Scales of Reference – bioGraphic

Then in 1995, a DFO fisheries biologist named Skip McKinnell was trying to compare the condition of sockeye past and present. (Heavier fish, measured as a ratio of weight to length, are considered healthier.) He was using historical averages for his calculations—but, he says, “I’m a data guy,” so he set out in search of the original numbers.

McKinnell had always been intrigued by fisheries of the past. “I used to go into the library at lunchtime and pick out the dustiest book in the stacks,” he says, “to read about what scientists were writing and thinking about a century ago.”

Through that research, McKinnell learned that provincial fisheries officials had hired Charles Henry Gilbert, the Stanford ichthyologist, to conduct a sockeye study that included the data in the Port Essington notebooks. Suspecting that Gilbert—who died in 1928—had taken the notebooks to California, McKinnell began searching, calling Stanford’s archives, federal records centers in Seattle and Anchorage, the Smithsonian Institution, and visiting other government and university archives—all to no avail.

Nearly a year later, McKinnell attended a meeting at the Pacific Salmon Commission’s Vancouver headquarters. He mentioned, in passing, his nerdy and fruitless search for Gilbert’s notebooks, and a fellow ichthyologist told him they were down the hall in a storeroom. “It was like finding treasure,” McKinnell says—boxes and boxes of yellowed books containing the measurements of hundreds of thousands of sockeye from four British Columbian rivers between 1912 and 1946—some 90,000 fish per river. And affixed next to those measurements were the scale samples that Gibson and other fisheries overseers had collected nearly a century earlier. “In my wildest dreams I didn’t imagine that the original scales would be there, too,” McKinnell says.

McKinnell spent some time examining the measurement data, but he lacked the funding and time to dig more deeply, so he set the notebooks aside. They sat in storage for another decade—until, in 2012, Price heard about the notebooks while chatting with fellow salmon biologists. The scale samples affixed to the books could, he realized, open a remarkable window into the past. “Each of these scales provides a snapshot of [a salmon’s] life story,” Price says.

McKinnell, says Price, had found “the holy grail of salmon data,” And Price, who was just starting his doctoral research, had the skills, funding, and opportunity to study it.

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