How to Hold a Musky (and other info)

Friday, March 03, 2006

Weird Science: The Short Life and Strange Times of the Chippewa Flowage Musky Study

By Rob Kimm

The validity of the Chippewa Flowage Musky Study has been a topic of considerable debate among muskie anglers over the course of the past several months. Since the initial publication of the study’s findings, serious allegations regarding the potential misrepresentation of data have surfaced, and the ensuing controversy was, and is, a heated one. Esox Angler first became aware of questions about the study’s findings in December of 2000. As the controversy over the study developed, it quickly became evident that much of what had been said and written about the CFMS in its original form was at best incomplete and contradictory, and at worst, outright fiction. In the intervening months, local politics, seemingly contradictory claims as to where the ‘real’ study data resided, and no small share of personal animosity has only clouded an already murky issue. In the end, any conclusions about the CFMS which can be drawn with any certainty are decidedly limited and unsatisfactory. All we seem to be left with are a multitude of contradictory claims and unanswered questions.

In the first half of this two-part Real Deal column, Esox Angler Associate Editor Rob Kimm considers the consequences of careless science, and in part 2, guest columnist Steve Worrall attempts to assemble, as much as possible, the chain of events that has led to the CFMS controversy.

On March 23, 1989, University of Utah physicists Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann announced to an awestruck media their discovery of cold fusion, a heatless and virtually wasteless energy source which they touted as the solution to future energy needs.

While popular media and the public fawned over the discovery, the scientific community looked askance, skeptical of Pons and Fleischmann’s purported results, and incredulous at the manner in which they announced their discovery. Rather than subject their findings to the rigors of peer review, Pons and Fleischmann had stepped to the microphone, and basked in the glow of media attention. In the lab, attempts to verify their findings met with failure after failure. Within months, the hype and hail had evaporated into accusations of fudged research and circumvention of the establishment of peer review for personal gain. A little more than ten years later, ‘cold fusion’ is synonymous with ‘hoax,’ and the rise and fall if its discoverers has become the stuff of legend-a Brothers Grimm tale about the dangers of careless science.

Over the course of the past four years, this Grimm’s tale has been replayed with a new cast of characters-physicists and university presidents replaced by anglers, guides and tribal officials-as the Chippewa Flowage Musky Study followed the steady course of gravity’s rainbow. Ambitious beginnings and broad goals rose to initial results portrayed as ‘ground-breaking’ and ‘stunning,’ then just as suddenly tumbled free-fall into a morass of uncertainty, accusation and contradiction.

At its inception, the Chippewa Flowage Musky Study (CFMS) was billed by its authors as a project of immense scope, a true "angler’s study," setting out to answer persistent questions about muskie behavior and the nature of the muskie population on one of the nation’s most famed muskie waters. Data collected by the study would be made available to any interested party, and all muskie anglers would benefit from its findings.

The goals of the study were undoubtedly ambitious, and initial results were promising. From the outset, the study effort received widespread support from the angling community. Such enthusiasm is understandable. The desire to solve even small portions of the riddle that is muskie behavior is a fundamental part of the sport itself. When initial results of the study were published in 1998, it was met with widespread interest by the angling public. The CFMS, so the story went, was at last dispelling some of the longest-held beliefs about muskie behavior, and finally proving theories on muskies and their reactions to capture and fishing pressure first put forward more than a decade before.

As interest grew among the angling public though, fisheries biologists from various agencies, originally portrayed as active participants, began gradually distancing themselves from the project. What had been an "angler’s study" in its objectives was becoming an angler’s study in its administration as well. Parallel to this withdrawal came rifts between study administrators, study participants, and the La Court Oreilles band, the organization providing not only the day to day labor involved (tracking of tagged fish) but also the primary funding for the entire effort. In the end, the rift between muskie anglers and the LCO band may be the unfortunate lasting legacy of the CFMS.

Like Pons and Fleischmann’s discovery of cold fusion, the results of the CFMS soon began to show the strain of close scrutiny. Published results of the study had been given slight regard by fisheries biologists and researchers from the outset, and when tracking sheets provided to former study participant Ty Sennett by the study authors was examined and found to be contradictory to published results, the study-not only its findings but its objectives and administration-came into open question by the public at large.

What had begun as an ambitious and admirable effort to gain a better understanding of muskie behavior, and perhaps more importantly what had begun as an opportunity for cooperation between the LCO band and muskie anglers, soon devolved into a Byzantine quagmire of character assaults, threats of legal action by study authors John Dettloff and Scott Allen against Ty Sennett and others (including this author) known or believed to be actively investigating the study’s findings and frantic explaining away of apparent inconsistencies in the study’s findings. Elaborate stories surfaced claiming falsification of tracking data, variously attributed to Sennett, the study’s authors, the trackers employed by the LCO band, and the LCO band itself. By the time a comparison of previously-published study results and independently-examined tracking sheets was published on the Muskie Central website by Muskie Central editors Steve Worrall and Jason Smith, the results of the CFMS has gone from groundbreaking discovery to full-blown controversy.

The chain of events that brought the CFMS from its ambitious beginning to its inglorious current state is enormously complex, and after months of wrangling, there are far more questions than answers. So clouded has the issue become that whether or not data of any validity at all can be salvaged from the study is in itself an open question.

As a scientific study, the CFMS was predicated on suppositions about muskie behavior regarded by the fisheries science community as nearly impossible to prove even with decades’ worth of data, plagued from the beginning by the absence of qualified researchers to administer the study and analyze its results, and ultimately rushed to the public without peer review by the scientific community. As a source of valid scientific data, the CFMS, at least the first year’s results, (year two of the study, which focused on mortality rates of single-hook sucker rig caught muskies, may yet yield usable data) is a near total loss. Rod Ramsell, Fisheries Specialist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, had the following comment on the CFMS: "While it is not my place to question or comment on projects in other states (unless asked for input by that state’s fisheries professionals), I will say that based on what I've read from various sources about the CFMS, I would be ashamed to have my name and reputation associated with as poorly designed and implemented project such as this in waters I am professionally obligated to study and manage."

It is an inglorious and unsatisfactory conclusion to what began as one of the most comprehensive studies of muskie behavior and population dynamics ever proposed.
So what can be learned from the wreckage of the CFMS?

For anglers searching for insights into the behavior of the fish we pursue, the CFMS is a reminder to beware of pat answers, and consider carefully the sources of absolute truths about fish behavior. Careless science is easy, and it is comfortable. The results of poorly designed research and hastily drawn conclusions are easily swallowed and digested by an angling public eager for a better understanding of the creatures we so passionately pursue. To be viewed as credible research, studies which appear on the surface as simple and straight-forward are in their administration, data collection, and analysis, enormously complex affairs, subjected to multiple layers of peer review and scrutiny before even their first publication, let alone their acceptance as fact in the eyes of fisheries professionals. In projects of large scope, studies may run for decades before conclusions can be reached with any degree of certainty.

The final, and perhaps most important lesson to be gathered from the aftermath of the CFMS is to beware of opportunities lost. In the swirl of accusations and rancor that surrounded the CFMS, perhaps the greatest loss to the muskie angling community was not a final answer to whether or not muskies fear an electric trolling motor, but the loss of the opportunity for cooperation between anglers and groups like the La Court Oreilles band. In the CFMS, muskie anglers and the members of the LCO band-two groups historically at odds-had a rare and promising chance to cooperate on a project to study a resource they are bound to share in common. It was an opportunity not likely to be regained.

Instead of the fulfillment of that promising opportunity, we have been left with a second discovery of cold fusion.