25 October 2001

The fish that weren't there (Part 2)

Image: Michael Baumann (2017)

As I said I had finished my own salmon experiments a year earlier, in 2001.

It was a simple idea, really.

Rather than fishing for salmon and losing a large portion to pesky Mother Nature -- the other fish, the larger fish, the seals and bears and sports fishermen -- why not grow salmon in large tanks. We do the same with beef and pork and poultry. It's a natural extension.

But self-contained tanks are expensive and difficult to maintain, so why not put the whole operation into the ocean and close the area off with netting. Tides and currents will renew the water and remove waste products and will do it for free. Sure, some fish will escape, but the numbers will be small. And while we are at it, let's use not a Pacific species but Atlantic salmon, which grow faster and handle more easily.

I had been hired as a postdoc under AquaNet(1), a national industry-university consortium devoted to improving Canada's aquaculture industry. Their mission was to advance Atlantic salmon fish farms on the British Columbia coast, and their dogma was that Atlantic salmon will do no harm. Should Atlantics escape, they will enter an environment foreign to them. Prey organisms will escape them, competitors will outcompete them, and predators will eat them. And some way or another they will just die. All that was left was to prove that this was true.

Professor Mike Healey was my boss, and he oversaw three research groups.

The first group investigated competition for food. They put one juvenile Pacific salmon and one juvenile Atlantic into a jar, added a food item, and looked who got to the food first.

The second group looked at competition for spawning ground. They placed six spawners into a river section, three Pacifics and three Atlantics, and watched them thrashing it out on the spawning grounds. (It was strange though. Although this was an industry-university consortium we had to use public money to buy the adult Atlantics from a fish farm that was part of the consortium. Price per live fish: $750. Market price for a dead fish, $75. That's how people are.)

Then there was me.

My project was to see whether predators would fancy Atlantics over Pacifics. Since the predation pressure is highest for young fish, I would focus on their early life history, a stage call parr, fish the size of your little finger.

I arrived at the South Campus Research Station in late March. The whole area wasn't a pretty place then, and the Research Station was the worst. A rickety electric gate secured the entrance, a rusty barbed-wire fence secured the perimeter, and the weirdly angled security cameras would only have deterred a spy that was also an idiot.

Inside the restricted area a couple of swimming-pool-sized ponds were set up. They had been used for fertilization experiments, but nobody had used them in years, and bushes were overgrowing the ponds and green muck was floating on the surface. There was the stench of decaying algae in the air when you were foolish enough to come too close.

Further in the back were the research buildings, three of them, all dilapidated. Building C was the most ramshackle. This is where I was to set up my experiments.

Building C was divided into four quadrants, each the size of a tennis court, and each cluttered with old tanks and netting and scientific equipment left over from previous experiments.

The small office at the entrance was occupied by Professor Jones. Jones ran experiments on oxygen consumption in diving birds and mammals. He suffered from emphysema or C.O.P.D. and was forced to carry a small oxygen tank at all times, so his scientific interest was either no coincidence or nature's irony. He was often irritable, Jones was, but he was a good man.

Jones held two harbour seals in a huge tank in the very back. I visited the two buggers every once in a while, but looking at them gave me the willies. They seemed fine and were friendly, but they had neoprene patches glued to the top of their heads to protect the holes that had been drilled into their skulls and where electrodes could be inserted.

Between the office and the seal tanks was my research space. It was open to the courtyard on one side, and years ago they had kept bears and wolves there. But then they had taken out the cages and replaced them with a wet lab, fat water pipes running overhead and broad drain channels underneath.

I needed space and the tanks were large and heavy and I prefer to work alone, so setting things up was exhausting. At one point my arms gave out and one of the holding tanks rolled right into an overhead main line and water came gushing out for one-and-a-half days.

On another day I found a little goldfish. He had been left behind and now tried to carve out a living in a spittle of water at the bottom of an abandoned tank. He was small, the size of a thumb, but when I put him in the holding tank with hundreds of parr he looked like an orange giant.

For my experiments I had to simulate a small creek in the laboratory.

I set up three experimental arenas, large oval channels, about five metres long, filled with water about knee-deep, pumps pushing the water around and around. I covered the bottom with gravel and rocks to give the little fish some place to hide. Then I stocked each tank with twenty juvenile Pacifics and twenty juvenile Atlantics. Pacific and Atlantic parr are easy to distinguish, the Atlantics have a row of red dots along their lateral line.

The next question was which predator to use?

Jones owned some cormorants, and he agreed that I can use them, so I started with them. Cormorants have sharp bills and are nasty when cornered, and working with them without injury is difficult. I did a preliminary trial with four cormorants and ten Pacifics in a large tank two metres deep. From their perch high in the enclosure the cormorants dove into the tanks like aerial torpedoes. Within ten seconds there was not a single fish left. Clearly cormorants were too fast for my purpose. They would eat any fish, and eat them quickly.

There were some discussions which other birds we could use, but in the end we decided to stock two of the arenas with two adult rainbow trout each, each about half-a-metre long. The third arena contained no predators and was the control for both survival and growth. Large fish are difficult animals too, but in the opposite sense of the birds: They don't eat much, nor do they eat often.

Three times a week I went into the lab, fished out all the juveniles from the experimental arenas, measured their length, weighed them, put them back, and restocked those juveniles that had been eaten by the rainbows or gone otherwise missing. Although the experimental arenas had glass walls, catching all of the juveniles was difficult. Often enough, one of the them went missing, and I was happy to replace it in good confidence that a rainbow trout had eaten it, only to find a few days later that it had miraculously returned.

Measuring them was tricky too. They were small and slippery and wiggly. In the beginning, I anaesthetized them in a clove oil solution, but one time I lost three or four to an overdose, and I felt bad, and I soon began to do the measurements without putting them under.

Measuring them was also mind-numbing. There were one hundred and twenty of them each time. But I got better at it, and when the summer came, I was spending my afternoons in the tree-shaded courtyard, reading and thinking. Often enough the heat and the sound of running water would conspire and lull me to sleep, which was fine because I was alone.

The experiments did not go well to say the least. Each of the rainbows ate one or two juvenile salmon per week, and not always, and while they ate Atlantics slightly more frequently than Pacifics, they didn't eat them frequently enough to infer a statistically significant difference. I had failed to get the predation experiments going, and I expected some chiding from Healey. Instead he was quite sympathetic, regaling me with stories from his younger years, how difficult it is to keep juvenile wild fish alive in a laboratory.

By mid-July I abandoned the experiments and focused on some policy questions around aquaculture. I left the experimental arenas intact, however, and informed the laboratory staff to feel free and help themselves to the rainbows.

I didn't return to South Campus until October. To be sure I had planned to clear the experimental arenas earlier, but then September 11 happened, and everything seemed meaningless for a while.

It was overcast and cold that day, and I could see my breath when I entered the building. Inside, it was all very peaceful, and I was very quiet. Two of the three experimental arenas were still working. The pumps were off but there were some fish swimming in them. The rainbows were gone though, victims probably to a staff barbeque.

Some noise was coming from the back, and I went there to say hello to Jones, but it wasn't him. It was John, one of the maintenance workers, and he was standing in the empty seal tank, cleaning it with a high-pressure hose. He saw me and waved and went over to turn the compressor off. He was the one who had fixed the broken pipe, and we shook hands, and he told me that the seals had been put down.

I returned to my lab and went over to the holding tanks where I kept the Pacifics. Hundreds of fish swimming in blissful ignorance. They had grown but were still only the size of a little finger. It is standard procedure to destroy all experimental animals after experimentation, but I don't like killing things, so I bent down and opened the drain valve and watched the fish go down the drain channels and into the gutter, some struggling against the flow, most going with it. At least the Pacifics I would let go.

When all the water was gone, I noticed the little goldfish lying in the drain channel and when I came nearer to save his life again, I noticed that he had not grown at all. I squatted down to pick him up and horror struck me: He had no eyes, and all his fins were gone, even his tail fin, and there were bite marks all over his little body. He flapped his gills frantically, but he was no more than a living orange splotch, unable to see, unable to move, the living feast of hundreds of hungry salmon mouths.

Half a year earlier I had saved the little goldfish, now I ended his life under my boot.

I lit a cigarette.

I felt awful about the suffering my thoughtlessness had caused the little goldfish. Sitting there on a rickety wooden chair, I could hear water running into the tanks, I could hear the sea turtles in the west wing, their flippers thumping against the tank walls. Looking over through the glass-wall of the experimental arena I could see a few of the juvenile salmon moving up and down.

Over the summer they had grown and were the size of a good cigar now. The rainbows must after all have started picking them off one by one because there were not many left. I got up and leaned over the experimental arena. There were eleven of them, nine of them were Pacifics, two had red dots along their lateral line.

Huh. Nine Pacifics, two Atlantics. That's when it struck me.

I called out to John that I will be back later, hopped into my old Volvo, and headed straight for Healey's office.

"We have looked at the problem in a completely wrong way," I almost shouted in excitement at Healey. "If we want to know if escaped Atlantics could be harmful to Pacifics, we must not compare the performance of average individuals of Atlantics and Pacifics, we must look at survival of the fittest, not ... not the survival of the average."

(It's like a footrace between boys and girls. Sure, the average boy will outrun the average girl, but there are many girls who will outrun the average boy, and there may be the odd girl that will outrun even the fastest boy.)

"But it's even worse. If the fittest Atlantics manage to survive and spawn in the local environment, they will produce baby Atlantics with traits similar to what made their parents survive. You see, the problem of invasive species is really not an ecological problem, it's an evolutionary problem."

Healey showed no reaction, but he was listening.

"Look, Mike," I said. "AquaNet's annual general meeting is only a few weeks away, and I would be glad if you let me present my ideas to them. What do you think?"

He looked at me for a while. Then he leaned forward his elbows on his desk.

"Michael," he said without menace. "We will have to give a progress report at that meeting, yes. But what you have to understand is that nobody on the Scientific Advisory Board wants to hear any ideas that could shed a bad light on the aquaculture industry(2)."


"AquaNet's mission is to grow Canada's aquaculture industry. They want to report good news."

"But the facts?"

"Two surviving Atlantics? Come on, Michael, that's not convincing evidence."

"It may be flimsy, but it means that two Atlantics outlived eleven of the original Pacifics."

"I think you should go and clean up the lab, don't you think?"

"Two Atlantics, Mike."

"I think you should go and clean up the lab. Do you understand?"

I did understand.

I went back to the lab. It was dark now, and there were no cars left in the small parking area. I sat down on my chair again. The cold neon tubes were flickering overhead, and the rain was coming down in sheets in the courtyard. I sat for a while and watched the two Atlantics swim around. I had become oddly fond of them.

Something else was killed with them that evening.


(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) 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 (2).

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?