Tag Archives: The Salmon Summit

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…

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…

Grouping, splitting, and other… Cohen Commission grants “standing” to twenty.

Yesterday the Cohen CommissionPublic Inquiry into the Decline of Fraser River Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River — released its Ruling on Standing. Twenty groups out of fifty applicants have been granted Standing — suggesting they have a “substantial and direct interest in the subject matter of the inquiry”. Only these twenty groups are considered “participants”, and only they can formally participate in the hearings.

Justice Cohen:

Persons who do not receive a grant of standing may become involved in several ways; for example, by submitting written comments to the commission about any matter relevant to the Terms of Reference, submitting written comments or suggestions to the commission in response to scientific or policy reports posted on the commission’s website, and attending the formal public hearings.

I, personally, applied for standing with the Cohen Commission. I was denied along with 30 other individuals and/or groups that applied. And fair enough; I wasn’t holding my breath. However, reading through Justice Cohen’s Ruling on Standing, I’m certainly left pondering particular pieces…

Apparently, this Commission ‘owns the podium’. A new Canadian Commission record has been set: 50 applicants beats the previous record of 24 applicants, which was the torture commission regarding Maher Arar. 21 was the record before that for the Air India bombing, and 15 for the Gomery Commission into the Liberal sponsorship scandal.

So, great, a new Commission record… yet somewhere around 2.5 to 3 million people live in the Fraser River watershed —- And, only 50 individuals or groups figure they have a substantial or direct interest in the declines of Fraser River sockeye? What’s that, about 0.002% of the watershed population?

Ok, so some of the “groups”/”alliances”/”coalitions”/”corporations” granted standing in the Cohen Commission are  representing a larger cross section of the population. For example, First Nation organizations represent their communities and members. And, apparently, the BC Wildlife Federation — which was granted standing — represents 38,000 individuals.

The fact that Rio Tinto Alcan, a multi-national corporation was granted Standing simply because they may have to shift their policies to better protect sockeye salmon in the Nechako watershed, as Justice Cohen suggests:

RTA [Rio Tinto Alcan] indicates that changes in DFO management practices may affect its ability to generate power and sell it, which depends on water being diverted from the Nechako Watershed.

This is a bit disturbing. A corporation granted more power than citizens strictly on economic principles…

Well, apparently poop is also going to come under inspection — as in sewage treatment plants. Should the poop processors have also applied for standing, as the poop processing practices will come under criticism? I recently heard estimates (at the Simon Fraser University Sockeye Summit) of over $1.5 billion as a bare minimum to get the City of Vancouver up to snuff on poop processing and disposal.

Apparently, baby sockeye and adult salmon are mired in a cloud of shit as they migrate through the mouth of the Fraser River…

However, moving along…

Reading Justice Cohen’s Ruling on Standing I was quite struck by the grouping of applicants granted standing:

  1. Recreational and Sport Fishers
  2. Commercial Fisher Associations and Unions
  3. Environmental Organizations
  4. Industry Organizations
  5. First Nation and aboriginal organizations; and
  6. Other.

I certainly hope this grouping was not pre-ordained — and flows more from the reality of who actually applied for standing. I tend to believe in the latter; however, this is inherently a political process — not a “public” process. About the only “public” part will be the news media reports and the seats being kept warm at actual hearings by anyone who wants to try and translate, decipher, and understand a litany of charts and graphs, my science vs. your science, and a general all out blitz of bumpf, bureaucratic bafflegab, and well… sadly in some cases… maybe even bullshit.

Justice Cohen states early in his Ruling that:

This is an inquiry, not an adversarial process with traditional parties or litigants.

I am wishing he and his staff best of luck with that statement, and certainly hope that Justice Cohen’s abilities in keeping order in an unruly courtroom are strong. The grouping that is listed above and within the ruling is largely the same grouping that has guided the all-out war between various combatants competing for rights and privileges to harvest salmon.

Personally, I think there was a poor job of communicating the fact that this is not an adversarial process — especially when there was so much legal-ese and talk of applying for funds to get lawyers, in the application material. In my discussions with many individuals, there was a strong belief that anyone wanting to participate in this “public” inquiry required lawyers.

I am trying my best to refrain from reaching conclusions on the Commission before it’s even a few months into its work. There has to be some semblance of hope in this multi-million dollar exercise largely coordinated and run by lawyers; yet, I still have various pondering in how this inquiry is shaping up.

To be continued…

Fraser Early Spring Chinook communication

Late last week I received an email from a fellow who has run a sport fishing business out of Sooke near Victoria, BC. for over a decade. This week there is a meeting in Victoria of the local Sport Fishing Advisory Board — apparently Fisheries and Oceans is looking to discuss potential changes in sport fishing regulations for this season.

Here is the email (which he suggested was fine to post) and my response:

Hello Salmon Guy,

My name is {…..}, I’ve been guiding for 11 years out of the Sooke area on Vancouver Island. I’m forwarding you this e-mail, as you are obviously very versed on the topic of Salmon conservation.

Do you have any suggestions for the sport fishermen (SFAB) on the west coast that are faced with closures, due to First Nations on the upper Fraser River wanting to put a ban on fishing the Fraser? In your opinion will the First Nations people really not fish the River?

What are your thoughts on the slot restriction that runs from March 1st to May 20th in our area, is it enough to assist the upper Fraser returns, will it help to run the restriction through the summer to July? It would be great to hear what you think.



Many thanks for the email.

This is such an important topic of conversation right now; crucial from the numbers on Fraser Chinook that I’ve seen. It’s great to see someone such as yourself seeking to find some balance and more information in the discussion. As you probably well know, it’s also pretty damn complicated — however, now that we’re nearing crisis mode on some of these issues (e.g. Fraser sockeye, Fraser Chinook, etc.) things appear to be boiling down to the basics. My hope is that folks such as yourself – hands in the water, hands on the fish – are going to play a big part in devising solutions.

I am also a long-time sport fisherman. If you may have noticed on my website; I grew up on Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Is.) – and salmon have always played a huge part in my life. Generally, catching and eating them. Yet, I don’t secure my living, as you do, from taking people out to catch salmon — a career and business choice I’ve often pondered though. A big part of the reason I stay engaged in the salmon discussions is that I have three young kids and I sure as hell hope that they have a lifelong relationship with salmon.

That being said, and getting down to your questions…

Here are some numbers that I have on Fraser River Early Spring Chinook, and maybe you’ve seen these (the Spring 4 sub2 population — meaning they spent two years rearing in freshwater as smolts before heading to the ocean). Last year (2009) was the lowest return ever recorded. It was also one of the lowest recorded levels of survival – below 1%.

Since 1999, survival rates on the Spring 4-2 Chinook have been abysmal (I have some numbers and charts from a DFO presentation I recently sat through – let me know if you’d like these sent along). And yet, exploitation rates on these stocks have remained over 30%. In 2006-07 exploitation rate estimates (and I don’t think I can emphasize “estimates” enough) was 44.2%. This was cut to 35.8% in 2008. Apparently, in 2009, this was cut another 20%; however, the numbers are not out yet for last year.

These exploitation numbers are all based on the Nicola River run (mouth at Spences Bridge) on the Thompson River.

Here’s where things get dicey for folks such as yourself. There are rather rough estimates on the sport catch of Chinook 4-2s: from Northern BC, West Coast Vancouver Island, Juan de Fuca, Fraser River, etc. No on can actually say how accurate the reports on sport catch are (you and your colleagues would probably have the best knowledge of this). DFO suggests there are creel surveys; however I’ve also been informed by some jr. DFO staff that estimates suggest those get less than 10% coverage of the sport fishing sector.

There is also quite a significant catch of these Chinook 4-2s in the sport fishery at the mouth of the Nicola River (almost 20% of the total Nicola catch in 2006-07 and close to 10% in 2008).

On the First Nation side of things. There have been quite a few Fraser Chinook 4-2s caught in the net fishery on the Nicola. This year, however, the agreements that appear to be in the works could be historic. There has been a call by Bands, Nations, Tribal Councils and communities from up and down the Fraser River and along all the approach areas (i.e. West Coast Vancouver Island and Johnstone Strait) to keep their nets out of the water to ensure these Early Spring Chinook can get through. Many suggest this is the first time in recent memory where a near-consensus has been reached on this issue.

And yet, this goes directly to your very valid question: “will First Nations really not fish the river?”

My feeling is: yes. However, will every last net be pulled? – probably not.

There is not only a near crisis with these early spring Chinook — there is a crisis in many First Nation communities in the Fraser River. Many of these communities have been able to catch their winter store of salmon for a long, long time. Now, with the collapse of sockeye, the collapse of these Chinook (the most sought after due to taste, quality and size – many of the same reasons sport fishers like them so much…including me…) there are communities literally starving. However, this is one of those issues that books can be written on, let alone an email response.

The analogy I draw on this issue of everyone pulling their nets or hooks is: does everyone wear their seatbelt, even though it’s the law? Is everyone wearing a bike helmet when riding their bikes, even though it’s the law?

There is alway some dissent in any community – the fundamental principle as I see it: is that this all comes to personal choice… some really, really tough personal choices.

Here are some sobering numbers: Last year, 26 Chinook returned to the Coldwater River, 138 Chinook returned to Spius Creek, and 461 Chinook returned to the Nicola River spawning grounds. Estimates suggest that for any fishery to occur (First Nation, commercial or sport), 2000 Chinook need to return to Coldwater, 2000 to Spius, and 6000 to the Nicola. Last year barely 6% of those numbers actually returned.

Dicier yet… for me, it’s not really even a question of whether anyone should be fishing or not — it’s more about whether the early spring Chinook can even produce enough smolts and have them survive to even maintain the run. It’s in a death spiral right now.

Where this gets even more complicated is in the legal ramifications of all this (and by no means am I lawyer…). According to case law and Section 35 of the Constitution, and largely the Fisheries Act – salmon fisheries are supposed to be managed on the following clear principles of allocation:

  1. Conservation first.
  2. then, Aboriginal food, social, and ceremonial fisheries.
  3. then, commercial and sport fisheries.

One of the court cases from the 1990s – the Sparrow decision – laid it out clearly; that when there are conservation concerns the commercial and sport fishing sector must bear the brunt of the measures. That can be brutal on folks in your business, and folks in the commercial sector. Last week I sat in on a Fraser Sockeye Forum put on by Simon Fraser University and heard commercial fisherman loud and clear on how hard three years of closure have been on them – it’s basically a dieing industry – I have some posts that highlight some of the numbers over the last few years. I also watched the demise of the commercial fishing sector on Haida Gwaii as I grew up – coincidentally (or not) the same thing has happened with the logging industry over the last decade.

And thus we arrive at the present situation with the early spring Chinook (4-2s). First Nations from up and down the river, and along the approach areas are calling for a complete closure of any fisheries that may impact these populations. The numbers and survival rates on this population suggest no one should be fishing due to conservation concerns. DFO pre-season forecasts for this year even have these populations of Chinook listed as:

Status 1 [of 4]: Stock of concern. Stock is (or forecast to be) less than 25% of target or is declining rapidly. Directed fisheries are unlikely and there may be a requirement to avoid indirect catch of the stock.”

First Nations are looking at the pre-season forecasts as well as survival rates and returns over the last few years and will be closing fisheries to ensure these Chinook can get through to spawning grounds. Many First Nations have also requested that DFO do the same with other fisheries that may impact these stocks. To date, DFO has declined to do so — as coastwide Chinook sport fisheries remain open.

So, it’s probably not a very popular answer with anyone, but No, I don’t think the slot restrictions will help. The bottom-line appearing from the numbers is that no one should be fishing while these stocks migrate through. Legally, the question also has to be asked whether anyone should be fishing — there is clearly a serious conservation concern for these early spring Chinook.

I remember the complete coho closures of the late 1990s quite well. I was living on Haida Gwaii at the time and it was tough on lots of folks in the sport fishing industry — as well as my own freezer, as coho was a big part of my food fishery (that’s the joy of living on the coast). The numbers on early Fraser Chinook appear worse than the coho numbers of the 90s.

As I said at the Fraser sockeye forum last week (a room full of largely scientists), we are in a time of really tough decisions. It appears that healthy salmon runs are a big part of your personal and business interests.  And what this is boiling down to is that folks are having to seriously ponder the balance between the short-term and long-term. First Nations folks, settler cultures, DFO, commercial fishers, sport fishers, and so on. It’s not an easy discussion – and unfortunately, my experience (albeit pretty young) is that the fights over the last decade or two on dwindling salmon runs do no one any good. Protest fisheries of any kind, the fight over “rights” to fishing, and so on and so on… leave the biggest impact on the fish.

I think it’s pretty safe to say that we all have a vested interest in ensuring healthy salmon runs. We all want to know that salmon are swimming upstream, swimming out to the ocean, doing their thing. If there’s enough there that we can catch some and eat them how we see fit — fantastic. Right now though, with low survival rates, freshwater issues, predator issues, climate change, growing populations, and so on — can some of these salmon populations sustain fishing pressure of any kind?

The fact of the matter is that these decisions will be made in meeting rooms around B.C. and in Ottawa…

thanks again for the email.

I’m actually in Victoria next week for salmon-related meetings out in Saanich. I’m always keen to talk to folks with their hands or boots in the water. Would be more than happy to catch up and talk some more about these issues. As you can see, I’m able to find no shortage of words… I hope this assists in your pondering of this issue. Please feel free to contact me again.

I’m also wondering if you would mind if I used your email and my response as a posting on my website? I will keep your name, business, etc. out of it.


David Loewen

D. Loewen & Associates

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.

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.