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.



  1. Climate change is a centennial, maybe decadal, and someday perhaps an annually-recognizable progression of environmental shocks.

    What is a long-wave transformation of the earth that mankind has triggered is certainly accelerating, but no dramatic annual swings of temperatures, currents, vorticity, salinity, or PH--all of which may influence fish survival rates--could ever be pinned on the global march of climate change. It is as if someone were to blame dinosaur extinction on masses of animals being caught by glaciers.

    Politics have destroyed our most vital keystone species here in the Pacific Northwest. This is politics finishing the job, and the so-called "scientists" who cooked up this new fable need to be defunded for life.

    Perhaps they need to ask for the epidemiological data from the fish farms that is being denied to them. If they are truly flying blind because of corporate greed, they must admit this blindness before they crash into a mountain of public anger.

  2. Apropos Randy's comments, here's what Dr. Daniel Pauly, one of the world's preeminent marine scientists, had to say on the subject:

  3. There are many factors which have contributed to our wild sock-eye population swing.

    What we have to do is identify them.?

    I want fish farms out of B.C.'s water, as a start to remove impacts on our wild salmon.

    This is an easy solution, why is it so hard for our government to accept this and start to make an effort to reduce the impacts one by one.?