Friday, April 25, 2014

Our Earth Day story revisited

Last Tuesday, Earth Day, I reported about an apparent success story in restoring the salmon fisheries used by a Canadian 'First Peoples' tribe. In a comment to that story, Paul of the blog 'Hawsepiper: The Longest Climb' offered a different and very interesting perspective. He's a qualified marine biologist and ship captain (his current occupation), so he knows whereof he speaks.  I'll reproduce his comment in full here.

Peter - I found this a couple of days late (been at sea), but the science behind this, while not 'settled' is poor. First Nations people aren't going to care about secondary impacts, chances are, but they should.

Allochthanous nutrient import (bringing in energy subsidies from outside the ecosystem) is relatively well-understood, and artificial micronutrient import is not as well understood, but there are some obvious problems. Iron is a limiting factor, especially in pristine waters, for nutrient uptake - to pull out the nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous that's available. The problem is, when you create an algal bloom in an area that doesn't have algal blooms, you have oxygen production during the day (photosynthesis), but that oxygen gets consumed after the sun peaks for the day. End result is that oxygen becomes scarce in the algal bloom where the food is. Water doesn't carry oxygen for crap. 5mg per liter at absolute best. Drop that to 4,3, or 2 or even 0, and you've got a 'dead zone', and that's very easy to do when you dump iron in an environment where algae blooms are not natural. Everything else that isn't a highly-migratory species, such as pacific cod and pollack (the largest fishery in the world currently), won't run out of the oxygen-deficient zone. They're either doomed or going to experience stress and reduced growth rates in that area at best. And in the case of the cod and pollack, unemployment and impotent tears for those who like sashimi and fish sticks. End result is a cascade effect. Consider that marshes, deltas and other fresh-water outlets are already lower-oxygen environments.

One other problem - the volume of salmon runs are super-sensitive to disturbance - it's not unusual for massive swings and population crashes. There wasn't any sort of analysis to show correlation between the iron dump and population increase. It was an example of magical thinking at its best. "It Just Works" is also the mantra for the correlation between female circumcision and female marital fidelity in Muslim lands.

Russ George is a snake oil salesman, and that's another problem. He made a tidy living running around on a grant where he tried to raise support for his corporation's attempt to do the same thing in the Gulf Stream, which was VERY easy to show would create more harm than good for everyone but Russ George. Perhaps I'm biased. I don't like seeing a charlatan and fraud succeed.

I applaud almost any effort to cut unnecessary governmental involvement in self-management, but this is a case where the province was in the right to never consider doing something so dumb. The fact that it didn't cause a fish kill isn't sufficient justification to repeat it.

Thanks, Paul. Definitely food for thought there - and an object lesson that journalists don't always know what they're talking about.  Thanks for giving us a different perspective.

I looked for more information about Russ George, and found these articles helpful:

Read them for yourself, and make up your own mind.



Anonymous said...

"Make up your own mind."

Most people do not have the proper background to make up their own mind in scientific matters. It is not that they are stupid (but many are and that is a whole different subject), it is that they know nothing of the scientific method and have no background in biology or chemistry or biochemistry or zoology or statistics and do not have the knowledge to have a qualified opinion. But they will go with makes them feel good e.g. "government bad so this must be good".


Rolf said...

Having grown up in Alaska, and been a commercial fisherman, and knowing a little bit about marine bio, it's one of those things that looks great on paper, but is much more ambiguous in practice. Personally, I'm in favor of a much more rigorous scientific approach, so we can quantify what happens, and what events cascade into what. There appears to be SOME potential, and many fisheries are struggling, and if we COULD find a way to help them out (maybe a lower amount of iron over a broader area, or different iron compound, or particular time of year, or run in narrow stripes 55 km apart, or whatever), it could potentially be a huge boon.

simply saying "we don't know" as a reason to do nothing strikes me as profoundly shortsighted as saying "looks good on paper to go whole hog." If everyone (but Russ) starts with "we don't know," then maybe the right thing to do is find out, so we DO know.

bmq215 said...

I hate to say it but I have to agree with BCFD36. It's not just the lack of background but the dearth of scientific literacy. It doesn't take an expert to read a paper and ask critical questions of it, one just needs to be comfortable with the format and knowledgeable about the general process. Unfortunately, relatively few Americans are and the current journal system makes access difficult for all but the very few. The combination of the two factors fosters an environment where people depend on the popular media for their "science", turning to reporters who are often no more scientifically literate but bent on writing a good story.

It wouldn't take much, some basic statistics instruction and a focus on critically reading current scientific articles. Could easily fit into the high school curriculum and would be far more useful to most than, say, calculus. Unfortunately, we all know how quickly established practices change...

As a side note, I'm actually a fisheries scientist as well. Looking at salmonids, of all things, although my focus is on freshwater systems. Who knew there were so many of us reading this blog? Paul's point about oxygen limitation is very valid. While it's an interesting idea that might bear looking into in a few cases, pushing for large scale usage based on such shaky evidence is a terrible idea. Anyone familiar with Lake Erie's infamous dead zone will understand the potential risks and playing that game in one of the world's most productive fishing grounds is simply asking for trouble.

Will Brown said...

Not to refute the resident experts, but it seems we are not as ignorant of the process under discussion as I read them to be saying. Not that Wikipedia is a particularly scholarly source of data, but there does seem to have been a rather wide-ranging selection of experimentation undertaken over recent years. I agree that more work needs performed to gain a greater degree of certainty as to a given action's likely outcome, but the basic process seems reasonably well understood (and entirely "natural" and unregulated in the wild). The argument in favor of more extensive efforts being made and those outcomes studied seems to have been convincingly arrived at if any of this data has validity.

Of course, heretics and other unclean must be stoned and otherwise cast out of the Halls Of Science; they can have no legitimate input to offer. Or such seem to be the sentiments I see displayed here from my ignorant perspective.

Rolf said...

Will - Yeah, I've always been bothered when an "officially anointed" class of "experts" say that nobody else is qualified to do what they do, such as when a scientists says some Average Jose can't do science "because he isn't a real scientist, and he's actually trying to make a profit!" As if said scientist wasn't writing grants (profit by "selling research" to the government) to keep himself doing something that is explicitly NEVER going to turn a profit, yet it will somehow be more "valuable to all mankind." Seems to me that finding a way to crank up ocean productivity of high quality sea-food would be doing humankind a pretty direct service, too.

I'm firmly in the "this really needs to be properly studied and quantified" camp, with much higher priority than, say, the mating habits of the pygmy rabbits (Brachylagus idahoensis) of the Palouse.