Sunday, November 18, 2012

The problem of truth

I read an interesting (and rather infuriating) opinion piece on salmon in the Gridley Herald a few weeks ago, claiming that salmon populations on the Klamath River in northern California are doing just fine. Gridley is a small town in the Central Valley south of Chico. The author, James Finses, based his claim on one good year of salmon returns, as well as bashing the groups he disagrees with (more details below). While making me writhe internally, this piece also got me thinking once again about denial, and how we shape truth.

The problem is that people have different versions of the truth. Scientists version of truth takes the form of testable hypotheses that are “proved” (or fail to be rejected, if you'd prefer), or quantitative models, but that’s not how people work. People, in general, are most likely to believe what they see (first-hand data), and this is tempered by what they want to see (which is where denial comes in). Since I happen to be watching football right now (don’t be too shocked…I was coaxed to the bar by my husband), the analogy that comes to mind is if a team does well the three times in a row you happen to watch them, you’re more likely to believe that they’re good rather than the long-term statistics that tell you they’re terrible. In short, we’re more inclined to believe what we see right in front of us (and especially when we like what we see), rather than trying to put things in the larger context… especially when it’s inconvenient or displeasing to do so. Thus, we can easily create a convenient reality, when so inclined.

This problem of truth extends to opinions surrounding salmon fisheries management. There’s lots of data and scientific papers showing that our salmon populations have crashed in the past century, but there is also tremendous economic, cultural, and social pressure to keep fishing. This creates a situation where there are a lot of people with different opinions and goals searching for a slippery truth (i.e. how do we best restore/maintain salmon populations).

Restoring salmon populations is not an easy or straightforward task, and can demand innovative and sometimes unpopular (with some) approaches, such as dam removal, fishing restrictions, or expensive fish ladders, all of which can inspire heated controversy. This is the case on the Klamath River in northern California where I do my research, and where there are 4 dam removals planned for 2020 in order to help restore fish populations (including ESA-listed Coho). On the Klamath, there are many interest groups who care about both fish and water flows, including fishermen, native tribes, rafting companies, farmers, and fiery locals.

Returning Chinook salmon on the Klamath River
And so when record numbers (~380,000) of Chinook salmon were projected to return to the Klamath River this year — a run size close to historical returns for fall Chinook — it is no surprise that there were people, including James Finses of Gridley CA, eager to jump at the opportunity to claim that salmon populations are doing just fine. In his opinion piece, Finses is quick to point out that the fish are returning despite the fact that we still have dams, and that “the dirty, unscientific data brought forth by the tribes, enviros and other whacko groups was wrong all the time.” The problem with Finses’ argument that one good year of salmon returns means that salmon populations are fine is that salmon populations are incredibly variable year to year, and the success of a particular cohort depends on numerous conditions including favorable river temperatures and ocean conditions (abundant plankton and low predator numbers). In the end, he states that “the salmon are back in record numbers with all the dams to help them.” I find this last sentence particularly interesting, since it reflects the desire to not just disprove undesirable truths, but to use this small piece of evidence (one year of good salmon returns) to reshape the truth (i.e. dams must be helping the fish). Whether Finses actually believes this statement or not, the fact remains that humans are susceptible to incredible willful short-sightedness when it suits us. So in questions relating to fisheries management, the truth very quickly becomes a slippery shadow, swathed in politics and emotion, often taking different forms for different people.

Fish ladder on John Day River dam
My husband came across another example of this truth-shaping during his research on dam removal, when talking to a local about fish ladders. Fish ladders are structures built into some dams that allow for anadromous fish migration – they are usually a series of small steps and pools with sufficient flow to attract fish to them. While having fish ladders is better than providing no fish passage at all, they are only somewhat successful; some problems include increased predation (predators, such as bass or birds, can sit at the end of the fish ladder, picking off a tasty meal as the salmon funnel through), and possible delay and additional energy demand on the fish (especially as they pool up at the bottom, awaiting their turn in the limited space). However, having a fish ladder is somewhat of a band-aid fix, and can make it seem like the fish are doing fine, especially since it often causes the fish to pool up, so that visually it appears that there are a lot of fish. As the local remarked to my husband, ‘the fish are just hanging out below the dam, “taking their time.”’

So will one good year of salmon returns make us forget those that have come before? As scientists, the answer is no. But as humans, we are susceptible to our emotions and personal biases.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Ecological Restoration: Are we in denial?

“I think that if it weren't for denial, I wouldn't be a comedian because to be a comedian you have to go on stage those first few years and bomb. And then walk off stage and think, that went great. Because otherwise you'd never get on stage the next night. You would just think, human beings don't like me. But sometimes denial can kill you.” –Comedian Mike Birbiglia 

Are we in denial about climate change and the state of our earth? Certainly some of this country is... although luckily, on Nov. 6th the country voted to support the environment (as well as many other important things). But even for those of us who do believe in climate change, and even try to change our day to day actions to help alleviate the problem, a question that haunts me is, “is this enough?” Is biking to work every day and eating organic and buying carbon offsets for travel (and generally acting like we are in Portlandia) really enough? And are current ecological restoration projects and conservation efforts sufficient?

As I was mulling over how to frame this question into a constructive blog post—since it is so easy to debate round in circles on this question, to no avail—I came across a recent paper by one of my advisors that addressed an interesting angle on this question. The paper, “Ecological restoration and enabling behavior: a new metaphorical lens?” by KD Moore & JW Moore, examines how we currently view ecological restoration, and how that perspective might be shaping both our behavior and the way we go about restoration. When we discuss ecological restoration, we usually assume that we are talking about something inherently positive. The paper makes the point that the language of ecological restoration is that of “healing and repairing,” which carries a positive connotation. Who wouldn’t you want to help the environment by restoring it (given unlimited money)?

However, as this paper discusses, there are certain problems with our current approach to restoration. Many restoration projects are not followed by sufficient monitoring (the case with many dam removals), so we are left to wonder how effective the restoration actually was. In addition, Moore & Moore cite several examples where post-restoration monitoring has shown that “restoration effectiveness is questionable.” (This is not to say all projects are ineffective, but rather that we should not assume the effectiveness of our restoration projects).

But besides the problem of monitoring, there is the question of whether we are enabling our energy-hungry habits by convincing ourselves that our restoration projects will take care of the problem. The paper draws an interesting metaphor for this scenario using the co-dependency of addicts (for instance, an alcoholic) and their enablers (e.g. someone who keeps paying the alcoholic’s bills). In this case, Americans are addicted to cheap, abundant energy (which comes at the cost of environmental degradation), and the enablers are the environmental restorationists, who make us feel like we are healing the environment, and who are secured a job in the wake of the destruction. Perhaps this view is too cynical—surely restoration specialists are not voting for Romney or buying SUVs just to ensure their own job security.

But, as the authors explain, we can draw an interesting lesson from this perspective; we can use this “metaphoric lens” to think about whether restoration activities have “opportunity costs”—in other words, are we using funds for restoration that could be better put towards getting rid of the cause of the degradation? We can also use this lens to examine whether these restoration activities “conceal the truth” from ourselves—we want to believe that we can destroy a habitat, extract what we need, and then restore it back to its starting state. But this is rarely the case. Yet we often move forward with restoration projects as if this were true.
I am not arguing, by any means, that we should discontinue ecological restoration. Rather, it should be a stepping stone to whatever is next. However, we know from basic physics that systems in motion have momentum, and the momentum to keep going in the direction of motion can be very strong, not to mention easier than applying force to the system to change (yes, I love physics… I even minored in it in college). In other words, we need to work to change our current habits, and along the way, we need to continually evaluate our actions. We do not want to be the ostrich, head stuck in the sand, patting ourselves on the back at all our good environmental work, and meanwhile drowning in the rising ocean.

As the comedian Mike Birbiglia says, “sometimes denial can kill you.” Or, in this case, probably our grandchildren.

So we need to rid ourselves of denial, and ask, does despair begin when denial ends? Or is that when true hope and action are born, out of the “power of outrage and… the wisdom of grief”*?

*Moore & Moore

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Origin of (Exotic) Species

My friend Leighton’s comment on last week’s post – that beaver reintroduction to their native ranges by parachute outdoes dumping fish from airplanes – sparked my idea for this week’s post. Over the course of the past few centuries, there have been many intentional and inadvertent introductions of exotic (non-native) species to areas throughout North America. Some of these exotic species can be beneficial (depending on your viewpoint), some harmless, and some turn into invasives (i.e. non-native species that negatively impact the native ecosystem). Current estimates of the number of exotic species in the U.S. are around 50,000; around 4300 of these are considered invasives.

However, while we often hear about the impacts of exotic species, we don’t usually hear the interesting back-story that brought many of these species to their new homes in the first place. How did they spread? Was it on purpose or by accident? I’ve looked into the stories of several high-impact species that were introduced to North America to find out how they were first introduced, and what their impact has been.

European Honeybees: What’s all the buzz?
Honeybees first arrived in the U.S. in 1622, carried by ship with European settlers determined to have honey in their new home (I don’t blame them there). The only documentation that exists of this first bee introduction is found in a letter from the Virginia Company in London to the Governor of Virginia:
“Wee haue by this Shipp and the Discouerie sent you diurs [diverse] sortes of seedes, and fruit trees, as also Pidgeons, Connies, Peacockes Maistiues [Mastiffs], and Beehives, as you shall by the invoice pceiue [perceive]…”  (Goodwin 1956; Kingsbury 1906:532).
Along with the honeybees, settlers brought many of the agricultural crops that honeybees thrive on and pollinate, thus facilitating a change in the face of the American landscape. As European settlers moved west, many of the plant species with which they were familiar already abounded.  
Honeybees are crucial for pollinating many of the non-native agricultural crops that we rely on today. The advent of Colony Collapse Disorder is therefore extremely concerning, because it threatens the existence of many mainstay crops. However, there are also around 4000 species of (often overlooked) native bees in North America, and many native plants—such as tomatoes, eggplant, pumpkin, blueberries and cranberries—are more efficiently pollinated by these native bees than by honeybees.

Earthworms vs. Ovenbirds
European Earthworms: An Unlikely Suspect
For a species that most of us associate with good garden soil, the earthworm has a surprising dark side to its story. It was first introduced to the U.S. around 1620 in ship ballast (soil and gravel) that was dumped around Jamestown, Pennsylvania to make room for transporting popular American tobacco back to Europe. Earthworms are not native to the post-glacial forests of North America, which are characterized by thick layers of leaf litter. Once introduced to these forests, the silent underground invaders eat their way through the leaf litter, completely changing the face of the forest floor and the entire microbial cycle. This can have serious impacts on everything from native seedling success and tree species composition to native bird populations. One interesting case is the decline of the Ovenbird in the Midwest, which is being blamed on the earthworm; the Ovenbird is a ground-nester, and the decrease in leaf litter abundance is linked to increased predation risk (less shelter) and decreased food availability (bugs in leaf litter) for the Ovenbird. As earthworms continue to spread (mostly through bait-fishing, composting, and other means of human transport), they could potentially have large impacts on our forest ecosystems.

Shakespeare’s Songbirds: The Starling Saga
In 1890 a drug manufacturer (and Shakespeare fanatic) named Eugene Scheiffelin thought it would be romantic to introduce all the songbirds mentioned in Shakespeare’s works to New York City. Over the course of two years, he released 100 European starlings into Central Park. By 1942, their descendants had reached California. (He tried with thrushes and skylarks as well, but these birds failed to thrive).
Starlings are now a common sight in almost every city in the U.S. – they build their nests in cavities and vents, and thrive in urban landscapes. They are now mostly considered pests, and are linked to the spread of various diseases to both livestock and humans, mostly through their droppings. They can also pose serious safety risk to airplanes, as they fly in large murmurations (perhaps the best word ever for a group of animals), which can be quite visually impressive. Efforts to eradicate them have included artificial owls, electric wires, chemicals, broadcasted alarm calls, and recipes for Starling Pie. And yet they remain, perhaps even in your yard at this moment.

“Crazy Jumping Fish” (aka Asian Carp)
Asian Carp were first introduced to the United States by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – this is an interesting example of how the mission and practices of environmental organizations can change as our understanding of and relationship to the environment changes. These fish were brought to the southern U.S. (Mississippi River in Arkansas) in 1963 as a tool to help aquaculture farms keep vegetation in check. By the 1970s, the carp had escaped the farms and spread northwards into the Illinois River.

Asian Carp jump up to 3m out of the water when startled (often by motor noise)
Asian Carp have become a huge problem in the rivers of the Mississippi basin, and currently threaten to invade the Great Lakes. They have a voracious appetite, and can consume up to 20% of their body weight per day in phytoplankton, which is significant considering they can reach 4 feet and 100 pounds. They also have a high reproduction rate, and compete with native fish species for habitat. In addition, these “crazy jumping fish” can be physically threatening to boaters (see YouTube video). And they have even inspired an important cultural contribution to America, in the form of the Redneck Fishing Tournament of Bath, Illinois.
The possibility of Asian Carp invading the Great Lakes is a serious threat – the Great Lakes support a large commercial fisheries industry – and both government and private agencies are working to come up with solutions to keep them out. One recent innovation is the use of an electrical barrier, implemented by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to keep the carp out of Lake Michigan. So far it seems to be working, although there have been some reports of DNA evidence for carp above the barrier.

As with the case of the beavers mentioned earlier, a recent phenomenon is the re-introduction of native species back to natural historic ranges from which they have been extirpated (e.g. made locally extinct). The goal of these reintroductions is to restore the natural ecosystem, and often to bring back charismatic species that people feel “belong” in the landscape for sentimental (as well as environmental) reasons. This can become controversial in the case of large predators (wolf reintroduction to Yellowstone National Park, for example). But it has also inspired some interesting studies on the success of these reintroduced species (check out my friend's blog on Fishers in the Sierra), and success stories such as the reintroduction of California Condors to the Big Sur region of California.