30 March 2017

The fish that were there (but didn't exist)

Image: Michael Baumann (2017)

In 2001 and 2002 I was a postdoctoral fellow with AquaNet, one of the Networks of Centres of Excellence. AquaNet sponsored "39 research projects devoted to improving the country's aquaculture industry"(1). It's Board of Directors consisted of partners from academia, government, and industry.

For us at the University of British Columbia the question was this: When Atlantic salmon escape from B.C. fish farms, what are the chances that they establish viable populations on the Pacific coast? This question can be broken down into chances of breeding success, of juvenile survival, and of adult survival. I explored the question whether juvenile Pacific salmon and juvenile Atlantic salmon show different susceptibilities to predators.

For my experiments I had to simulated a small creek in the laboratory. I set up three experimental arenas, large oval channels filled with water about 60 cm deep, pebbles and rocks of various sizes on the bottom. In April I stocked each tank with 20 juvenile Pacific salmon and 20 juvenile Atlantic salmon, all about 30 mm long. I also stocked two of the tanks with two predators each, two adult steelhead trout of about 50 cm.

Twice a week I went into the lab, fished out all the juveniles from the experimental arenas, weighed them, measured their length, put them back, and restocked those juveniles that had been eaten by the steelheads, or gone missing otherwise.

The experiments did not go well. Yes, steelheads ate juvenile Atlantics slightly more frequently than Pacifics, but they didn't eat them frequently enough to infer a statistically significant difference(2).

In early July I abandoned the experiments. I left the experimental arenas intact, however, and informed the laboratory staff to feel free and help themselves to the steelheads for their summer barbeques.

When I returned in early October(3) to clear the arenas I was surprised to see that in one arena eleven juvenile salmon had survived and grown in length to about 12 to 14 cm. Nine of them were Pacifics, two were Atlantics.

That's when it struck me.

I immediately made my way to the principal investigator. He also directed experiments investigating spawning ground competition and food competition. The Pacifics had always won against the Atlantics.

"We have looked at the problem the wrong way," I said. "The issue is not how well the average Atlantic performs against the average Pacific, but how well the fittest Atlantics perform against the unfittest surviving Pacifics. The problem of invasive species is not an ecological problem; it is an evolutionary one."

The principal investigator looked at me for a while and then leaned forward at his desk.

"Michael," he said without menace. "We will have an AquaNet progress meeting before Christmas. Some of the directors will be there. What you have to understand is that nobody in AquaNet wants to hear any ideas that could shed a bad light on the aquaculture industry(4). Do you understand?"

I didn't.

You see, the purpose of Science is the pursuit of truth, not to serve political expediency. Yes, there are philosophical problems. Yes, we do have battles between schools of thought. Yes, causation is difficult to prove, and truth is always only provisional. But if you can't trust a scientist, who can you trust?

I went back to the lab that afternoon to dispose of the evidence. I sat down for a while and watched the two Atlantics swim around the pool. The denial of their existence had made me oddly fond of them.

I killed them with a bleeding heart.


(1) AquaNet ran from 1999 to 2006. It is interesting that although at the time AquaNet was quite a prestigious project, some fifteen years later it is hard to find any detailed information about it: http://www.nce-rce.gc.ca/Index_eng.asp (Accessed: 30 Mar 2017), http://www.nce-rce.gc.ca/_docs/reports/annual-annuel/Annual_Report_02-03_Rapport_Annuel-e.pdf (Accessed: 30 Mar 2017)
(2) Each adult steelhead trout ate one or two juvenile salmon per week. Before we decided on steelheads as a predator, we conducted preliminary experiments with cormorants. They were too efficient. It took four of them less than ten seconds to clear twenty juvenile Pacifics from a large holding tank.
(3) After the 9/11 attacks the cleaning of fish tanks was not a priority.
(4) To my knowledge there is no evidence that suggests the establishment of a viable Atlantic salmon population on the Pacific coast. But that does not mean that one day life will not find a way.

Thursday, 6 Apr 2017

An update to note (4).

In the meantime I have spoken to John Volpe from the University of Victoria(1). John is a specialist in Invasion Ecology. He and I first met during my time with AquaNet.

John told me that about a decade ago he had evidence "of multiple year classes of wild-reared Atlantics in multiple Van Island rivers. They were competitively equal to or superior to native juvenile salmonids and in some instances very numerous. Adults were prevalent in dozens of rivers."

He also told me that no work has been done since, and nobody really knows what the status quo is.

On the other hand a 2006 Fraser Institute publication, Fraser Alert, states: "Overall, the risk of escaped salmon detrimentally affecting wild stocks in BC is currently low."(2)

Now the question is this: Who do you trust?(3)


(1) http://www.johnvolpe.ca/ (Accessed: 6 Apr 2017)
(2) https://www.fraserinstitute.org/sites/default/files/Escaped_Farmed_Salmon.pdf (Accessed: 6 Apr 2017). The Fraser Institute is a conservative "think tank". Fraser Alert is not a peer-reviewed publication. This paper was penned by a group of scientists from the University of British Columbia, the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, and the University of Glasgow. One of the authors, Scott McKinley, was the Executive Scientific Director of AquaNet.
(3) The existence of viable Atlantic salmon populations on the Pacific coast is not a trivial matter, both ecologically and economically. It is curious that in a whole decade no work should have been done on this problem. Why would that be?


23 March 2017

The fish that weren't there

Image: Michael Baumann (2017)

When my daughter Phoebe was in Grade 3 or 4 her class collaborated with a Grade 7 class in a project called Salmonids in the Classroom(1). The project was (and still is) supported by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and the idea behind it is that raising salmon in the classroom will teach students a little bit about science, among other things.

Every school day a few Grade 3ers would walk over to the Grade 7ers and take a few scientific observations. And since I was working in Fisheries Oceanography at the time one day I asked whether I could accompany Phoebe and her three classmates.

So we walked over, each of them carrying a sheet with instructions. First, they had to measure the water temperature and write it down, which they all did. Then, they had to determine the pH of the water. Of course, none of the Grade 3ers, or the Grade 7ers for that matter, knew what a pH was, but they had learned how to use pH test strips for litmus testing and how to compare them to the colour chart, and they did it well.

Then they sat down in front of the fish tank and continued their assignment, which was this: In the space below, draw what you see. So the three girls and one boy began to draw the little fish, which were supposed to be in the fry stage.

The problem was that there was not a single fish in the tank(2).

"What are you doing?" I asked.

"We are drawing fish," Phoebe answered without even looking up.

"But you are supposed to draw what you see."

"We know."

"But there are no fish in the tank."

"Believe me," Phoebe said. "We are supposed to draw little fish, and that's what we are doing."

"Aren't we supposed to draw fish?" the boy asked me."

"No," I said. "You are supposed to draw what you see."

After ten minutes the three girls(3) had finished drawing little fishes, and we returned to the Grade 3 classroom. All four of them handed their assignments to the teacher, and that was it.

Except that a few minutes later the boy was called to the teacher and was publicly reprimanded for having failed to complete the assignment. He didn't argue. He just stood there nodding in agreement to the admonition.

I walked over to the teacher and explained that there were no fish in the tank, and consequently all that they should have drawn was an empty fish tank.

A few questions came to my mind: Why did the girls draw fish that weren't there? Why didn't they listen to me? Why did the boy believe me? Why did the teacher jump to conclusions? Why didn't the boy defend himself? Why didn't the girls defend the boy? Why didn't the teacher reprimand the girls who had failed to complete the task correctly?

But there looms a larger questions: How often do you and I draw fish that aren't there?


(1) http://www.salmonidsintheclassroom.ca/index.html (Accessed: 23 Mar 2017)
(2) Later I learned that the fish had been released two days earlier and nobody had bothered to inform Phoebe's class.
(3) When I wrote this, I realized how much I resent the fact that it was the boy who was disobedient and not one of the girls.


09 March 2017

Budget Day or The Tale of the Villagers and the Pie

Every year on her birthday, the queen would send a royal pie to every village in the country. It wasn't a big pie. It wasn't a fancy pie. And it didn't even look royal.

Every year the villagers would gather on the village green, and every year the mayor cut the royal pie so that everyone could enjoy their fair piece.

And so she proceeded to hand a piece to the baker.

"Hold on," said the baker. "That's a rather small piece. I am the baker. I bake bread for the village. And without bread the villagers would all starve. I deserve a bigger piece of pie."

"You're right," said the mayor. And she proceeded to hand the piece to the cobbler.

"Hold on," said the cobbler. "That's a rather small piece. I am the cobbler. I make the shoes for the village. And without shoes the villagers could not go about their business. I deserve a bigger piece of pie."

"You're right," said the mayor again. And she proceeded to hand the piece to the doctor.

"Hold on," said the doctor. "That's a rather small piece. I am the doctor. I take care of the sick in the village. And without my care the sick would die. I deserve a bigger piece of pie."

And on and on it went. The butcher, the grocer, the blacksmith, the farmer, the teacher, the barber, the soldier, the tailor, the lawyer, the sailor, the banker, the builder, nobody wanted to take the piece.

"That's enough!" cried the mayor. "Everybody wants a bigger piece of the pie. But if any one of you gets a bigger piece that means that somebody else must get a smaller one."

"Mayor!!" the villagers cried in unison. "You should have gotten us a bigger pie. And since you didn't do your job, you should get the smaller piece."

"Hold on," interrupted the bookkeeper. "We had the same situation last year."

"Aha!!" the villagers cried again in unison. "And then what did we do?"

The bookkeeper studied his notes and said: "The philosopher told us that we are all selfish, and that the mayor's job is to distribute the pie fairly amongst the villagers, just as it is the queen's job is to distribute the pies fairly amongst the mayors."

"It all doesn't look fair to me!!" cried the villagers a third time in unison. "Let's ask the philosopher again."

"The philosopher?" said the mayor. "We cut his piece of pie last year. He doesn't live here anymore."


02 March 2017

When sabotage and standard operating procedure become indistinguishable

In 1944, the United States Office of Strategic Services produced a 32-page document titled "Simple Sabotage Field Manual"(1). The purpose of the classified booklet was "to characterize simple sabotage, to outline its possible effects, and to present suggestions for inciting and executing it" in enemy-held territory.

The manual goes on to give specific suggestions. There are sections on how to set fire to a building, how to flood a warehouse, how to dilute gasoline fuel to the point where no combustion will occur -- water, wine, urine. There are instructions on how to ruin a water turbine, how to inconvenience enemy personnel travelling by train, and how to make the message in an enemy telegram ambiguous -- bring troop levels to a "miximum". There are even instructions on how to disrupt the showing of propaganda films by using "two or three dozen large moths in a paper bag".

Then section "(11) General Interference with Organizations and Production" recommends the following acts of sabotage:

(1) Insist on doing everything through "channels." Never permit short-cuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions.

(2) Make "speeches." Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your "points" by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences. Never hesitate to make a few appropriate "patriotic" comments.

(3) When possible, refer all matters to committees, for "further study and consideration." Attempt to make the committees as large as possible -- never less than five.

(4) Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible.

(5) Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, resolutions.

(6) Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the question of the advisability of that decision.

(7) Advocate "caution." Be "reasonable" and urge your fellow-conferees to be "reasonable" and avoid haste which might result in embarrassments or difficulties later on.

(8) Be worried about the propriety of any decision -- raise the question of whether such action as is contemplated lies within the jurisdiction of the group or whether it might conflict with the policy of some higher echelon.

When I first read these proposed acts of sabotage from the Second World War(1), I was amused at how much they resemble the bureaucratic standard operating procedure of the modern university. My amusement faded quickly when I remembered that the evolution of any organization -- a business, an economy, an education system, democracy, the nation state, a culture -- may create the conditions for its own decline and extinction(2).

The purpose of bureaucracy is, of course, to provide safeguards against two hazards, stupidity (taking excessive risks, missing obvious opportunities) and corruption (abusing the office for personal gain, indulging in subjective preferences). Consequently, it could be argued that standard operating procedure itself provides safeguards against bureaucratic sabotage. From personal experience I must say that I have never seen a bureaucratic saboteur exposed. Does that mean that they don't exist or that they are deterred by the safeguards?

Or is it that a bureaucratic saboteur simply cannot be differentiated from an overzealous administrator?


(1) Office of Strategic Services (1944), Simple Sabotage Field Manual: https://www.cia.gov/news-information/featured-story-archive/2012-featured-story-archive/CleanedUOSSSimpleSabotage_sm.pdf (Accessed: 5 Mar 2020)
(2) E.g. Oswald Spengler (1918), Der Untergang des Abendlandes; Marten Scheffer et al. (2009), Early-warning signals for critical transitions http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v461/n7260/pdf/nature08227.pdf (Accessed: 5 Mar 2020)