Saturday, August 25, 2012

Countdown To CAOmageddon: Flaw #22 - Risk for Dummies

This post kicks off a "series within a series" where the Trojan Heron will talk about ecological risk, since no one with any position of authority (including Ecology) seems to have a clue about the fundamentals of risk. Why is that important? Because reducing ecological risk is the way we protect the environment. We can't protect critical areas if we have no understanding of how risk works.

Part of the deception game around here is to use the word "risk" when actually talking about something else. It's called equivocation when a word undergoes a semantic shift such that its usage differs from its customary meaning. For example, do "women" have to worry about "man-eating" sharks? In that question, the phrase "man-eating" implies male members of the species Homo sapiens when customary usage of the phase "man-eating" implies the entire species Homo sapiens.

In the same way, "risk" is almost never used properly in the CAO debate. Most often, it has been used as a synonym for "uncertainty," "level of concern," or "error." None of those are "risk." Let me tell you about the customary scientific meaning of risk, and coming posts will delve into this some more.

Simply put, "risk" arises from the following situation:
  1. Receptors (e.g., salmon)
  2. Stressors (e.g., insecticide)
  3. A pathway between stressor and receptor (e.g., runoff)
  4. An effect/stress transmitted along the pathway (e.g., a concentration of insecticide in runoff that reaches the salmon in a sufficient dose to have a deleterious effect).
Risk is the quantifiable measurement of the effect of the stressor on the receptor population, such as a "1 in a million additional death rate" in a target population, and risk-based strategies can be employed in many types of situations. However, no matter how you may use risk, if you remove any one of the four elements above, there is no risk. No receptor, no risk. No stressor, no risk. No complete or potentially complete pathway, no risk. No transmitted effect, no risk.

A key point is that "risk" concerns itself with linkages/pathways. It's not just about mapping receptors (e.g., mapping all near-shore salmon locations). It's not about just mapping stressors (e.g., types of chemicals or types of development). It's about conceptualizing linkages between stressors and receptors and then quantifying the effect, if any. If there is an effect, the challenge then becomes identifying safe levels of effects and instituting mitigations (protective measures) to ensure that stress never goes above safe levels. And by the way, "safe" doesn't mean "none." It's not necessary to ban activities to achieve "safe." Read the Ruckelshaus speech where he says,
I suppose that the ultimate goal of this effort is to get Americans to understand the difference between a safe world and a zero-risk world.
During the CAO process, we've seen all sorts of maps. We've seen maps of habitat, wetlands, streams, and locations of fish. But we've seen no reasonable attempt to link receptors to potential stressors located here, and we've seen no reasonable effort to examine whether our activities add to or subtract from the baseline ecological risk that exists in the general environment.

That last point is also key, and I find it particularly relevant to frequent references to the endangered status of various species of salmon that visit our shores.  When a species is listed as endangered, especially if it is a widespread migratory species like salmon, that suggests that there is high ecological baseline risk for the population viability of that species in the general environment (otherwise why is it endangered?). We have to ask ourselves whether we are net contributors to that high baseline ecological risk or net subtractors. Are we causing stress above baseline or are we mitigating the baseline risk? From all the evidence presented, the San Juan Islands appear to be mitigating the high baseline ecological risk for salmon. We are a refuge for them, not a stressor.

In that case, the development policies of our islands could reasonably be concluded to be "safe." However, if you listen to some people, they want the mere presence of salmon here to lead to greater development restrictions because they think salmon abundance makes the situation "risky" or "critical" here. No, they've got it backwards. When people say such things, even if they may use the word "risk," they are not thinking in risk-based terms. The salmon are here in relative abundance because our ecosystem situation is less risky for them.

More to come about risk ...


  1. Excellent analysis, so far. The remarkable talk by David Hyde via CSA can only be a eye opener for the back side of the County Dias. We are but a drip of water in the stream rushing from Canada and up welling from the great Pacific. We are nothing! But we can work on the minor impact we do have.

    Let us do that, by ourselves! No high priced consultants, no invasion by the DOE, no taking of private land with the huge burden of lawsuits... right Randy?... via useless it two drips of water or only one?

    Who decides cannot be the group we now have "working for us" can it?

    We are truly in a "anything but these guys situation."

  2. I think Patty Miller said it best when she asked the Charter Review Commission to consider what the problem was that they were trying to solve before making recommendations for improvements. If there isn’t a problem, there is no need for a solution. Well, folks, we have problems – both in the Charter and in administration of the County and its policies. Particularly in light of David Hyde’s expert examination of our waters, in which the science shows THERE ARE NO PROBLEMS!! Our waters are pristine! We don’t need to update the CAO or the SMP. We should follow the Town’s approach (and Patty’s advice). After all, if the DOE signed off on the Town’s declaration that they reviewed the current regulations and found they didn’t need revision, why wouldn’t the DOE issue the same ruling for the County? The town has the densest population and the highest impact on the waters of the entire county, therefore it would make sense that if there were a need for mitigation it would reside there. But then we wouldn’t need to staff Shireene Hale or other planners and could lose cherished grant funding for other positions and interest groups. Pitty. Yes, poor, poor, pitiful SJC – what will become of us?

  3. "We can't protect critical areas if we have no understanding of how risk works." And we cannot protect critical areas if we don't know WHERE they are and what species are there and what functions and values are affected. So, basically, we know nothing much after 6 years and hundreds of thousands of dollars. Knowing nothing, there's little hope that we can do anything that makes sense. Someone should get fired. Let's see--Ms. Hale? Or her handlers? Will the Charter go down in flames because of this fiasco? Great work all 'round. Best argument for anarchy I've seen in a long time.

  4. concerning Salmon, consider a trip to the rivers where you can personally watch the modern jet boat driftnetting, and beating of the waters to stress the salmon into the netted areas. Amazing and questionable as to Sustainability.
    I have never seen a question by all of the many conservation organizations as to these practices and the influence or lack thereof on any reduction in Salmon, and the seal protection the huge salmon appetite of the seals which population has vastly increased.

  5. "Their" conceptual model of risk has failed to account for all stressors that affect receptors via a complete or potentially complete pathway. I'd say driftnetting is a pretty definite pathway for conveying stress to a salmon (receptor), wouldn't you? But instead we hear "them" rail against sub-microconcentrations of surfactants or pyrethrins and hypothesize that these chemicals reach salmon at undiluted concentrations that result in widespread unattenuated toxic effects, which is about as likely as pea being able to smash a bowling ball.