Saturday, December 18, 2010

Conflict of knowledge (2)

An elder of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation cooking salmon, c. 1940. 
Photo Vancouver City Archives, source
Part 2

According to most aboriginal witnesses [1] who testified at the Commission this week, DFO's lack of interest in the aboriginal worldview goes farther than its dismissal of traditional knowledge. The agency is convinced that it is the only actor to possess valid (read “scientific”) knowledge in all things salmon, and so, it has quite logically concluded that it should also hold a monopoly over decision-making power. DFO did consult with us in the beginning, Joe Becker of the Musqueam said, but now it's more like a dictatorship where agreements are presented to us on a take it or leave it basis, and if you leave it, then you don't get to fish. Councillor June Quipp: We have no part in the management of the fisheries. We may sit at a table with DFO people, but they believe we are so low on the totem pole, we have no authority. Chief Robert Mountain: We have attended some of DFO's meetings, but we are not part of their decision making process. DFO communicates us its decisions. That needs to change.

One particular manifestation of this process of disempowerment, according to the witnesses, is a bad habit – or perhaps is it a conscious tactic? – developed by DFO to send subordinate staff, who have no negotiating mandate or decision power whatsoever, to meetings with the aboriginal leadership. This has the result of preventing any true negotiation from actually taking place, in spite of DFO's clear mandate to carry out such negotiations with the First Nations. Chief Robert Mountain: We had our chiefs present at the table with DFO, and so we would like DFO to send their own decision makers, so that decisions can actually be made. Otherwise, we are not on a same footing.

Grand Chief Clarence Pennier:

We need a good level of understanding with senior officials from DFO. Right now, we are just dealing with people who are coming to put documents on our table and tell us 'this is what you are entitled and not entitled to'. That does not constitute negotiation.

[ Question from legal counsel: Do you mean to say that DFO representatives who meet with you don't have a mandate to negotiate? ]

Answer: That's right. They don't.

Such practices have led to the development of what several aboriginal witnesses have described as a culture of harassment and abuse of power on the part of DFO towards indigenous communities. The witnesses provided the Commission with numerous concrete examples of how this abusive relationship manifests itself.

Councilor June Quipp, about DFO's petty decisions over ceremonial rights to fish:

I recently put a request with DFO for a ceremonial permit. I asked them for the right to harvest one fish for a ceremony, and my request was denied. And this was in 2010!

DFO has recently taken upon themselves to define what constitutes our ceremonial practices. But they have only defined death so far. So – you have to die to be allowed to set the table.

Rod Naknakim, about the inadequate terms of the fishing permits granted by DFO:

Our fishing permit extends for only 12 hours for the entire season... It's hard to teach the young generations about fishing practices in such conditions, because you want to make sure you optimize your 12 hours on the water.

President Guujaaw of the Haida, about unequal treatment over access to the resource:

It became evident that DFO's efforts were focused specifically on our people. I was charged and convicted for taking 27 pink salmon and I spent 2 days in jail, while the industry took 750,000 from the same watershed without running into any difficulties.

Councilor June Quipp again, about paternalistic and redundant sharing of “scientific information”:

DFO was organizing those telephone conference calls on global warming. One year, my sister noticed that the water in the river was warmer but also higher than usual. She gets on the conference call, where a DFO biologist makes that exact same comment. And so she told me: do I really need to get on a conference call to hear something that I already know?

Chief William Charlie, about how DFO's dismissal of traditional knowledge has led that agency to make ill-informed decisions which were detrimental to the salmon:

We would use torch lighting in the in shallow parts of the river. You would build a fire on your canoe which would attract the salmon and that would allow you to pick and choose which salmon you want to fish. This practice had been banned for years by DFO on “conservation” grounds. We have finally been able to reassert ourselves and make the case that it's a selective technique.

A particularly telling exchange took place between the lawyer representing the Ministry of Justice, who was defending the position of DFO, and Chief Newman of the Heiltsuk. This tense dialogue illustrates the two incompatible logics as well as the power struggle taking place over the salmon numbers:

Dept. Justice: The number of fish allocated for food, social and ceremonial purposes (FSC) – those numbers have been stable for years, right?

Chief Newman:Yes. That's because DFO sets those numbers for us and we have no input whatsoever in setting them.

Dept. Justice: But your nation does not even come near to using its allocation.

Chief Newman: Like I said earlier, things have been bad and so there are not enough fish for us to live on.

Dept. Justice: But you don't meet your allocation –

Chief Newman: Because there is nothing for us to fish!

Dept. Justice: You are not catching your allocation because the fish are not there?

Chief Newman: That's right.

Dept. Justice: There is no sense then in bumping up those numbers, since the fish are not there.

Chief Newman: But we want the government to know what our needs are. If the fish do come back, we want to be able to harvest them.

One of the most striking comments about DFO's disregard for aboriginal knowledge and culture came from Doctor Ron Ignace of the Skeetchestn: [2]

There was a time when they tried to take the Indian out of the child. The way I see it now, the way the fisheries are being operated, it’s like they are trying to take the fish out of the Indian... The younger generation of the last 20 years have lost the knowledge of how to fish with a spear in the river... they have lost the language to communicate. That practice is lost to us.

The First Nations are responding to what they perceive as DFO's assault on their knowledge, culture, and way of life by formulating some key demands:

  1. Reclaim control over their traditional knowledge. We need funding from the government so we can hire our own biologists on the river, Grand Chief Clarence Pennier said. Councilor June Quipp: We need our own biologists. We have many people who have a lot of knowledge, having lived on the river, knowing the signs and symbols that we use, people versed in our traditional knowledge.
  2. Redefine co-management of the salmon resource to be precisely what it was supposed be: a “co” management between two equal partners. Chief William Charlie: Co-management means that we can sit down and come up with ways to go forward, as opposed to DFO's attitude of 'this is the deal, sign here, or else you cannot fish'.
  3. Reassert the fundamental right of aboriginals to harvest fish for their traditional needs and subsistence. Assert that right by force, if needed. President Guujaaw of the Haida gave the following example involving Copper River: it was a sockeye stream under management of DFO. It went down to a few hundred fish, so our people just took over the river. We did not fish there for several years, and today it's producing salmon again.

A more radical approach has been tested by the Haida over the years, rather successfully it appears: ignore DFO altogether, return it the favor of considering the “other party” as powerless and irrelevant. President Guujaaw:

We don't go to DFO for permits anymore. We have no respect for DFO in their management of the resources. Twenty-five years ago in Gwaii Haanas, we set up some blockades and we stopped logging in that area. The Federal government cut a deal. All our rights remain intact: we can hunt, fish, trap, live there, cut trees, and do all the things our ancestors did for generations without impacting the land. Now, management has really become management of the visitors in the area, determining the quotas of how many people we should allow in.

What a spectacular reversal of fortune for both the Haida and the salmon – Think about it. In the southern half of Haida Gwaii, stewardship of the salmon is no longer measured in the number of fish that can be harvested, but in the number of people who are allowed in! And it really does make sense, it simply requires another system of knowledge, of values, of economic priorities to take the place of the old one.

I left those extraordinary three days of testimony wondering whether the Haida were not onto something with their unconventional, yet decisive, treatment of what must be called “the DFO question”. When a governmental institution behaves towards your people as a neo-colonial power, ignoring its most basic contractual and treaty obligations, dismissing your ancestral knowledge and culture as being child play, and – to add insult to injury – depleting the resource that it is supposed to protect while arrogantly lecturing you on what constitutes good stewardship, should you not indeed declare such an institution irrelevant and simply walk away from it?

To anyone who has attended some of the hearings at the Cohen Commission – not just those three days dedicated to the First Nations – it is pretty clear that this Inquiry has turned into the trial of DFO. Show up at the Commission on any random day, and you will have a good chance of either hearing some witness blast DFO, or some DFO bureaucrat attempt to survive the heavy artillery barrage fired at him/her by an army of lawyers representing groups who have to deal with DFO in their daily lives. This raises a fundamental question. Is DFO, this broken institution, reformable? Or is it simply beyond repair and must be abolished at the Federal government's earliest convenience, to avoid a growing section of civil society from following the lead of the Haida, and simply declaring DFO's authority not applicable to them? Perhaps one of the primary contributions of this Commission will be to help answer this fundamental question. To be continued, then, in January.

[1] I am using quotes from aboriginal leaders which I transcribed to the best of my ability as the testimonies were being given at the Commission. While my transcriptions accurately convey the meaning of what was said, they may not always reflect the exact words used by the witnesses. For that, we will have the official transcripts which should be posted on the Commission's website within the next couple weeks. To indicate that my quotes are true in their content yet not necessarily exact in their form, I am using italics and no quotes whenever quoting an aboriginal witness.

[2] I was not present on the second day of the testimonials and so for those, I am relying on the transcripts provided by fellow activist Elena Edwards.


Conflict of knowledge (1)

An elder of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation cooking salmon, c. 1940. 
Photo Vancouver City Archives, source

Part 1

This past week, representatives of BC First Nations were called to testify before the Cohen Commission which is inquiring in the decline of the Fraser sockeye. The stated purpose of this week's hearings was to provide the Commission with insight in the worldview, cultural context and traditional knowledge of the aboriginal people in relation to the salmon. In total, 14 First Nations leaders appeared over a period of three days to provide their testimonies.

The hearings rapidly turned into a frontal assault against DFO, as the various indigenous leaders took turns to convey the same message to Justice Bruce Cohen: the Department of Fisheries and Oceans is a tyrannical and incompetent agency which dismisses aboriginal traditional knowledge, routinely tramples over basic indigenous rights, and accelerates by its mismanagement the decline of BC's wild salmon.

The attack on DFO was no accident, nor was it (at least solely) the result of the aboriginal leaders' personal frustration and sense of aggravation with this agency's incompetence. Rather, and more fundamentally, it was the expression of a head-on collision between two systems of knowledge, two incompatible worldviews.

Most aboriginal witnesses started their testimonials [1] by explaining the meaning of “traditional knowledge”. The First Nations possess a unique and invaluable knowledge of the salmon which has been acquired over thousands of years and is passed from generation to generation through oral tradition and direct experimentation, under the guidance of a parent or elder. A key characteristic of that knowledge is that it is not acquired in the abstract inside a classroom, but through concrete interactions with the land and the living beings which inhabit it, leading to a direct empirical understanding of how things are connected to one another. I grew up on a boat, Rod Naknakim of the Laich-Kwil-Tach said. The entire village was involved in salmon fishing. My grandfather told me about his father being a fisherman. Fishing, Grand Chief Clarence Pennier of the Sto:lo said, is a family function which you learn from your parents and grandparents.

Chief William Charlie of the Chehalis:

I used to fish with my grandfather. He would tell me which type of net I needed to bring to catch the fish that we would have in the water that season. I asked him: how do you know which fish we are going to have? He pointed to plants and birds and animals and said: when they are here, this is the kind of fish we get in the water. It's part of a system. (…)

We try to understand the full ecology cycle. When the pussy willows appear and the robins and black birds are coming around, that's when the early spring salmon come back.

Rod Naknakim:

I was always amazed how my grandfather knew the area and when the fish would come, and how many. He would whistle at the orca whales and they would rub against the boat. He was famous for predicting the size of a salmon run. He would get into fights with DFO, telling them 'there is a big run coming', and often he was right. The elders would know which run was which just by looking at a fish, mostly from its size and appearance. I used to know some of the differences myself when I was young.

Chief Fred Sampson of the Siska: [2]

Our traditional knowledge is very important. My grandmother knew. She would wait till the mock orange blossoms were on the trees and say “now we will go fishing.” “Why not before?” I’d ask her. I could see the fish going by. She'd say, “those fish belong to somebody else, the people higher up the river. It is only when the mock orange blossoms come out that it is our turn to fish.”

Chief William Charlie:

I have a cousin who works in one of the spawning channels. He works with SFU. He would say: this one spawned, this one didn't but tried to, etc. And the SFU people were able to sample the fish and verify and confirm what he was saying. That knowledge was passed on to him by his father and grandfather. We need to integrate this knowledge with technology and modern tools.

In this worldview, having practical knowledge of a particular ecosystem cannot be dissociated from living in that ecosystem and depending on it for daily subsistence. This is why the witnesses, as they spoke before the Commission, tended not to separate factual knowledge from cultural tradition from dietary habits from stewardship of their land. Salmon are in our songs, dances, carvings, Rod Naknakim said. Twins in our family had their own salmon song to signify abundance, Chief Robert Mountain of the Namgis said, and he then added: when I was a child, we would live on the sockeye, we would eat sockeye three times a day and then we would have sockeye as snacks. Councilor June Quipp of the Cheam: we have to respect the salmon because it is such a big part of our lives. I teach my children and grandchildren about the meaning of the salmon and how we cannot waste that food.

Chief William Charlie:

Salmon contribute to the physical, spiritual, and social health of our people. When salmon has been a major part of your diet for so many generations, it becomes a part of you. It becomes soul food and medicine. You crave for it, you become anxious for it when the fishing season comes upon us.

When asked to define what stewardship of the salmon meant to him, Chief Charlie explained: stewardship is how we conduct ourselves to ensure that all living things carry on. We don't want to be the generation responsible for losing something, especially not the salmon.

DFO, however, does not recognize aboriginal knowledge as being useful or relevant to its mandate and, according to the witnesses, dismisses it altogether as being pseudo- or at best anecdotal knowledge. When asked by her legal counsel how DFO deals with her culture and traditional knowledge, Councilor June Quipp responded: They are in denial. They ignore our culture, they don't use their mandate to deal with it.

Chief Fred Sampson: [2]

The traditional ecological knowledge is not acknowledged, not respected by the scientists, by the management. We believe our traditional ecological knowledge is very important in caring for the fish. They [the scientists] would say “you just don’t understand the science” and we will say, “no, you don’t understand the role that traditional ecological knowledge plays.”

That denial is unfortunate according to the witnesses, since DFO is itself perceived by many First Nations as being a deeply ignorant organization which would gain much from tapping into some of the accumulated aboriginal knowledge. Such knowledge would help them, for example, to avoid some basic and rather embarrassing mistakes as they fumble to gather information on fish stock sizes. Chief Robert Mountain:

When I was a commercial fisherman, we were wondering what DFO was doing, fishing on the biggest tides when it was dangerous. They were doing tests at the wrong times when there was no fish, so their numbers on how many fish were out there were not accurate. DFO was doing the wrong tests at the wrong times in the wrong areas – and that's too bad, because our elders had, and still have, that knowledge.

The legal counsel of Chief Edwin Newman of the Heiltsuk produced a handwritten map maintained by the band, showing all the salmon-bearing streams and creeks in his territory. Most of those streams don't bear salmon anymore because of bad logging practices, Chief Newman commented as the map was being projected on the courtroom’s computer screens. We attempted to restore some of them, but we were told not do that, not to interfere with that. The map was entered as evidence in the Commission’s proceedings. On a similar note, Chief Robert Mountain commented:

I am concerned about the assessment done [by DFO] in the creeks. A lot of creeks are not recorded, even though we would see tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of salmon in those streams and creeks. There was a noticeable drop in the past 20 years. I used to swim in streams with 20,000 sockeye, and now there are maybe 1,000 of them.

[1] I am using quotes from aboriginal leaders which I transcribed to the best of my ability as the testimonies were being given at the Commission. While my transcriptions accurately convey the meaning of what was said, they may not always reflect the exact words used by the witnesses. For that, we will have the official transcripts which should be posted on the Commission's website within the next couple weeks. To indicate that my quotes are true in their content yet not necessarily exact in their form, I am using italics and no quotes whenever quoting an aboriginal witness.

[2] I was not present on the second day of the testimonials and so for those, I am relying on the transcripts provided by fellow activist Elena Edwards.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Selective science

The Fraser sockeye - a run facing a unique "boom and bust" challenge. 
Photo Isabelle Groc, Tidelife Photography.

An important blog posted today by Alexandra Morton deals with the role of science in the ongoing struggle to save BC’s wild salmon.

She starts by giving a quick analysis of a scientific paper published yesterday which discounts sea lice as a primary cause to recent wild salmon declines. “The authors state they won the trust of the Norwegian feedlot companies”, she writes, “and present conclusions that run counter to science published across the North Hemisphere. They don't report on why their results are such distant outliers to the scientific weight of evidence that wild salmon populations go into steep decline wherever there are salmon feedlots. They suggest something else must be killing young wild salmon near salmon feedlots, but they don't [say] what that could be.”

Further down in her blog, while not discounting climate change as a long-term factor in the Fraser sockeye decline, she remarks that other sockeye runs did not boom and bust as the Fraser run did and “so it would seem the Fraser sockeye are facing a unique challenge and that ocean conditions assist or aggravate whatever the problem is.” She then adds the following:

“Of concern is that scientists are not talking about the evidence that DFO has found a "novel" virus that appears to be compromising specifically the Fraser sockeye that travel north out of the Fraser through fish feedlot effluent. The technique examines the RNA of the sockeye and this has never been done before in fish. However, the methods are sound and suggest a retro virus is infecting the majority of Fraser sockeye that travel along the east coast of Vancouver Island. It is not being found in the sockeye that come in from the open ocean via Juan de Fuca. In a leaked briefing [obtained] by the Globe and Mail, it would appear DFO believes this is one of the three most likely causes of the 2009 collapse and yet no one is mentioning it.”

Alex Morton’s comments reinforce my own direct observation that some scientists appear to be engaged in what I can only describe as a practice of “selective hypothesis making” consisting in over-emphasizing certain scientific explanations while downplaying others, with no detectable consistency or method as to how such selections are being performed.

That's a big problem, because scientists enjoy a natural prestige and legitimacy in society by the sole virtue of being who they are. A PhD, a professorship carries a certain weight – one may say inertia – in our collective belief systems. As such, and unlike what the dominant mythology would have us believe, a scientist’s opinion is anything but neutral.

How to account for this tendency by some scientists to engage in selective hypothesis formulating? Scientists at least in their overwhelming majority are honest and highly ethical individuals, and therefore plain corruption or sell-out to the highest bidder does not account for that phenomenon. A more plausible explanation lies in the considerable (and truly irresistible) pressures being exerted on research teams by market forces in a fashion very similar to those applied on a routine basis upon our politicians.

Large transnational corporations, unlike civil society, have long abandoned the myth of "scientific neutrality" and have instead identified scientists and researchers for what they are: a malleable political material carrying a strong potential for influencing public opinion, and as such a force which ought to be channeled to one’s benefit. Since most scientists have too high moral standards – or opinions of themselves – to be simply bribed, the research system itself needed to be corrupted. This has been accomplished over the past 30 years of neoliberal regime through the systematic privatization of research funding. I challenge the reader to identify more than a handful of large research projects in North America today which do not rely mainly on private funding for their perpetuation (after one has discounted US military research, which represents a totally different beast and I won't even touch it here).

In a system of privatized research financing, researchers no longer have a choice but to comply with, or at least take significantly into account, the exogenous pressures which corporations exert upon them. They are submitted to market forces, having to sell their research projects like so many commodities, competing with one another for access to funds, forced to give their funding sources a say in the nature, direction, and results of their research. Research directors would be highly irresponsible not to allow this to happen, given that their research team’s payroll and livelihood for the next few years may indeed depend upon it.

It’s a subtle game, of course. First, there are often intermediate funding organizations with neutral-sounding names standing between research labs and their corporate sponsors, making linkages from one to the other harder to trace. Second, researchers don’t decide consciously and cynically to dismiss a perfectly valid hypothesis in favor of a doubtful one in order to please a private funder. Rather they learn, often at an unconscious level, to modify the research directions that they provide to their staff. To ponder every word in their communications with the public in a manner that does not unnecessarily aggravate powerful interests. To master the art of compromise, of performing daily self-censure on peripheral aspects of their research so as not to endanger what they consider to be the core. In a word, they learn the difficult, mostly foreign to their culture, yet necessary, trade of politics.

And guess what? We activists engaged in the fight against “evil” corporations are no different, not in the slightest. We slant, bend, interpret science in a direction favorable to our own agendas on a continual basis just as corporations, governments, and scientists do. Truth is not an idea which somewhat awaits in hiding to be uncovered. It is a dialectical process. A synthetic, contradiction-ridden knowledge base which is continuously set in motion and transformed by a succession of crises and clashes. This is, after all, how evolution works. To think that scientific truth is any different would be foolish. 

We who are participating in the struggle to save the Fraser salmon from extinction are actively engaged in one such clashes of knowledge. The fight for truth is always political in nature. In the case of scientific truth, that political struggle must be waged using scientific tools. If we pay attention to the manner in which Alex Morton responds to the research paper published yesterday, she does not respond using ideology. Instead, she uses rigorous scientific methodology, asking for example why the authors don’t explain how their findings are such distant outliers to previously gathered scientific evidence – a basic question in the scientific peer-review process. In a follow-up post, she adds: "If these authors want to champion their methods they need to explain why it is more accurate [than that of previous research teams]."

The sooner we accept and embrace the objective reality that scientific truth is a hard-fought, hard-won political struggle which is waged using a rigorous scientific arsenal – and yeah, a healthy but always marginal dose of polemics –, the quicker we may get to work on counteracting the tremendous power that large corporations have mustered in influencing and controlling the production of scientific knowledge.


Thursday, December 9, 2010

Salmon think tank gives lesson in (political) science

The Alaska sockeye have not undergone the same population swings as here in BC: a stream in Alaska. Photo

Last Monday, a panel of scientists convened at the SFU Harbour Centre to present its preliminary findings on the dramatic variations in the Fraser sockeye populations. In a single year between 2009 and 2010, those runs went from catastrophic (1.7 million) to legendary (29 million).

The  main message of Monday's presentation, at least I think, was intended to be one of scientific caution in the face of a bewildering swing of events. This year’s record return has opened a lot of questions, panel chair Mark Angelo offered as an introduction. Surprises should no longer surprise us, John Reynolds of SFU said, it is the new norm and only safe prediction as we ride this rollercoaster. There is an expectation that we scientists can explain all of this, Brian Riddell of the Pacific Salmon Foundation added, but we can't really. – Etc. You get the idea. The humble “I know that I know nothing” Socratic paradox. And in all fairness, if uncertainty was the only finding that those scientists could produce in the aftermath of such contradictory events, I would have been fine with that.

Scientific caution, however, did not last for very long on Monday night as John Reynolds gave us a quick run through the main causes identified by the panel for the sockeye's wild swings. There is a confluence of two or three factors, Reynolds said, and in our opinion a primary one is climate. There was a dramatic cooling of the North Pacific Ocean in 2008, he explained, and the panel feels very strongly that it played a massive role in the 2010 turnaround of the Fraser sockeye.

A massive role? That's a massive statement coming from a scientific panel which had just finished explaining that we really don’t understand much about what's happening to our salmon. Ten minutes into the presentation, and the panel was telling us in essence: sorry folks, climate change did it, there is really nothing you can do, go home and we'll keep you posted. The implicit corollary to this statement, of course, was pretty clear to the 150 people in attendance: if climate change is indeed the primary factor, then fish farms have nothing to do with the decline of the sockeye. As for the specific details of how the panel had reached such a compelling conclusion, Dr. Reynolds did not deem necessary to explain them to the audience. Without further ado, we were ushered on to the next topic.

That next topic, it turned out, was worth its while. It was a presentation of the findings of an original field research conducted by Brian Riddell. It involved the radio-tagging of two hundred Fraser sockeye smolts which allowed the researchers to plot their routes as they left Chilco Lake down the Fraser and then through the Georgia Strait. Only 40 smolts made it alive to the mouth of the river, and 5 to the top of Queen Charlotte Sound, suggesting that some very heavy mortality rates were occurring first inside the river, and then in the Georgia Strait before the juveniles could reach the open ocean. Riddell concluded his presentation by making a rather sound recommendation that scientists should focus their field research efforts on Johnstone Strait, a narrow stretch of water in Northeast Vancouver Island which the sockeye travel every year and which is relatively easy to monitor.

And with that, we moved on to the question period. The panel had managed the exploit of reaching that stage of the evening without even using a single time (to the best of my recollection) the two phrases which were on everyone else's minds: “fish farm” and “salmon virus”. The audience, however, was less kind to the fish farm industry than the panel members. People made it immediately clear through their questions that there were some other strong hypotheses to explore in addition to climate change. The first question of the public was about salmon viruses; the second, about fish farms. A recent Globe and Mail Freedom of Information request has revealed, the first member of the audience said, that DFO has known for almost a year about a viral infection causing brain lesions to the Fraser sockeye. Why has DFO omitted to inform the public about such a critical piece of information? Kristi Miller, a research scientist with DFO, has been studying this potential viral disease for some time, he continued. Yet her work is being systematically embargoed and almost never mentioned in scientific conferences and research panels across the province – Why?

Brian Riddell gave one of those Byzantine and tautology-rich responses which senior researchers well honed in the practice of bureaucracy hold the secret to. This disease is virus-like, he said, it has not yet been formally identified as a virus. The samples and data are being sent around to labs. Unhealthy fish have higher mortality rates – so we don't know if deaths are solely caused by the lesions. It's a very long process which has to go through a stringent embargo. It is premature to say that there is a link between virus, brain lesion, and higher mortality rates, he concluded.

I learned later that night from Alexandra Morton, who is herself a trained biologist and has read Miller's research, that we already know that this brain lesion is contagious. Contagion typically involves some form of organism such as a virus, and so in fact there is already a strong presumption that we are indeed dealing with a virus.

In a follow-up question about the high mortality rates observed in the Fraser River, Riddell dismissed viral disease as a possible cause, because the seven days that the salmon take to travel down the river do not provide enough time for a virus to run its deadly course. But his dismissal relies on two assumptions that (a) the virus has a rather long incubation period (unlike the common flu for example which only needs two days) and (b) the fish were healthy when they left their holding lake.

The second person to address the panel noted that the Harrison River – a tributary of the Fraser – has witnessed a good sockeye run in 2009 while the rest of the watershed system crashed. Is it a coincidence, he asked, that this particular healthy sockeye run is also among the rare ones which travel South through the Juan de Fuca Strait, a route which has almost no fish farms on it, while most others use the fish farm-infested North route through Johnstone Strait? Good question, we don't have enough data on the Harrison sockeye, was the laconic answer by the scientific panel. One of the panelists did venture out of the safe zone, however. He acknowledged that fish farms did represent a significant change to the conditions in Johnstone Strait, along with climate change. Finally! Someone on the panel had uttered the 'F' word (as in farms).

I came out of this panel presentation my head spinning with questions. Why make climate change the overriding factor in the instability of the BC sockeye runs? The climate change hypothesis is weak to say the least in accounting for the dramatic boom-bust cycles that BC has known over the past decade, for several reasons. Neighboring Alaska has known very good, and more importantly, very steady salmon runs in the past decade while ours were swinging up and down like a broken thermostat. Alaska's clockwork regular sockeye harvest numbers should give us pause, and make us wonder what is specifically wrong with our own runs. In BC proper, the climate change hypothesis does not appear to account very well for intra-regional differences either. The Harrison sockeye run's good numbers during the otherwise catastrophic 2009 year is a case in point. Another one is the fact that so many Northern BC runs have fared poorly this year, during the so-called “legendary” run of 2010.

Alaska sockeye harvests
(source: Alaska Department of Fish and Game)

2005        43.3 million
2006        41.8 million
2007        46.3 million
2008        39.1 million
2009        43.3 million
2010        41.0 million

I am not dismissing climate change which could very well be a factor in long-term sockeye declines. Rather, I am saying to this panel: if you want to make climate change your primary cause in the sockeye's short-term misfortunes while dismissing other good hypotheses as you did on Monday, you're going have to do much better than a few broad generalizations on the shifting climate conditions over the Northern Pacific in 2008. Why be so trigger-happy on climate change, yet so conservative and reluctant to acknowledge Kristi Miller's virus hypothesis, which – if I believe my sources –  is about to be published in the journal Nature? And what's so hard to believe about that hypothesis anyways? After all, a virus is what wiped out Chile's salmon fisheries only two years ago.

One (non-scientific) problem with the viral disease hypothesis, of course, is that it may create a strong link between salmon decline and fish farms. That is what the Chilean case has so tragically illustrated. The climate change hypothesis, on the other hand, carries the great advantage of being a rather “soft” and non-confrontational thesis, one that is not liable to aggravate some powerful interests such as the aquaculture industry. This is not to suggest that this scientific panel is being dishonest or corrupt about its scientific positions, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that. But, in a time of extreme scientific uncertainty over BC's wild salmon runs, climate change is a good “middle of the road” position to adopt if one is seeking to park oneself in a-wait-and-see spot, if one wants to somehow hedge one's bets and stay put until things decant a little, scientifically speaking, and until it becomes safe again to commit oneself to a strong scientific hypothesis (whether viral disease or other) without having burnt too many bridges along the way. In a word, the climate change hypothesis is good politics.

Invoking climate change as the primary cause behind BC's wild salmon's decline, however, is anything but neutral. It is extraordinarily disempowering for people, it gets the fish farm industry off the hook before we even get to study their fish disease data, it undermines critical scientific research such as that carried by Kristi Miller on the viral infections, it allows both the BC government and DFO – this broken institution – to continue their bankrupt policies of business as usual. It is a scientifically lazy niche to occupy, all the while some concrete and heroic scientific research work needs to be urgently accomplished on the ground. Brian Riddell's smolt radio tagging project, and his proposed monitoring of Johnstone Strait, are prime examples of such critical work. Miller's infection work is obviously another one. Studying the Harrison River sockeye may yet be another one, since the panel acknowledged on Monday that the data for that key run is lacking.

This panel needs to remain focused on its core scientific mandate. Acknowledge that the scientific community is unable to reach meaningful conclusions on the Fraser sockeye for the time being. Demand, as it claims to have done in the past, that the fish farm industry release all of its disease-related data to the scientific community and the general public by way of an open website (and not only to Justice Bruce Cohen for the sole purpose of his Inquiry). Continue to promote critical hands-on field research to gather more data. And stop dangling climate change as a catch-all explanation to everything – unless, that is, they are onto something specific which looks as promising as Miller's research on the viral disease. In which case, they need to tell us what it is they have discovered. What they did instead on Monday night is to tell us that “it's climate change, now go play in your room”. It's just too short an explanation for so big an issue. And I, for my part, don't like to be patronized.


Friday, December 3, 2010

What Is a College Degree Worth in China?

A job fair for college graduates in Hefei, China. Photo New York Times.
An interesting New York Times panel discussion about the value of college degrees in China. The article frames the problem in the following terms:

"While China's economy keeps growing at a rapid pace, the dim employment prospects of many of its college graduates pose a potential economic problem.

According to recent statistics, the average Chinese college graduate makes only 300 yuan, or about $44, more a month than the average Chinese migrant worker. In recent years, the wages of college graduates have remained steady at about 1,500 yuan a month. Migrant workers' wages, however, have risen to 1,200 yuan.

If China's graduates are unable to capitalize on their costly investment in education, then is it worthwhile for students to obtain a college degree? What does the imbalance say about China's education system and its economy in general?"

We're hitting here one of the classical choke points of capitalism: surplus-value has to be extracted somewhere from workers in order for capitalists to make a profit. Today, that somewhere is China.

As one of the panelists puts it, "Despite all the hoopla that foreign analysts have heaped on China’s growth, the economy remains driven by manual labor, low-cost and low-margin manufacturing. (...) Knowledge production requires an elite but an extraordinarily small number of workers. As a result, it cannot absorb many college graduates." The room for a Chinese middle class is thus extremely narrow, hence the chronic oversupply of worthless college degrees.

China's way out of this contradiction (within the limits of capitalism, that is) is to build its own economic empire, i.e. export its manufacturing jobs to undeveloped regions such as Africa, keep its "command and control" jobs in China, and have its own middle class live off the exploitation of Africa's manual labor, as the U.S. and Europe have done for the past century throughout the world. Until the next crisis of overproduction. Meanwhile, entire generations of Chinese college graduates are condemned to fight over the few qualified jobs available in their country - thousands of applicants for every job, it is said.


Thursday, December 2, 2010

Saying No to logging on Flores Island

Flores Island, Clayoquot Sound. Photo Wilderness Committee.
This from the Wilderness Committee:

We have recently learned that there is a plan to log a pristine old growth valley on Flores Island in the heart of Clayoquot Sound. The company has marked out its planned cutting areas and is preparing right now to obtain logging road and cutting permits from the Provincial Government.

Write the Minister of Natural Resource Operations, Steve Thomson now and ask that no road or cut permits be issued for Flores Island or any other intact areas in Clayoquot Sound's rare, ancient temperate rainforest.

Together we can get this done!

Joe Foy | National Campaign Director
Wilderness Committee

My letter to the Minister:

Dear Mr. Thomson,

Okay this one – hopefully – should be really easy for you to decide upon.

Who in the world is this company which wants to log the trees of Flores Island? Have they lost their senses? What a silly move on their part. Logging Flores is not going to happen, it's as simple as that. It won't happen, I might add, with or without your government's consent. You would have entire communities – and not just the local ones – walking massive marches to Victoria and raising human shields and going all guerrilla on you before the first giant tree of Flores is allowed to be felled.

What government in its right mind would want to tie its name to such a doomed adventure? I know the Liberals have made some pretty outlandish decisions in the past few years, but here is one where you are actually liable to side with the decent, reasonable, normal people, rather than with the occult corporate forces which your government usually serves so obediently.

Your government should try “good decision” before it is ousted out of power, just for size. Come on Mr. Thomson, you can do it!

Ivan Doumenc
Vancouver, BC