Credibility dies in a field of little mistakes
This is why it is painful to read what passes for news today:
“Pink salmon get their nickname from their propensity to bite on anything pink.”
Yes, and red salmon got their nickname for their propensity to bite on anything red and silvers on silver. And don’t forget those dog salmon.
Note to the unwary: Leave Fido at home if you decide to pursue the latter. They have a propensity to bite on dogs. This is the reason there are so many three-legged dogs in villages along the Yukon River.
All of this would be funny if, of course, it was funny.
If some know-nothing reporter had written this, and if it had popped up online for 10 minutes or even an hour before someone in The Times’ newsroom screamed “WTF!” to see that such foolishness got fixed, but that hasn’t happened.
The story has now been online for more than a week with this illustration of ignorance. “Pink” isn’t even the “nickname” for the species Oncorhynchus gorbuscha. Pink salmon is the common name for the fish in this country with humpy or humpback, as the fish are often called in Alaska, closer to a nickname.
Not to mention the name “pink salmon” far predates the “Buzz Bomb,” an invention of the 1970s that appears to be what led Scruggs to assume pinks were named for the color of the fishing lures that catch them. To wit:
“While (Dave) McCoy and a small group of die-hards fly-fish for pinks, the most common technique on the crowded shores of Lincoln Park is to use a spinning rod and the British Columbia-designed Buzz Bomb pink lure. Pink salmon get their nickname from their propensity to bite on anything pink. WDFW also recommends a pink rotator lure or a Point Wilson-type jig.”
Except that isn’t exactly what the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife says. It says this:
“…The color of choice is a hot pink lure, spoon, jig, or fly, as the color resembles the plankton or krill that are part of their main diet. White, purple, red, chartreuse and orange-colored presentations will also get the job done.”
Why so many choices? Because as any experienced angler knows the prime “color of choice” is whatever color the fish are biting on at the moment, and if you want more on that subject you can go read John Beath who has clearly put a lot of effort into the study of this subject: What Fish See, Why Salmon Prefer Different Colors.
Beath actually has studied the subject about which he is writing. Most reporters haven’t on most topics which seriously compounds the variety of other reporting problems of today, among them the belief almost every story is about politics; the confusion of rights and privileges which leads to a lot of people arguing about rights that don’t exist; and go-gooder agendas.
Oh yes, agendas.
Pissing on oneself
The Times used to be this country’s newspaper of record or at least one of them.
Sometimes now it seems to be vying for the title of “The Donald Trump of Journalism.”
Facts be damned. Ignore them and stir the flames of passion with whatever can be squeezed into 140 characters, the original limit for that website once-called Twitter and now rebranded X.
Whether this behavior is accidental or intentional is hard to say, but it is possible The Times has recognized that Trump found a technique that sells and has poached it. Newspapers are, after all, businesses, and it is well documented that The Times boosted its circulation by positioning itself as the anti-Trump years ago.
And as the anti-anything, you have to be against whatever the pro-anything endorses, and Trump did roll back some U.S. climate change policies. Whether or not that had any real effect on greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. could be the subject of an interesting debate.
Energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in this country peaked late in the 2010s, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data, and then trended steadily downward until 2020 when they took a big dive thanks to the pandemic lockdown. They have since crept back to near the level of 1990, but remain about 1,000 million metric tons beneath their peak.
Canada, which embraced the international climate change policies Trump rejected, is another story. Its greenhouse gas emissions did fall from their peak in 2007 to the start of the 2010s, but they then began a general creep upward and rose steadily after Canada signed the international agreement on climate change in 2015, according to Environment and Natural Resources Canada.
As in the U.S., the pandemic brought Canadian emissions down, but they never dropped back to 1990 levels before spiraling upwards.
Canada’s official spin on the latter is that, yes, emissions rose 1.8 percent above 2020 levels, but “that increase was substantially smaller than the rebound in economic growth that year in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. This trend shows Canada continues to ‘decouple’ emissions from economic activity—even though many of the federal policies that will drive substantial emissions reductions in the future are only just coming into effect.”
Alrighty then, but let’s get back to The Times, and those “fish…dying in droves as climate change scorches Canada.”
There is a big problem in the story beneath the headline which any old-school editor would quickly have flagged. That problem is at the end of the second paragraph and the start of third, where this is written:
“The die-off, the biggest in living memory, quickly led to an investigation.
“It remains a mystery.”
There are two immediate problems there, the first being “living memory.” Living memory, to be very blunt, isn’t worth shit. That’s why scientists collect data because in living memory the weather was always colder; it was always warmer; it always rained more; it always rained less; and it never snowed or every winter the snow was so deep it buried houses.
The second problem is the “mystery.”
If the fish are dying in droves due to climate change, ie. “global warming,” what’s the mystery? The heat is killing them, right?”
Maybe, maybe not.
“Government officials found partially treated wastewater in the river a couple of weeks after the fish were found, but they have yet to draw conclusions about its impact,” reporter Norimitsu Onishi wrote. “Local scientists suspect the bigger culprit is climate change, which has contributed to the decline of salmon populations in British Columbia by increasing droughts and heat waves.”
OK, so now we’ve gone from climate did it to climate being a suspect. And the data says?
Well, it doesn’t in The Times story. Instead, there is the sidestep:
“In a summer of global catastrophes for Canada, climate change has been felt across this vast country – from Cowichan Valley on the Pacific Coast to Halifax on the Atlantic, from the long border with the United States to the remotest towns above the Arctic Circle. But if the world has been consumed with the fires raging across Canada’s forests, turned into tinderboxes from the effects of climate change, the plight of the river has hit close to home in Cowichan Valley.”
Nowhere in the story is there any mention of water temperatures or dissolved oxygen levels in the Cowichan River where the dead fish were found, although the caption below the photograph at the top of the story hints at these things.
“The Cowichan River, on Canada’s Vancouver Island, saw hundreds of young salmon and trout die last month,” the caption says. “The river, a renowned fly-fishing destination, is suffering from the effects of climate change, including a low water level and high water temperatures.”
So were the fish killed by hot water, which can prove deadly to salmon at temperatures above 70 to 78 degrees, or low water which decreases the volume and rate of flow in a river and can thus lead to a drop in available oxygen?
Local reporting matters
The Times didn’t say, but the Cowichan Valley Citizen in Duncan, British Columbia did.
On July 13, Citizen reporter Sarah Simpson quoted “long-time riverside resident and Cowichan river steward Joe Saysell” saying, “I’ve been discussing it with DFO (Fisheries and Oceans Canada) and Conservation and we thought it was an oxygen level in that pool at the bottom that wasn’t very good but when the pool was measured, the oxygen level was actually OK.”
“We don’t know what it is,” he continued. “They’ve sent the samples away to the lab but we don’t know how long until they’ll come back. These fish seem to be coming into that pool over the falls. It’s got to be something right in that area, in my mind.”
Saysell has since suggested that algae in the water and sunscreen from recreational users on a low river might have combined to damage the Cowichan River, according to the Citizen. Low water and algae could both be linked to warming, but the situation is complicated in that the river has a dam upstream from the kill site, and the dam influences the amount of water in the river.
Meanwhile, the province’s Forests Ministry, which manages fishing in the river, has disagreed with Saysell’s observations and said it has concluded salmon and trout mortalities in the river are within normal ranges.
As is often the case in situations like this, people who start looking intently for dead fish or wildlife find more dead fish or wildlife than they’ve ever seen before. Those observations might mean there are more dead, and they might mean people have just picked up on what happens naturally all the time.
Young salmon, in particular, die in massive numbers in rivers all around the Pacific Ocean. In general, about 4,500 alevin (young salmon with yolk sacs attached) hatch from 8,000 eggs,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. More than 3,800 of them die before they wiggle out of the gravel in which they hatch.
Of the 650 survivors, 450 will die before they become what are called “parr,” and a total of 600 or so will be dead before they become smolt and head to sea. This leaves 50 out-migrant salmon out of 4,500 or 650, depending on how you want to measure.
Needless to say, there are natural reasons that it is not uncommon to find lots of dead young salmon in a river if you look hard enough, and if they haven’t been quickly devoured by predators or scavengers.
One Canadian study estimated a brood of merganser ducks can consume 82,000 to 131,000 young salmon every summer. Mergansers are considered fish-eating carnivores, but like other marine carnivores they will quickly pick off any injured or struggling small fish and would happily eat a dead one drifting in the current.
Thus, assessing in-river fish mortalities can get complicated. A drop in the number of predators and scavengers in and along a river could result in a significant reduction in the consumption of young fish, and thus make normal salmon mortality more obvious to human observers.
It’s nature. It’s complicated unless you have an agenda to simplify things.
Much of the mainstream media has signed onto the climate-change agenda with all the fears it fuels – dying salmon, melting glaciers, rising seas, expanding deserts, bigger storms, new pandemics and more.
All of these things could happen, and there are indications some already could be happening. It is also pretty clear that the globe’s mid-latitudes, where most of the human population concentrates, is going to get less and less comfortable for the species.
The temperatures in Iran in 2017 hit 129 degrees, only five degrees lower than the global record set in California’s Death Valley in 1913. The Italian island of Sicily recorded a temperature of 119.8 in 2021. Alaska’s largest city on July 4, 2019 hit a record of 90 degrees, five degrees above the previous high for the city and a whopping 25 degrees above the July 4 average for Anchorage.
Few Alaskans were complaining about the heat, however. It was well short of the 103 to 124
degree, “heat index” temperatures the National Weather Service considers dangerous to humans. The heat index is a measure of temperature plus humidity, which limits the ability of homo sapiens to cool themselves by sweating.
In large part because of high humidity levels, a model of climate change now predicts a “heat island” forming in the middle of the U.S. from the Mississippi River delta to the Iowa-Minnesota border while extending as far west as Topeka, Kansas, and as far east as Dayton, Ohio in the years ahead.
There are valid reasons for people to be concerned about this. The problem for journalism is that when a publication puts global warming on its agenda and combines that with know-nothing reporters, the result is too often, at best, misinformation or, at worst, propaganda, now often called disinformation.
The Times has long been running an Alaska salmon disinformation campaign. It has kept Alaska reporter Julia O’Malley busy suggesting Alaska salmon are imperiled by climate change even as Alaska salmon harvests have climbed to never-imagined numbers thanks to climate change.
The catch is over 200 million again this year, about double what fishery managers once thought was a job well done.
It would be easy to blame O’Malley for The Time’s propaganda campaign, but she’s just doing what her East Coast bosses want, and a girl has got to make a buck to stay alive. And she’s not alone.
Retired Seattle Times reporting Hal Bernton couldn’t bring himself to accept what was going in in Alaska’s Bristol Bay in 2021 and instead wrote this:
“Scientists still are trying to unravel the factors influencing the big Bristol Bay sockeye runs of the past decade. At least so far, climate change in this more northern realm appears to have not undermined their productivity, and some research indicates that warming could be working in the fish’s favor by improving food supplies when they are very young.”
“Have not undermined?” By 2021, scientists were in agreement that warming was boosting Bristol Bay sockeye productivity. The big question was how the boom would end given that busts tend to follow booms.
But given the climate change agenda of The Seattle Times and the funding Bernton was lining up with the Pulitzer Center to cover climate change, this distinction was easy to overlook.
To Bernton’s credit, he did three years later report that “studies have found that they (sockeye salmon) generally do better in years when water temperatures climb a few degrees Fahrenheit. During the past decade, which has included marine heat waves in 2018 and 2019, sockeye, though smaller in size, stormed Bristol Bay in a series of big runs.”
Unfortunately, the story ran under a Pulitzer Center subhead that read “Alaska’s biggest salmon run is booming despite warmer water” when in fact the boom was because of, as Bernton reported, warmer water.
Canadian scientist Brendan Connors has told the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission to expect this to continue in the Bay if warming continues in the Bering Sea. He and a team of scientists have concluded that warming will shrink summer sockeye salmon habitat in the Gulf of Alaska, but increase it in Bristol Bay and the Bering Sea.
That is if the warming continues. There is a lot of year-to-year and area-to-area variability in weather even as the planet warms. Bay waters began cooling in a couple of years ago and a 2022 run of close to 80 million sockeye dropped to around 50 million this year.
Bernton’s Pulitizer-backed global warming adventure in the spring of 2022 turned into an “Into the Ice” story. NOAA that year reported the “early season ice extent was the highest since 2012.”
Meanwhile, sea-surface temperatures (SSTs) that were near seven degrees when smolts went to sea in 2021 fell to five degrees in 2022 and at the end of May this year were down under 4 degrees. The shift in SSTs is reflected in a preliminary preseason forecast for 2024 Bay sockeye issued by UW only days ago.
It predicts the salmon return for 2024 will track downward along with those falling water temperatures.
“The 2024 Preliminary Preseason Forecast of 38.9 million is 32 percent below the 2013-2022 (10-year) average of 57.2 million sockeye,” it notes, “and 19 percent below the 2003-2022 (20-year) average of 48.1 million.”
The projected harvest is 26.4 million. The harvest has not fallen that low in a decade, but it is worth noting how much the harvest inflated in an unusually warm period in Alaska from 2010 to 2021 or so.
Now the Bay appears headed back to the future, though thankfully not all the way back if the early forecast is accurate. Alaska Department of Fish and Game records, which are better than any living memories, show the average harvest of sockeye in the Bay from 1965 to 2009 was only 19.3 million, or about 7 million less than what Bay fishermen are already considering a dismal forecast.
In Alaska’s Bristol Bay, it would appear, there might be something worse than warming, and that is cooling. But this probably shouldn’t be reported because it might make somebody skeptical of global warming, or start her or him wondering if there could be any positive changes along with all the negative ones.
And when you’re in the propaganda business, the last thing you want is people thinking.