some for the exact reason that there are still lots of questions.

Yet in my relatively short time of salmon experience – starting near the time when I could walk and now moving on 3 decades – I have seen incredible declines across the coast. A few brave steps have been taken here and there; however, not much in terms of long term, decisive, clear action and communication.

Vancouver Sun – salmon 'think tank'…

In digging around to find some more articles and information related to the salmon ‘think tank’ gathering in early Dec. 09; I have found some varying messages from participants (which is to be expected) – and of course various media/journalist interpretations of these messages.

An article from the Vancouver Sun (Dec. 9) by Scott Simpson: “Scientists urge quick action on Fraser Sockeye collapse: Urgency too great to wait for results from federal commission of inquiry” suggests that: “No single cause for the collapse is discernible, and researchers are suggesting a variety of events in the [Georgia] strait may be responsible — including warming ocean temperatures, declining availability of food, greater attention from predators, and interactions with farmed salmon.”

As I stated in a post the other day, ‘more research’ is not really going to lead to any remedy for any of the above factors. Sure, maybe we’ll ‘understand’ better – but then what are we going to do about it? My suggestion is to focus time and resources on the things that we can change – like our own behavior, and how we treat the freshwater environment that is so crucial for all wild salmon. (which is not to suggest that there isn’t any work being done in that area).

The Sun article quotes Mark Angelo, deputy chair of the Pacific Fisheries Resource Conservation Council : “Our ultimate goal is to be a helpful and constructive force in trying to turn things around for Fraser sockeye stocks — and that’s something we all hope to see…”

That’s a sentiment I can agree with.

The article carries on to point out:  “…DFO [Department of Fisheries and Oceans] salmon experts were told to withhold participation in public events in consideration of the central role they will play in an upcoming federal commission of inquiry into the decline of Fraser sockeye.”

Now that’s effective logic. A gathering of over 20 salmon experts from around BC and lets withhold the participation of the agency responsible for conservation and stewardship of wild salmon. Makes complete sense to me (and I hope you can hear my sarcasm). And, yeah, let’s tell those department staff to sit on their hands until sometime in 2011 when the judicial inquiry comes out with another list of recommendations that get largely ignored.

This again points to my continued assertion that waiting for DFO to institute changes and real action is like expecting an ocean-going freighter to turn like a kayak. This is not to suggest that there aren’t excellent people within the Department capable of instituting changes – just hard for me to believe that a PM from oil country is going to direct the department to take a stand for something that he’ll probably only ever see from some exclusive coastal lodge owned by some of his party funders. Or, a fisheries minister (Gail Shea) from PEI, who has been in parliament for a little over a year following a career working for Revenue Canada. (yeah, call me a cynic).

As a poster in my office states:

“It’s easy to make a difference; make a choice”

Scientists urge quick action on Fraser sockeye collapse

Urgency too great to wait for results from federal commission of inquiry

The Economist Magazine

In November of this year, the Economist Magazine featured an article on salmon declines in the Fraser River: Socked: Another inquiry into vanishing stocks.  On one front, great that the issue is getting this sort of international coverage; on another front, a few curious assertions in the article.

Regarding the recent federal announcement of a judicial inquiry into the sockeye collapse on the Fraser, the article states: “Applause was muted. Four other federal inquiries held over the past three decades have failed to halt the decline.”


Why not take the $20 million or so that it costs to undertake a judicial inquiry and put it back into programs that actually make a difference on the ground? – as opposed to drawing the same conclusions and making the same recommendations as the last few multi-million dollar inquiries.

The article suggests: ” the province’s rich salmon fishery, worth about C$500m ($475m), could disappear…”

Fair enough, the magazine is focussed on economies. And yes, maybe the commercial salmon fishery represents that sort of economic range – however, salmon on a whole (in strictly economic terms) represent so much more.

For example, in 2006, IBM completed a report on the economic value of Skeena wild salmon:

The report concluded that wild salmon of the Skeena River represent about $110 million to our economy and this doesn’t account for ecosystem values and other values.

The Economist article continues: “Scientists and environmentalists agree that the causes of the decline include overfishing and the destruction of spawning habitats. Some also blame unauthorised fishing on the Fraser by First Nations…”

Curious that there is a suggestion of ‘agreement’ about the causes: overfishing and habitat destruction (and I don’t mean this as criticism of the article). I agree that some of the biggest issues are exactly overfishing and habitat destruction – hence why I don’t think ‘more research’ is the answer – as has been suggested by many (see previous posts). There is a place for research – but it is far from the answer, or the first step of action.

Fundamentally, I ask: if there is  such agreement then why not take drastic measures to begin the process of working on the agreed upon problems?

On the issue of First Nation fishing… I have raised this point for years, as have several others – repeatedly – that catch numbers need to be put into perspective. The commercial/sport fishery accounts for over 95% of the salmon caught in BC; the aboriginal fishery less than 5%. Mainstream media in BC has quite the love affair with running articles on First Nation ‘poaching’, or illegal fisheries, or whatever angle feeds the rabid misconception.

The misconception and misrepresentation has, from my observations, been largely successful. A few years ago I was a tour guide for bus tours on Haida Gwaii (formerly referred to as the Queen Charlotte Is.) where I grew up. One of the groups I guided was largely from the Fraser Valley. When the discussion turned to salmon and some of the salmon issues on Haida Gwaii there were some pretty pointed questions about how much the “Indians” were poaching, and how much of a problem that was on the lower Fraser River…..

I gently passed on the approximate catch numbers – yet, it’s still difficult to break down flawed reasoning based on media pandering.

salmon 'think-tank'…?

Reading a local newspaper (Prince George Citizen) last week I came across a tiny text box of about thirty words talking about a salmon “think tank” blaming ocean conditions for the massive decline of sockeye in the Fraser River this past summer (11 million forecast; 1 million returned – a miss, or decline, of over 90%). Those are declines far greater than the stock market crash of this past year… however I can safely say that I have seen far more headlines about people’s money then I have about salmon over this past while.

I’m not sure how I noticed the little one sentence piece… maybe my eye just tends to pick up the word salmon. I was also rather surprised that this story got such tiny press considering the newspaper is produced and printed a just a few hundred metres from the junction of the Nechako and upper Fraser River.

Nevertheless, I Googled ‘salmon and think tank’ and came across this Globe and Mail article on Dec. 10:

Scientists call for more cautious salmon harvest: Government needs to conduct more research to uncover cause of declining Fraser returns, think tank says

The article suggests a gathering of salmon scientists at Simon Fraser University finishing Dec. 9th concluded that: “ocean conditions in the Strait of Georgia and the possible impact of fish farms as the most likely causes of a collapse of Fraser River sockeye stocks…[however] the government needs to do more research to solve the puzzle.”

Now I want to be somewhat careful here, and respectful of the gathering of expertise – yet, frank and to the point…

1. More research will not solve the problems.

2. Expectations that ‘government’ should do the research – and then expecting action based on that research is ludicrous.

3. Even if there was ‘more research’, and the bureaucratic behemoth of government did that research, and then based on that research, the ‘government’ of the day actually chose to take action – what the hell are they going to do about changing ocean conditions – not to mention how many years would this take?

A couple of thoughts on this line of thinking:

Not that long ago I came across a book written by Jessica Hagy called Indexed – she also maintains a blog with her indexed (and entertaining) graphs on a range of subjects. This graph illustrates my point about ‘more research’:

Not enough information may result in great confusion. Too much information probably has the same result.

Sure it’s a simplified image; however, my point is: more research is not going to reverse the situation of precipitous salmon declines.

Relying on ‘government’ to implement solutions is a complete waste of time… there are other ways, which I hope to explore in coming posts through synthesizing a range of thinkers and disciplines.