Robin Waples: University of Washington (NOAA Fisheries, retired)
Topic: On the shoulders of giants: Under-appreciated studies in salmon biology with lasting influence.
In 1675 Isaac Newton wrote, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
This idea epitomizes the way that science progresses by incremental steps, punctuated occasionally by major breakthroughs. But often it is the case that neither these ‘giants’ nor their research are well-known or even routinely recognized.
I discuss four such studies conducted in Oregon that have had a profound influence on scientific developments in salmon biology in subsequent decades:
1) a 1960s study of southern Oregon Chinook salmon that was the first documentation of what has come to be known as the Portfolio Effect;
2) a 1970s study of Deschutes River steelhead that was the first attempt to empirically evaluate genetic differences between hatchery and wild fish;
3) a 1980s study of family size variation in Oregon coho salmon that helped pave the way for entirely new lines of research; and
4) a 1980s report on age structure and relative fecundity for Oregon Coast Chinook salmon that provided crucial empirical data to help parameterize models of the rates of genetic drift and loss of genetic variability in Pacific salmon.
I attended the talk just to be in situ at this Hatfield Marine Sciences Center and see what this 76-year-old fellow had to say = Robert Snowden Waples, Jr., born in Berkeley, California. He attended Palo Alto High School, where he excelled in swimming; he went on to Yale to major in American Studies and to swim, competing with the likes of future Olympians Don Schollander, John Nelson, and Mark Spitz.
He has been at the forefront of wild salmon (and now hatchery salmon) research. He has been cited more than 25,000 times, has a plethora of articles, and he is credited with helping put some teeth in the endangered species act for salmon wild species. That is, he and others worked on the various genetic lines within species so they might get special categorization.
The ESA was set forth to bring a species to a status where it doesn’t need that endangered status. There are more than 50 percent of salmon species listed under the ESA.
The Bristol Bay sockeye salmon fisheries has been and up and down situation. There are 20 to 30 different stocks of Coho salmon, and with sockeye, resiliency, representation, and redundancy are key to keeping this ecological area sustainable, Robin states.
While the talk was dry, and there were no photos or videos, graphics from Madison Avenue, he did his talk hoping the audience there was keyed into learning about the top four articles influencing him and the science of salmon research. The first article he cited was “Biocomplexity and Fisheries Sustainability” concerning fall Chinook salmon on the Sixes River, OR.
Crazy science, including the slow work looking at adult returns using interesting criteria — fast to the ocean once hatched in home stream; a little time in the estuary after hatching; a lot of time in the estuary; a lot of time in home tributaries; yearlings staying in fresh water for a year.
What helps with survivability. While the 2, 3 , 4 and 5 year returns included mostly those in the third group = a lot of time in the estuary before maturing and heading to sea. This was done in 1965, without Google, the internet and so many other tools.
The next article on Robin’s top four list includes looking Deschutes summer steelhead and the genetic differences in growth and survival of Juvenile Hatchery and Wild Steehead Trout, Salmo gairdneri.
The question posed in the 1970s research includes: What if there were no hatchery fish? That is, what would that effect be on wild fish? They call that hatchery supplementation since so many wild stocks (more than 50 percent) are endangered, in peril.
The research Robin goes over gets even more deep in terms of genetics and determining the status of coho salmon from WA, OR, and CA. That one was published in 1995.
Lots of work on wild populations and reproductive isolation and life history traits — they can be adapted to local areas.
He cited Valley Creek, near the Sawtooth mountains, where the salmon move from the ocean 900 miles away up to around 6,500 feet in elevation.
Of course, the questions from the audience include: what about the effects of climate change on the salmon community. Robin says there are tons of studies on how salmon sustainability will be changed by warming land and ocean areas. The southern range will have a more difficult time. The northern area will see salmon expansion as the ice recedes and the water gets warmer.
The big questions are around what sort of evolutionary changes can help them keep up. These are called evolutionary rescues, but he says warming seas might be too quick for that rescuing to occur.
Reduction in forests and such stream imperilment really affects salmon. Non-point source pollution is huge. More people are changing the land, through urbanization and agriculture. Rainfall and impervious surfaces add pollution loads. Robin states that there is great support for salmon, and most recent polls show 70 to 80 percent of people want to work with salmon mitigation and are willing to pay more for salmon survival and be taxed, as opposed to the spotted owl, with only gets 10 percent backing for massive tax increases to save them.
While Robin is not a fan of techno fixes, he is for more streamside tree planting for shading the homes of salmon to lower water temperatures. And making sure water from rainfall gets back into the system clean.
He notes that trout have been put everywhere around the world (trout being a cousin of salmon), and he notes that steelhead and chinook have been put into Patagonia rivers starting a hundred years ago. New Zealand has also introduced Pacific salmon there.
Here’s the talk,
I got to talk with Robin for a few minutes. We talked about his American Studies degree, and how he taught English at the University of Hawaii. And what got him into the sciences. We also mulled over why there is such a disconnect from his and his fellow scientists’ research and the average person including the fisher people who live here in our rural community fishing for rock fish, shrimp, crab, halibut, and other species.
Also discussed was the issue tied to K-12 students NEVER being at these events. And, alas, the problem of higher education pushing MBA programs and programs around coding and software application creation.
I introduced him to some of my work, with David James Duncan, with David Suzuki, and Tim Flannery and dozens of other groups, including Save Our Wild Salmon. And there is my “Interview with David James Duncan.”