Friday, March 26, 2021

On the Reality of Wild Salmon Recovery: Accepting Limits to Growth, by Don Orth

The role of a fisheries scientist in advancing policy and science of recovery of Pacific Salmon is a valiant, perhaps quixotic struggle. While most believe salmon are important indicators of environmental health and believe it is important to restore wild salmon runs for future generations, surprisingly little progress is evident.  The historic expansion of human activity in the Pacific Northwest has driven a loss of phenotypic and genetic diversity in Pacific salmon. Almost 50 years since publication of  “The Limits to Growth” (Meadows et al. 1972), we are still shouting “there are limits to growth” and not getting through in a way that leads to substantive change.  By the year 2100,  there will be 11.2 billion humans on our planet, all demanding food, jobs, energy, and space. The relative increase in human populations will be even higher in the Pacific Northwest, making restoration of wild salmon runs difficult, if not impossible. My opinion piece deals with avoiding pessimism while proposing a realistic future for wild salmon.

In 2001, Robert Lackey penned an essay “Defending Reality” in Fisheries, in which he concluded that “The near-certain growth in the human population in the Pacific Northwest through this century, coupled with little indication that most people will accept the enormous lifestyle changes necessary to perpetuate, much less restore, wild salmon, means that restoring “fishable” runs of wild salmon in California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Idaho is a policy objective that is not likely to be achieved.“  Similarly, Healey (2009) when examining the status of Pacific Salmon in British Columbia, Canada, concluded that if salmon and their fisheries are to become viable again, radically new management policies are needed. 

The reaction to the essay reminded my of Cassandra's Dilemma. Cassandra was a beauty in Greek mythology. When Apollo fell in love with her, he granted her the ability to know the future in his attempt to show his devotion. But when she refused his love, he then cursed her by making it so that no one would ever believe her predictions. Like many modern environmentalists, Cassandra had perfect knowledge of the future and yet nobody would ever believe her – a frustrating curse in the extreme. When asked recently “has wild salmon policy and scientific landscape changed over the past twenty years? “ Lackey (2021) replied “ To answer bluntly . . . nothing substantive has changed from what I described in 2001.” It’s tough being an optimist when reality sucks! 

I am certain that many, like me, have experienced similar frustrations when simple, hard-to-accept reality was ignored.  Perhaps you shed Cassandra's tears. Perhaps you laughed and displayed eternal optimism.  In the extreme, we may respond to difficult futures with a cheerful, often falsely positive, façade, which is referred to as toxic positivity by psychologists. Here the optimist is either in denial or just full of happy horsesh*t.  Lackey (2001) maintained that Pacific Salmon management involved a conspiracy of optimism. Optimism may be a coping mechanism because the opposite, pessimism, is bad for your health.  These difficult moments of self-doubt challenge each of us as professionals and require frequent self-talk or even group therapy to maintain a clear grip on an often, sad reality. While not a qualified therapist, I find that I do a lot of it for students and colleagues. I refer you to a Therapist’s Guide to Positive Psychological Interventions (adapted from Seligman 2002).  To be effective at our work we must protect ourselves from pessimism and its effects on anxiety and depression.  Optimism increases our ability to value and plan for the future, and our capacity to recall the past and learn from it.  We must learn how to be optimistic in a pessimist's world (AtKisson 2010). 

While on a sabbatical leave in academic year 1995-1996, I worked on analyses of reservoir release requirements for fish at the New Don Pedro Project (FERC Project No. 2299-024), just one of many FERC licensed hydro projects in the San Joaquin drainage of California. After comparing the possible release alternatives,  the outlook for Pacific Salmon and Steelhead runs looked bleak under current levels of hydro development, hatchery stocking, and degraded riparian wetlands. The reality of no hope for the future restoration of wild salmon did not register in the final environmental impact statement.  Looking back 25 years, one sees that the Tuolumne fall-run Chinook Salmon runs are still at historic lows despite many valiant interventions.  Our US government-required Environmental Impact Analysis ignored the larger wild salmon reality.  It did not “tell it like it is.”   


I once provided written testimony in a large, multi-station hydropower development at the time when new generation capacity was proposed. One conservation agency believed that the operations and altered flow regimes caused the substantial decline in abundance of large trout. However, after visiting the river, its hydro plants, and examining the evidence, I concluded that a simple model showed that increasing fishing effort satisfactorily explained the population decline observed over the 5 decades since hydro development. In this case, the simple reality was counter to the preferred policy option. In order to maintain false optimism, we often commit a naturalistic fallacy.  We maintain that if we could just go back to the way things were, fisheries and ecosystems would be restored.  This type of historically based restoration seeks to turn back the clock when there is no chance of going back.  Many ecosystems have been fundamentally altered for so long that they are unlikely to recover to a pristine, historic condition.  In many hydropower relicensing efforts, restoration of altered ecosystems is impossible with incremental changes in flow rules alone (Orth 2019; McManamay et al. 2015). The reality is far more complex.  

Figure 1. Naturalistic fallacy is an appeal to nature in order to judge it valid or good.


I found it almost surreal to read Lackey’s essay twenty years later. Pacific Salmon are a globally significant group of fishes and many scientific innovations started with salmon studies. I suspect one could/should do a comprehensive literature review on the question of substantive change and examine the empirical evidence.  The optimistic in me is inclined to seek and find only positive changes in wild salmon policy and the scientific landscape over twenty years. However, the reality is that what I’ve read indicates that Lackey was and is correct.  Refer back to the Therapist’s Guide for Cassandra's Dilemma. 


Lichatowich and Gayeski (2020) chronicled the numerous fallacies in Pacific Salmon management. A failed salmon management paradigm rests on the concept of single species maximum sustained yield (MSY), which is not intended to be an appropriate management objective (Gulland 1969). Additionally, the fallacies include practices that allow small populations to go extinct, reduce life history variations, swamp gene pools with hatchery plantings, encourage investments in larger vessels and gear, permit incremental loss of freshwater habitat, and manage for economic efficiency (Healey 2009).  


The evolutionary consequences of overfishing (Palcovic 2011) and massive hatchery supplementation has changed many salmon populations. For example, in the Salish Sea, over 50 million Chinook Salmon are released annually to support a large mixed stock fishery off the west coast of North America. Over time, the size of hatchery Chinook Salmon has increased, making them significantly larger than natural‐origin fish and in the preferred size range for predators (Losee et al. 2019; Nelson et al. 2019). Declines in the average size and age of mature Chinook Salmon is widespread and can cause a reduction in population productivity (Ohlberger et al. 2018; Manashin et al. 2021).  Survival from smolt stage to returning adult Chinook Salmon has decreased in most regions  (for 123 Chinook Salmon time series ) and none of the runs monitored approach survival levels measured in the 1960s (Welch et al. 2021). Despite the many well-intentioned, valiant efforts to increase salmon populations through harvest regulation, hatchery enhancement, and habitat restoration, decreases in survival of Chinook Salmon persist.  In Canada’s Skeena River, the number and population diversity of wild Sockeye Salmon has dramatically declined over the last century (Price et al. 2021). To add to a pessimistic outlook, consider the constraints that climate change will pose on wild salmon populations (Weatherndon et al. 2016; Crozier et al. 2021). These few examples highlight the reality — not optimism.  An ecosystem approach has been resisted here as well as elsewhere for reasons that are not entirely valid (Fogarty 2014). 


I am desperate for signs of hope as I enter the ‘disputation’ stage of the ABCDE’s of the Therapist’s Guide. If reality is bleak for salmon, how can one remain optimistic for saving the many other freshwater fishes that are not economically valuable?  (Winemiller et al. 2016) Mark Kurlansky's (2020) recent book, which I read while locked at home during the covid pandemic, helped me appreciate the history, people, and many places — mountains, valleys, rivers, estuaries, and seas associated with Pacific Salmon in crisis. Others have thought about the dilemma far more than me and propose key elements of a renewed fisheries strategy, including a common vision for the future, a series of guiding principles, and specific strategies for supporting sustainable fisheries (MacDonald et al. 2000; Lach et al. 2006). 

I also feel hints of optimism from new dam removals designed to open up spawning and rearing habitat for Salmon and Steelhead. While the developing world is planning a boon in hydropower dam construction, new research efforts are underway as old dams are increasingly being marked for removal (O’Connor et al. 2015; Bellmore et al. 2016).  Removal of two dams on the Elwha River provides hope for other projects, such as the removal of eight dams on the  Klamath River. When the Klamath dams came up for relicensing 20 years ago, some tribal members and scientists decided that dam removal was the only path forward to restore wild salmon and the health of the Klamath river.  Frankie Myers, of the Yoruk Tribe, said that the idea of dam removal “seemed far-fetched, and raised eyebrows on the reservation, where people wondered if the dam-removal fight was the best use of the tribe’s energy.”  However, almost 20 years later, nearly everyone has come around. In the past two decades we begin to see investigations that focus on evaluating impacts of dam removal (Battle et al. 2020; Cooper et al. 2020).  But without lifestyle and governance changes, we are likely to overharvest restored salmon populations in mixed stock fisheries.

Therefore,  I tentatively share a few reasons for optimism. My reasons are not original ideas, but they do represent difficult challenges that need to be broadly embraced. First, the tendency to go decades without obvious progress is one characteristic of “wicked problems.” Accepting reality is not a pessimistic response, rather it is expected for wicked problems. Informed experts seem to agree that wild salmon recovery, because of the evolving set of interconnected issues and constraints, should be addressed as a “wicked problem ” (Lachner et al 2006). I want to believe in the possibilities that persistent, passionate people when seeking to understand the complexities of peoples and places, can create a governance structure that recognizes and engages different peoples and places. We need a new policy landscape, so that scientific advances will not serve to  simply document why wild salmon remain a mere fraction of historical levels.

Second, scientists should gain some perspective and humility. As MacDonald et al. (2000) explained to salmon scientists,  “the ball is not in our court.” Scientists must get involved in policy deliberations, and play the appropriate role to provide facts, probabilities, and analysis, while avoiding normative science. As Lackey (2001) concludes, fisheries scientists must be “scrupulously realistic about the future.”  That realistic attitude recognizes that science is not the only way to view and learn about our world. Yeah, that statement activates my gag reflex too. 

Third, we need to improve communications among water users and develop collaborative approaches to cross-sectoral integration of development agendas because fisheries seldom exist in isolation from other human uses.  Wisdom of crowds is the idea that large groups of people are collectively smarter than individual experts when it comes to problem-solving, decision making, innovating and predicting. The wisdom of the crowd approach for fisheries management may draw upon the collective knowledge of resource stakeholders to overcome the challenges of fisheries management (Aminpour et al. 2020). Seeing how and why many experts and stakeholders disagree may give us reason to approach a future with eyes and minds wide open to learn. 

Fourth, the reality of accepting limits while understanding that others may interpret limits in different ways means we must treat salmon recovery as social problem. We should engage in the process of effectively dealing with the variety of beliefs and convictions.  Philosophical debates and clashes among many stakeholders must be part of the process of wild salmon recovery (Buchal 2006). In a pluralistic society, we will not be successful persuading others on fundamental questions of what is right? Rather we should begin a deliberative dialogue (Mathews 1998), and offer arguments that appeal to fundamental values of others, even while we don’t share them. What we’ve all learned in the last year about working remotely should serve us well in creating an online process to facilitate much-needed deliberative dialogue across many jurisdictions.  Lackey et al.(2006b), Healey (2009), Hand et al. (2018), and others recognized these needs for changes as they called for integration  of  harvest management, habitat management, and habitat enhancement by giving fishing and aboriginal communities greater responsibility and authority to manage the fisheries on which they depend. 

Fifth, our western colonial worldview does not accept the idea of limits. For over four centuries the western colonial worldview has maintained we humans have the right to take everything, or limited to a MSY based on false assumptions (Figure 2 - Ego). Appreciating the long dominance of this view helps all of us to understand why after only 50 years of shouting “there are limits to growth” we are not getting through in a way that leads to substantive change. The recent increased voice of white supremacists clearly reminded me that the fundamental idea that there are "no limits (on me)” is also a key tenant of white supremacy and colonization. 


Figure 2. Illustration of three different mindsets about the human relationship within the ecosystem. ‘Ego’ places humans at the apex, ‘eco’ places humans within the ecosystem, and ‘seva’ sees human role based on reciprocity, in service to others and nature.    from Brown (2021). source. 

The notion of two-eyed seeing, which works to engage traditional and local knowledge holders to manage and restore salmon fisheries, should provide direction.  Local and indigenous knowledge can complement western science approaches (Berkes 2017; Reid et al. 2021). Educational systems in North America provide more exposure to western writers and western ways of learning and ignore indigenous approaches to understanding.  For example, I often quote a western writer who wrote: “Who hears the fishes when they cry?” rather than a native American writer. Henry David Thoreau in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849) asserted that the physical and the spiritual in human life were inseparable. In one passage he described that  “In the waters of this town there are about a dozen distinct species, though the inexperienced would expect many more. It enhances our sense of the grand security and serenity of nature, to observe the still undisturbed economy and content of the fishes of this century, their happiness a regular fruit of the summer.”

The context of this famous quote (yes, famous for fishy folks) recognized the fish were admirable fellow creatures. “Away with the superficial and selfish phil-anthropy of men, — who knows what admirable virtue of fishes may be below low-water-mark, bearing up against a hard destiny, not admired by that fellow-creature who alone can appreciate it! Who hears the fishes when they cry? It will not be forgotten by some memory that we were contemporaries. Thou shalt erelong have thy way up the rivers, up all the rivers of the globe, if I am not mistaken.” I’m afraid no one does hear the salmon fishes when they cry. We may be too busy crying about lost human pleasures we derive from salmon, our contemporaries 



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AtKisson, A. 2010. Believing Cassandra: How to be an optimist in a pessimist’s world. Routledge, New York. 240 pp. 

Battle, L., H.Y. Chang, C.S. Tzeng, et al. 2020. Modeling the impact of dam removal on the Formosan landlocked salmon in the context of climate change. Aquatic Science 82:3

Bellmore, J.R., J. J. Duda, L.S. Craig, S.L. Greene, C.E. Torgersen, M.J. Collins, and K. Vittum. 2016. Status and trends of dam removal research in the United States. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Water DOI: 10.1002/wat2.1164

Berkes F. 2018. Sacred Ecology, 4th edition. Routledge. 394 pp.

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Cooper, E.J., A.P. O’Dowd, J.J. Graham, D.W. Mierau, W.J. Trush, and R. Taylor. 2020. Salmonid habitat and population capacity estimates for Steelhead Trout and Chinook Salmon upstream from Scott Dam in the Eel River, California. Northwest Science 94(1):70-96.  

Crozier, L.G., B.J. Burke, B.E. Chasco et al. 2021. Climate change threatens Chinook Salmon throughout their life cycle. Communications Biology 4:222

Fogarty, M.J. 2014. The art of ecosystem-based fishery management. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 71:479-490.

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Hand, B.K., C.G., Flint, C.A. Frissell, C.C. Muhlfeld et al. 2018. A social-ecological perspective for riverscape management in the Columbia River Basin. Frontiers in Ecology and Environment 16(S1):S23–S33.

Healey, M.C. 2009. Resilient salmon, resilient fisheries for British Columbia, Canada. Ecology and Society 14(1):2. Available from  Accessed March 25, 2021.

Kurlansky, M. 2020. Salmon: A Fish, the Earth, and the History of Their Common Fate. Patagonia. Ventura, California. 448 pp.

Lach, D.H., S.L. Duncan, and R.T. Lackey. 2006. Can we get there from here? Salmon in the 21st century. Pages  597-617 in Lackey, R.T., D.H. Lach, and S. L. Duncan, editors. Salmon 2100: The Future of Wild Pacific Salmon. American Fisheries Society, Bethesda, Maryland.

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Lackey, R.T. 2021. Defending Reality — Revisiting Two Decades Later

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Lackey, R.T., D.H. Lach, and S.L. Duncan. 2006b. Policy options to reverse the decline of wild Pacific Salmon. Fisheries 31(7):344-351. 

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Thursday, December 17, 2020

Fluvial Fishes Lab Year in Review, by Don Orth

Being alive in 2020 meant so many new experiences. The year 2020 was very likely the only year you will live through wherein the first two digits will match the second two digits.   But that is NOT what we will remember about 2020.  In my 2019 year in review I wrote about the nearly completed renovations of the lab.  See video and photo. That did not go as planned. By the time the lab was certified ready to occupy, I was sent home for teleworking as a nonessential employee.  I did manage to raffle off the Mexican Cowboy painting from the lab. But all supplies and equipment have been in storage since 2019. Authors of  the Field Guide to Freshwater Fishes of Virginia were presented with Distinguished Service Awards from the Virginia Chapter of the American Fisheries Society.  I received my first royalty check from sales of the Field Guide - and donated this to the Virginia Chapter which supported the work. Order yours now and it may be delivered in time for Christmas. Many planned events to promote the Field Guide were cancelled when COVID-19 began to spike. 

I will have many new memories of 2020.  

2020 was a year when “wear a mask” was a politically charged statement. 
Pandemic online teaching dominated.
How many times was I told "You are still muted." while in a zoom meeting?
Internet speed tests showed I’m not getting what I paid for 
"I can’t breathe.” — George Floyd, a plea to police officer, Minneapolis, May 25.
Watching recorded videos at 2X speed.  
Things I never thought I needed:
Subscription toilet paper
Liquor and wine delivery 
Noise-reducing microphone 
Teleworking as a nonessential worker
Unstable internet warnings
Zoom office hours
Virtual Happy Hours 
Netflix bingeing 
Mail-in ballots 
Amazon Prime becomes a good deal
Dog food deliveries 

After spring break, Ichthyology class was entirely online, so we invented virtual specimens, virtual labs, virtual field trips, and virtual lab practical exams. As I was rushed to master online teaching pedagogy, I reminded myself to stick with simple and reliable approaches rather than innovating without preparation. The Lab Notebook is one learning method that is well accepted, long standing, and low tech. Sketching what you observe and writing your observations in your own handwriting in your own words, is how we have always made sense of the world. It is an essential skill of all scientists. High tech tools, photography, CT scans, 3d models, and other visualization tools provide more information, but the Lab Notebook is what may be mastered in person and online. Each day’s observations were recorded, reviewed, corrected, and built upon. And when the education goes fully online, the student has the one constant, the Lab Notebook, to work with and share with others. When this pandemic is over and we return to field work, skills will transfer to the scientist's Field Notebook with observations, sketches, and data. We know that transcribing information has little benefit for learning. However, drawing has a strong influence on memory – even if the student has little artistic ability.  

Recalling his experience with Ichthyology, Sam Scudder was provided a wet, smelly fish in a tin pan by famous naturalist Louis Agassiz (1807-1873).  Take this fish," said Agassiz, "and look at it; we call it a haemulon; by and by I will ask what you have seen." Agassiz would then leave and return hours later. But Agassiz would say very little except “look at your fish!” Agassiz told Scudder “a pencil is one of the best of eyes. I am glad to notice, too, that you keep your specimen wet, and your bottle corked."   Rather than quit, Scudder would really concentrate and take his time in observing the fish. Because each stage of the process of looking at the fish forced him to concentrate and focus more. What Agassiz was seeking was creation of some orderly arrangement of many drawings and facts via observing the fish.  Just look at the fish! Or transfer these skills to other endeavors. Samuel Scudder went on to become a leader in the field of entomology and pioneered studies in insect paleontology. 

No field trip photo of Ichthyology students was possible in 2020. 

As all work became virtual, I reflected more on how we connect in meaningful ways in a virtual world? and How do we build trust in virtual worlds? As Yoda advises, “Do or do not. There is not try.”   Some thoughts were hastily summarized last summer, but my daily struggles continue to put these into practice.  I simplified my hasty thoughts into three essentials for successful conservation and successful online learning. These are (1) communications; (2) trust; and (3) shared understanding.  Each is more challenging to accomplish when students and others see me only as a talking head adjacent to the shared screen (below). 

Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, 
and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.” ~ Anais Nin

The message of The Lorax, Dr. Seuss (1971) is relevant today. 

In Fall semester, I taught the pilot version of Fish, Fishing, and Conservation, which is the only course about fish offered for non-majors. This course explores "Sensory perception, behavior, and consciousness in fish. Principles, as related to fish and why they matter, fish conservation ethics, food security, recreational fishing, and responsible fishing practices. Ethical reasoning applied to the contemporary issues of conservation and use of fish, such as subsistence fishing, fish farming, marine protected areas, highly migratory fishes, shark tourism, and ornamental fishes."  A syllabus may be reviewed by clicking here.  The course was taught online with synchronous class sessions. All the issues can be understood through a lens of ethical reasoning and planning via public trust principles (Hare and Bossey 2014). My attempt at organizing many seemingly disparate topics focused on encouraging deliberative dialogue. Deliberative dialogues build on the theory that democracy requires citizens to engage in ongoing deliberation on public matters.  Fish conservation and fishing conflicts provide many examples of wicked problems in which participants must learn how to reduce inherent tensions while engaged in problem solving.  Everyday people are part of the dialogues about fishing policy, so we all must be competent in developing and critiquing arguments and detecting logical fallacies and myths (Guişu and  Tindale 2018; Shiffman et al. 2020). We must be the ones who speak for the fishes.  No doubt, my biggest challenge in this first-time offering was my inability to read the faces of students. I could not longer stop and say "Archie [not his real name], you look confused. What questions do you have?" Instead, students were surprised and rattled when I said "Jenny [not her real name], unmute and tell us your thoughts on the chapter." It did not go as hoped, but that is okay. 

A 41-kg Blue Catfish captured from the Rappahannock River is among the trophy-sized catfish that make this and other rivers destination fisheries. Photo credit: Jason Emmel. This photo was published in the Orth et al. 2020 essay.

Fish and fishing have been represented in art for at least 14,000 years in cave paintings by Cro-Magnon people. The Greek God, Poseidon, was often depicted riding a creature that was half horse and half fish.  Ancient art may even serve fish conservation; see this unique article. One assignment in Fish, Fishing, and Conservation engaged students in understanding fish and fishing through existing works of art. At least six functions for art in society (Jackson 2012) have been proposed: 

Art for Delight 
Art as Commentary 
Art in Worship and Ritual
Art for Commemoration 
Art for Persuasion 
Art as Self-Expression

Students explored these functions via artistic depictions of fish near or in the water, at the market, or on the kitchen table, in addition to fishing from many areas (see Bluefin tuna fishing below). 

Bluefin tuna fishing in the Roman city of Baelo Claudia, 2nd century B.C., 
Artist Lineke Zubieta (Santander, Spain) 

New Publications  

Bourquin, R.M., D. J. Orth, E. M. Hallerman, and D. F. Stauffer. 2020. Are road crossing fragmenting populations of Clinch DaceNortheastern Naturalist 27(4):709-722.

Bourquin, R.M., E.M. Hallerman, M.J. Moore, and D.J. Orth. 2020. Conservation genetics of Clinch Dace Chrosomus sp. cf. saylori. Ichthyology and Herpetology (formerly Copeia) Accepted pending revision

Hilling, C.D., Y. Jiao, A.J. Bunch, R.S. Greenlee, J.D. Schmitt, and D.J. Orth. 2020. Long-term Declining growth trajectories of invasive Blue Catfish in four tidal tributaries of Chesapeake Bay. North American Journal of Fisheries Management  

Martin, Z.P., P.L. Angermeier, S. Ciparis, and D.J. Orth. 2020. Coal-mining intensity influences species and trait distributions of stream fishes in two Central Appalachian watershedsEcology of Freshwater Fish Early View

Orth, D.J., J.D. Schmidt, and C.D. Hilling. 2020. Hyperbole, simile, metaphor, invasivore: Messaging about the non-native Blue Catfish expansionFisheries 45(12): DOI:10.1002/fsh.10502

Schmitt, J.D., and D.J. Orth. 2020. Estimates of food consumption rates for invasive Blue Catfish Ictalurus furcatus. Transactions of the American Fisheries Society Accepted pending revision

New Grant Awards

Castello, Leandro, et al. National Science Foundation, Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems.  Understanding cross-scale institutional and ecological feedbacks on the sustainability of freshwater fisheries.  (2020-2025) 

The broader impacts portion of this grant will develop education modules to teach the multifaceted nature of fisheries as an integrated set of fish-environment-people-society interactions that can only be understood or managed through consideration of all their components.   Connections between students, academics, policy makers, and fisher communities will be facilitated through social media. 

Orth, D.J., and A.R. Walz.  Creation of Open Textbook: Fish, Fishing, and Conservation (2020-2022)

New Popular Articles

Orth, D.J. 2020. BOOK REVIEW: Grab Your Mask and Snorkel and Get Ready for a Wet and Wild Adventure. American Currents 45(3):4-5.

Orth, D.J. 2020. A fishy enigma named Pirate Perch. American Currents 45(2):8-10.

Orth, D.J. 2020. Who you callin’ “Chubby?” Chubsuckers are too cool to care. American Currents 45(1):28-31

The all-time most accessed blog post was once again "Mythology of the baby doll head," which you can read by clicking here

Motivated by the George Floyd murder and subsequent black lives matter protests, a coalition of alumni, current students, faculty, and related individuals developed a petition for changes desired in our college. This helped to showed solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and police brutality protests happening across the country.  This has been a long running issue that will not be solved anytime soon. In my day-one introduction to students, I shared my first experiences with riots -- the Chicago Freedom Movement march, August 5, 1966.  The movement inspired the Fair Housing Act of 1968. During this time of riots, Martin Luther King, Jr., said that "a riot is the language of the unheard." I think of that often when people ask "why are people rioting?" The petition started by our students, alumni, staff, and faculty did raise the level of dialogue in our College. That is a good thing.  We all have a need to feel heard.
Steve Gough, river  scientist, environmentalist, inventor and designer (1958-2020) R.I.P.

I was saddened by the death of Steve Gough, friend and fellow river scientist. Steve died on November 2nd, 2020.  Steve was a talented river scientist who did significant stream restoration work and invented the Emriver dynamic stream model and founded Little River Research and Design.  Steve recognized that static design drawings for stream restoration projects were entirely inadequate for planning and education.  Consequently, he invented much-needed dynamic stream models and educational videos. The Emriver model is used by students, scientists, and practitioners around the world for geomorphic simulation, research, and education. His legacy lives on in so many miles of stream values restored through reasonable cost designs and untold numbers of persons enlightened and empowered through his inventions and workshops.  Obituary link

"No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away." -- Terry Pratchett 

from Berkeley Breathed

In September 2020, I completed my 40th year at Virginia Tech. Over this time, the average age of faculty increased, and numbers of post-doctoral associates have skyrocketed the last 10 years (Damman et al. 2013; Ghaffarzadegan and Xu 2019; Larson et al. 2014). In 2021,  I will begin my retirement transition and work 50% time. Disengagement from work in academia is difficult (or so I've been warned) and the transition from work to retirement will likely be stranger than I anticipate.  I plan to begin with a few simple rules: no working on nights and weekends, no new grant writing binges, no new graduate students, and no "more study is needed" follow ups.  I will focus on writing and evaluating Fish, Fishing, and Conservation, an open education textbook, and I hope that my plans open a new fish faculty position soon.   

Rocking Chair on my front porch awaiting my transition.


Damman, M., K. Henkens, M. Kalmijn. 2013. Late-career work disengagement: The role of proximity to retirement and career experiences. Journal of Gerontology 68(3):455-463.

Ghaffarzadegan, N., and R. Xu. 2019. Late retirement, early careers, and the aging of U.S. science and engineering professors. PLoS ONE 13(12): e0208411.

Guişu, R.C., and C.W. Tindale. 2018. Logical fallacies and invasion biology. Biology & Philosophy 33: 34 

Hare, D., and B. Bossey. 2014. Principles of public trust thinking. Human Dimensions of Wildlife 19:397-406.

Jackson, C. E. 2012. Fish in Art. Reaction Books Ltd, London. 248 pp. 

Larson, R.C., N. Ghaffarzadegan, and Y. Xue. 2014. Too many PhD graduates or too few academic job openings: The basic reproductive number R0 in academia.  Systems Research and Behavioral Science 31(6):745-750.

Shiffman, D.S., S.J. Bittick, M.S. Cashion, S.R. Colla, L.E. Coristine, D.H. Derrick, E.A. Gow, C.C. Macdonald, M.M. O’Ferrall, M. Orobko, R.A. Pollom, J. Provencher, and N.K. Dulvy. 2020. Inaccurate and biased global media coverage underlies public misunderstanding of shark conservation threats and solutions. iScience 23: 101205 2020.101205 

Friday, July 3, 2020

Thoughts on Virtual Worlds of Teaching, by Don Orth

The coronavirus pandemic caused us fear and panic and made us reconsider how to do everything. Until we discover and deliver a vaccine, we will continue to work in new ways.  While we debate various approaches to re-open colleges, we need to acknowledge how pandemic teaching forced a long-overdue conversation that will affect us in the post-pandemic world.  Shelter-in-place orders in March 2020 meant students were sent home. All my lab and lectures were forced online without face-to-face learning experiences.  

The post-pandemic world will include more and more opportunities to explore virtual worlds that replace face-to-face interactions.  I ask that you consider perspectives that follow and reflect on two questions:  
How do we connect in meaningful ways in a virtual world? 
How do we build trust in virtual worlds? 

Students were afraid as they dealt with unstable internets, mid-semester changes, and cancelled work. I was fearful with the rapid transition to teaching in a format for which I had no training. Fear is our oldest survival mechanism. Deep in our brain lies the amygdala, or fish brain, which knows only stimulus-response, or flight or fight.  Fear forced rapid changes without much thought. Other parts of the brain will allow us to make it through months of distancing.  Our prefrontal cortex has had time to kick in and engage in creative thoughts and the cingulate cortex allows for empathy, impulse control, and emotion. During this time of adversity and distancing, we should practice using these brain functions

I often refer to Vygotsky's (1978) concept of zone of proximal development to guide my teaching -- maybe because I love saying Vygotsky out loud. The comfort zone is a low-risk zone where we use existing skills to reflect and make sense of things.  In the fear and panic mode, we become overwhelmingly uncomfortable and all our energy is used up coping with our anxiety.  In order to learn, our students have to leave their comfort zone and explore unknown skills and challenges in the Goldilocks zone. During the pandemic, instead of panicked responses, we should grow, show empathy, find ways to adapt, and build online relationships in a virtual world. As Yoda advises, “Do or do not. There is not try.”  

I imagined having students enter a virtual world such as Second Life®, a platform for game-based teaching. Many virtual worlds have been created to teach anatomy, education, nursing, psychology, and social work (Flink 2019). Anatomy students are not only able to view the content but also interact virtually with one another despite the real physical distance between them (Richardson 2011). Students create an avatar and this pseudoanonymity results in greater participation (Weicha et al. 2010).   
Virtual reality has a long way to go before it is common in higher education. Photo by Jonas Tana CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Second Life® is most suited for simulating expensive or potentially dangerous activities in a safe, accessible manner while helping inexperienced students overcome anxiety of making mistakes in real life groups. I imagined manipulating a 3d model of a Great White Shark, browsing the internal anatomy of fishes revealed by CT scans, and leading students on a tour of fisheries in countries with low management capacity.  In virtual worlds, student can make wrong decisions, cause a fishery crash, or misidentifying a fish and cause the explosion of an invasive species.   But there was no time to build a virtual world in Second Life overnight.    

Educators recognized early on that online teaching cannot be accomplished by simply uploading lectures to a website or presenting in a zoom meeting (Chumley-Jones et al. 2002).  Live teaching isn’t always the best teaching strategy.  According to Tanya Joosten, PhD, Director Digital Learning, University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, videoconferencing tools end up encouraging teacher-centered learning (Joosten 2015).  Social isolation also has an adverse impact on physical health (Miller 2020). While we are locked away in isolation, we must routinely communicate to our students that “I am thinking about you.”   Virginia Tech learned a difficult lesson in 2007 about privacy laws that enabled one troubled student to fall through the cracks of our mental health system (Roy 2010). While we are physically distancing ourselves from students, we must not become more socially distant. 

I speculate that many proposed principles of Pandemic Online Teaching may outlast the pandemic.   Consider the following traits for effective online teaching as you prepare for fall online teaching (Table 1).    

Table 1. Proposed requirements for effective online teaching. 

Learning focused
Equity & Empathy

Learning Focused—University are resources limited and tuition keeps rising. The coronavirus pandemic will surely have an effect on economic growth, and slower growth portends cuts as money flows away from higher education and toward public health and unemployment relief (Huelsman 2020).  During and after the pandemic, more of our teaching and other work will be conducted via virtual networks so we should learn lessons from decades devoted to online education.  

Learning should be an active process. Too often, students come to school to watch their teachers work.”  Willard R. Daggett, International Center for Leadership in Education

Transactional distance refers to the psychological and communications gap that arises from an interplay of structure and dialogue in online teaching (Delgaty 2018).   Online learning has less dialogue and more highly structured rules for student learning. Too much distance leads to feelings of isolation, reduced motivation, control, engagement and eventually attrition. Free online courses are started but the rate of attrition is very high.   We need to create explicit activities to build community in our online courses.  Communities of practice are groups of people who share a common interest, profession, or passion and actively engage (Wenger 1999).  Fortunately, I had been working for years to create a public Facebook group, Virginia Tech Ichthyology, that includes over 1,400 members.  Yet, the novice online student needs to spend time learning and trusting their learning partners in order to create a sense of belonging.

Mindful—In developing any community, it is important that we take time to establish norms for being present, mindful, and safe as we create a community for online teaching (Sochacki 2020).  Mindfulness is a prerequisite to learning and reduces anxiety (Miller 2020).  Mindfulness meditation targets a key brain region, that is the cingulate cortex (Brewer and Garrison 2014). But where does one learn and practice this? When students returned from an extended spring break, I offered a mindfulness exercise for them to do in private space. The research on mindfulness interventions is only now emerging (Tuckey et al. 2018) and we should demand our employers help us apply these techniques to enhance the well-being of our students. 
Someone should write a book on the use of memes in higher education
Passion— I struggle to find a higher amount of energy to demonstrate excitement and engagement in the online class as a model for my students. Teaching online requires that my asynchronous communications become more authentic and meaningful. I can find ways to celebrate the little wins and send a meme to a student for a job well done.  Are all students healthy and present?    In our post-pandemic world, we need training to help supervisors to create passion in teleworking employees via reoccurring cognitive and affective appraisal that result in consistent and constructive work (Egan et al. 2019). 

Trust—People will listen to some more than others. For example, a recent public service post was from Frank Beamer, former football coach of Virginia Tech. Why?  Individuals who have a high social media profile are influencers because of a long history of connecting with a broader audience— you too can be a nerd of trust (McClain 2017).  Trust requires relationships and multiple interactions where we share stories of our values (Fiske and Dupree 2014).  Trust is key to mutually beneficial teaching collaboration and develops over time and not overnight.
Coach Frank Beamer demonstrating how to cough into your elbow in a public service announcement. 
Messy—Learning is messy and science teaching, if we rely on scientific papers, mislead the novice students.  Medawar (1963) argued that the highly formalized structure gives only a sanitized version of how scientists come to a conclusion and that it leaves no room for authors to discuss the thought processes that led to the experiments. All hypotheses are tentative and acceptance of tests take repeated studies, argumentation, and time.  Employers demand that our students are effective in communicating with others with varying worldviews.  We need to teach argumentation skills for a participatory democracy in a realistic messy setting.  Open dialogue is critical for development of trust (Schaefer et al. 2018)  and critical thinking skills to avoid psychological manipulation via dastardly online misinformation (Wylie  2019).  

Open—Public dialogue is the essence of a deliberative democracy (Dryzek 2012). Our University’s motto is Ut Prosim, That I May Serve.  Students cannot serve without communicating with a broad audience.  To do that effectively, they need a voice that is trusted and understandable.  Attacks on science and scientists are more frequent and we must add our personal stories to the public dialogue (Hotez 2020).  Young scientists are eager to take on this challenge of improving science communication (Murchie and Diomede 2020).

The nature of information must also be open.  Virginia Tech has a great library and services for finding information hidden behind paywalls for most.  Open access is a powerful tool for reducing inequalities of educational opportunity and promoting innovative strategies to improve educational problems (Bliss and Smith 2017).  Similarly, open access should permit more equitable engagement of fisheries stakeholders. Therefore, I encourage you to share your papers and reports on ResearchGate or other sites. The How Can I Share It online tool will help you determine what type of sharing is legal based on journal requirements. If we create open access materials and license them with Creative Commons licensing, that allows others to use our old literature and more easily revise and build on it. 
Just because you have always taught it this way, does not mean you cannot learn other ways to teach. Photo by Sam Dean.
Equity and Empathy— My pivot to online teaching meant designing instruction for marginalized students first, the ones most likely to be struggling right now. With students working from home I see the inequities in internet reliability.  Our teaching must engage the quiet and marginalized as well as the confident and privileged. One of my colleagues received the following limerick from a student needing an extension on an assignment. 
            I meditate on my transgression
As non-trivial is managing my depression
I really am trying
But I feel like I'm dying
So please can I have an extension
And the student got the extension. Instructors learn about their students and develop connections via ice-breaker activities.  Students must develop empathy to connect with other students. Satisfaction in any group of collaborators depends on  equity and empathy are important for satisfaction (Strong et al. 2001). 

Memorable—Listening to stories activates all regions of the brain, thereby allowing the listener to experience what the storyteller felt, saw, and heard.   Think of your favorite books about fish.  Among my favorite pandemic readings are Vaquita by Brooke Bessesen, Reef Life by Callum Roberts, Salmon by Mark Kurlansky, Being Salmon, Being Human by Martin Lee Mueller, and Spillover by David Quammen.  Each book is written as a narrative that both challenges human exceptionalism while telling stories of humans saving species in order to save ourselves. The storytelling theory boils down to two sentences: A character (1) is in a zone of comfort, 2) but they want something. The character then (3) enters an unfamiliar situation, (4) adapts to it, (5) gets what s/he wanted, (6) pays a heavy price for it, (7) then returns to their familiar situation, (8) having changed.   We naturally gravitate to storytelling in our daily interactions (Moore and Orth 2018). The coronavirus pandemic reinforced my thinking that "Students need to become heroes of their own learning stories as well as of the stories they tell with their own lives" Ohler (2013, p.  9).   In a virtual world we can create online story circles and listen to each other share deep knowledge, emotions, and experiences in a story. 

Persistence— In psychology, persistence is a personality trait that refers to perseverance in the face of difficulties.   Like other temperament traits, persistence is highly heritable (Cloninger 2012) but also malleable if one is provided frequent and specific feedback.  Effective teaching in any new format requires persistence. Who is providing us frequent and specific feedback as we learn a new teaching strategy?

Integrative—The “Domain of One’s Own” (DOOO) is one of the most important and innovative initiatives in ed-tech today. DOOO is open learning, which emphasizes the importance of learner agency, learning in public, control over one’s digital identity, and web literacies.  It won’t happen without a concerted effort at community-building and capacity-building so that students have online instantaneous access to the assistance needed for creating and curating their digital identities. It won’t happen unless instructors  break away from whatever learning management system (LMS) the university has bought.  The LMS is a great tool for instructors who wish to follow the command, control, communication, and intelligence directives taken from the military.    If implemented well the Domain of One’s Own initiative may break down resistance to the silos of the traditional learning management system and of traditional academic disciplines (Watters 2014).     

We should explore the potential of virtual communities during online teaching so students learn to work at the interface between government and other organizations. Because the future will contain elements of the past — turbulence, uncertainty, novelty and ambiguity—we must consider new ways of coping.  “A shift toward remote working may be here to stay,” said Prithwiraj Choudhury, an associate professor at Harvard Business School (Gardner 2020).   

Fortunately, we have a sophisticated prefrontal cortex to help us think creatively and plan for the future. Next time we are faced with great uncertainty and anxiety, panic, and compulsive actions become automatic, we should pause for some awareness and mindfulness exercises to reduce our anxiety. Then we will engage our virtual networks and communities so we have the benefits of many brains and their cingulate cortex working to solve our collective problems.  

We are now teaching Generation Z, students who were the first to conduct childhood friendships on portable devices. They've mastered the art of achieving an entire conversation with images (emojis) and gifs. They are independent, pragmatic, stubborn and always in a rush (Mintz 2019). We don’t have to assume we must teach them with the methods of the past.  Generation Z will expect the experts to be online and sharing their toolboxes in order to solve problems in a timely manner.  The path forward for teaching in a pandemic is still uncertain  So I recommend that "you better think. Think about what you're tryin' to do to me." Perhaps you can develop a new community of practice. Employers will cheer you if you help students connect in an increasingly virtual world. 

 Generation Z reached adulthood in the second decade of the 21st century and are perceived as being familiar with the Internet from a very young age.  Photo CC 1.0

 Bliss, T. J., and M. Smith. 2017. A brief history of open educational resources. Pages 9-27 in   R.S. Jhangiani and R. Biswas-Diener, editors.  Open: The Philosophy and Practices that are Revolutionizing Education and Science. London: Ubiquity Press. DOI: License: CC-BY 4.0
Brewer, J.A. and K.A. Garrison 2014. The posterior cingulate cortex as a plausible mechanistic target of meditation: findings from neuroimaging. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1307:19-27.  doi: 10.1111/nyas.12246  
Chumley-Jones HS, Dobbie A, Alford CL. 2002.Web-based learning: Sound educational method or hype? A review of the evaluation literature. Academic Medicine 77(10):s86-s93.
Cloninger, C.R., A.H. Zohar, S. Hirschmann, and D. Dahan. 2012. The psychological costs and benefits of being highly persistent: personality profiles distinguish mood disorders from anxiety disorders. Journal of Affective Disorders136(3):758-766.
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Dryzek, J.S. 2012. Foundations and Frontiers of Deliberative Governance. Oxford University Press, Oxford. 256 pp. 
Egan, R., D. Zigarmi, and A. Richardson. 2019. Leadership behavior: A partial test of the employee work passion model. Human Resource Development Quarterly 30(3):311-341. 
Fiske, S. T., and C. Dupree. 2014. Gaining trust as well as respect in communicating to motivated audiences about science topics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 111:13593–13597.
Flink, P. 2019. Second Life and virtual learning: an educational alterative for neurodiverse students in college. College Student Journal 53(1):33-41.
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Hotez, P.J. 2020. Combating antiscience: Are we preparing for the 2020s? PLoS Biology 18(3): e3000683.
Huelsman, M. 2020. Coronavirus could cause a long-term higher ed crisis.  Inside Higher Ed March 12 2020.
Joosten, T. 2015. Thinking systematically: a study of course communication and social processes in face-to-face and online courses.  (Doctoral dissertation). The University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee.
McClain, C.R. 2017. Practices and promises of Facebook for science outreach: Becoming a “Nerd of Trust”. PLoS Biology 15(6): e2002020
Medawar, P. 1963. Is the scientific paper a fraud? Listener 70:377–378.
Miller, K.E. 2020. Let’s aim for physical rather than social distancing. Psychology Today. March 18 2020
Mintz, S. 2019. Are colleges ready for Generation Z? Inside Higher Ed. March 18, 2019. Accessed on April 6, 2020 at
Moore, M.J. and D.J. Orth. 2018. Stories worth sharing.  Fisheries 43(12):575-576.
Murchie, K.J., and D. Diomede. 2020. Fundamentals of graphic design – essential tools for effective visual science communication.  FACETS 5:409-422. 
Ohler, J. 2013. Digital storytelling in the classroom: new media pathways to literacy, learning, and creativity, 2nd Edition.  Corwin. 304 pp.
Orth, D.J. 2018. Social media may empower fisheries students via learning networks. Fisheries 43(3):130-138.
Richardson, A., M. Hazzard, S.D. Challman, A.M. Morgenstein, and J.K. Brueckner. 2011. A “Second Life” for Gross Anatomy: Applications for multiuser virtual environments in teaching. Anatomical Sciences Education   4:39-43.   
Roy, L. 2010. No right to remain silent. Broadway Books, New York. 336 pp. 
Sochacki, J. 2020. A checklist for building community in the college classroom. Faculty Focus online on March 23, 2020. Accessed at March 11, 2020. 
Strong, K.C., R.C. Ringer, and S.A. Taylor. 2001. THE* rules of stakeholder satisfaction (* Timeliness, Honesty, Empathy). Journal of Business Ethics 32:219-230. 
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