Monthly Archives: August 2011

Agreeing to disagree: A fish story by any other name

Comments of interest from article by Anthony Farrel:

  • The problem is that we expect too much, too soon from science.
  • responsible scientists couch their discoveries with words like could, may and might, prudent caution too often gets lost in translation.
  • headline stretched a discovery-phase hypothesis on a genomic expression signature associated with sockeye salmon to claim a virus had come from farmed salmon!
  • Have your headlines if you must, because in this fast-paced world we can’t always wait for hindsight, but can we agree to not represent hypotheses – no matter how intriguing – as facts?

Agreeing to disagree: A fish story by any other name

By Anthony Farrell, Vancouver Sun August 27, 2011Scientists routinely agree to disagree, but that doesn’t sit well with society-at-large, which increasingly demands instant answers and quick solutions.

Nowhere is this more painfully apparent than in the debate and confusion around the future of salmon in British Columbia, which is the current topic of an expensive federal inquiry, the Cohen Commission.

The problem is that we expect too much, too soon from science. The announcement of an “overnight” discovery is always backed by an awful lot of scientific discovery and testing.

While responsible scientists couch their discoveries with words like could, may and might, prudent caution too often gets lost in translation.

Take my salmon research in B.C. as an example.

A news headline early this year claimed a virus from farmed salmon is killing wild sockeye salmon in the Fraser River.

As a co-author of the research cited as the headline’s source, which appeared in the prestigious scientific journal Science, I can safely say our position was far more circumspect. Yet, somehow the headline stretched a discovery-phase hypothesis on a genomic expression signature associated with sockeye salmon to claim a virus had come from farmed salmon! Clearly,
Tthis is an illustration of the knowledge gap between science and public perception.

Proclaiming certainty takes time and many experiments, but here’s another example of how a hypothesis – not a certainty – concerning wild salmon was debated and subsequently revised with new information: In an article in Science in 2007, results of a mathematical model were used to boldly declare: “If outbreaks [of sea lice] continue, local extinction [of pink salmon] is certain” in the Broughton Archipelago.

This terrific sound bite triggered a media blitz promoting the idea that sea lice released from Atlantic salmon farming were decimating wild pink salmon populations.

Fast forward to 2011. Did these wild pink salmon populations collapse? No. Either something changed dramatically or the study’s conclusions were premature. Here’s the lesson: In the discovery phase, the devil lies in the details.

In fact, juvenile pink salmon are a lot tougher than we initially thought when it comes to sea lice infestations.

There is little to suggest sea lice would kill 80 per cent of infected pink salmon, as the original model posited.

In fact, a 2010 report – Relationship of Farm Salmon, Sea Lice and Wild Salmon, published in another prestigious scientific journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science – concludes: “Productivity of wild salmon is not negatively associated with either farm lice numbers or farm fish production, and all published field and laboratory data support the conclusion that something other than sea lice caused the population decline [of pink salmon] in 2002.”

Clearly, profound differences of opinion exist among scientists during this initial discovery phase. And that’s normal.

Inasmuch as we must maintain vigilance, uncertainty cannot paralyze progress.

Consider the projections of a dismal sockeye salmon return to the Fraser River in 2009. According to some mathematical models, there was a one-in-500 chance of it happening.

But scientific probability models didn’t sit well with an outraged public, which demanded investigation and got a public inquiry in the form of the ongoing Cohen Commission, which is costing tens of millions of federal dollars that I suggest might be better spent on scientific investigation into the many mysteries of salmon.

Of course, smiles quickly returned with the near historic return of sockeye last fall.

This return had a one-in-10 probability of happening according to scientific models. Scientists are doing their best with limited resources and discovery science remains far from a sure bet.

Yet, the public, which is clearly selective in its risk tolerance, demands absolutes from the media when confronted with questions about natural phenomena like salmon.

As Malcolm Gladwell writes in What the Dog Saw: “Rarely is there a clear story – at least, not until afterward, when some enterprising journalists or investigative committee decides to write one.”

Have your headlines if you must, because in this fast-paced world we can’t always wait for hindsight, but can we agree to not represent hypotheses – no matter how intriguing – as facts?

Dr. Anthony Farrell holds a Canada research chair in fish physiology, culture and conservation as a professor at the University of British Columbia, with a cross appointment in the zoology department and the faculty of land and food systems.

“I’m back!” says Ms Morton…surprise, surprise

Back in May of 2011, a newspaper in Nanaimo BC, quoted anti-salmon farming activist Alexandra Morton as saying she had “failed” in her attempt to reform salmon farming in BC (by “reform” we guess she means eradicate). We wrote about it in this unsympathetic blog entry entitled “Screw You Guys, I’m Going Home“.

Just as we had forecasted, after wallowing in “whoa is me” for a few months (actually she spent the time attending multiple meetings with her lawyers, who are funded by the taxpayer), Ms. Morton has now announced her miraculous committment to hating salmon aquaculture again.

Robert Barron at the Nanaimo Daily News writes;

While acknowledging that’s she’s “exhausted” from almost 20 years of campaigning against open-net fish farms on B.C.’s coasts, biologist Alexandra Morton said she has decided to continue the fight to the end.

Morton is scheduled to testify Sept. 7-8 in Vancouver at the Cohen Commission inquiry into the cause of the disastrous decline of the 2009 Fraser River sockeye salmon.

She told the Daily News in May that she felt she had “failed” in her efforts to change government policies and industry regulations to make the controversial fish farms more environmentally friendly, and would “reassess” her campaign after she gave her testimony at the Cohen Commission inquiry.

But she said from her home in B.C.’s Broughton Archipelago Monday that she will “continue indefinitely” to fight for the cause, despite the lack of progress in convincing Ottawa and the industry to move away from using open-net pens to closed containment systems so they have no impact on wild salmon.

But farming supporters maintain that the industry has significantly changed since the farms began in earnest in B.C. in the 1980s. They claim operational standards and environmental regulations at the 134 farms now in operation along the province’s coasts have become much more stringent over the years and the negative impacts they have on the environment and wild fish are increasingly “minimal.”

“I really just want all of this to be over with so I can get back to what I originally moved to the Broughton Archipelago to do many years ago, which is to study whales and dolphins in that area,” Morton said.

“I don’t think a lot of people realize that I’m not an environmental group, but just an individual who is concerned about what’s going on the waters around B.C. and I’m not getting paid by anyone for my efforts.

The public needs a clearer view of what’s going on with this issue and I’m going to continue in my efforts to get my message to the people.”

Morton moved to B.C.’s Broughton Archipelago in the early 1980s to study killer whales, but the growing proliferation of fish farms in the area led her to study their impacts on their surrounding environments, particularly wild salmon populations.

After conducting her own research and collaborating with other scientists, Morton began her long campaign to tighten up the regulations that govern the farms.

“I’ve spent the last nine months plowing through all of my research and documents and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to tell the commission what I know compared to what the industry and government has been saying,” she said.

“I was feeling pretty down and exhausted the last time I was interviewed by (the Daily News), but I’ve decided that it’s not time for me to give up the campaign yet.”