Campus: Humboldt State University -- October 6, 1999

Hankin's Clearer View Into Troubled Waters Of Salmon, Crabs

With biology, statistics, sampling, Humboldt's Scholar of the Year hooks into policy

"Hooked on fish" is how David G. Hankin describes his lifelong love affair with the creatures now swimming in troubled waters throughout the Pacific Northwest.

For more than two decades, the Humboldt State University fishery biologist has used his analytical skills and innovative sampling techniques to paint a truer picture of the condition of salmon and crab populations.

With its sophisticated statistical methods, Hankin's research has been translated into important practical applications. For example, it has helped assess how crabs are harvested in California and Oregon. It has also created a new, more accurate way, now used nationwide, to estimate in-stream populations of juvenile salmon and trout.

In recognition of the impact and sustained quality of Professor Hankin's studies, Humboldt State is honoring him as the university's Scholar of the Year for 1999.

Hankin characterized his work in a recent public lecture, "From 'Vital Statistics' to 'Sperm Plugs': 20 Years of Biological Research on Female Dungeness Crabs." The title reflects the biologist's wry humor, referring to remarks by a U.S. congressman who who 20 years ago derided a federally supported research project on the "vital statistics" of crustaceans.

In the years since, Hankin and his graduate students have shown just how vital some statistics can be, providing clear evidence that the mating success of female crabs has remained unaffected by the intense harvest of males annually off the northern California coast. Their research debunked an earlier contention, based on faulty projections, that crab stocks were crashing because of overfishing

A self-described "faculty brat," Hankin grew up all around the eastern U.S. while his father taught Russian at several prestigious universities. Although he says he was most skilled at music--playing a variety of instruments from guitar to bassoon--Hankin's academic career was determined early in life. "My mom gave me my first zebrafish when I was six," he says, "and that was that."

After earning a bachelor's degree at Reed College in Portland, Ore., "where I was the only person working on fish," Hankin received his doctorate at Cornell University in fishery science. His minors in both public policy and biometrics--essentially statistics from a biological point of view--set the tone for his prolific research efforts.

He arrived in Arcata in 1976, in the midst of a chronic housing shortage. With two dogs, he couldn't find a place to rent and was forced to take up residence in a tent at Patrick's Point State Park. "For the first six weeks, I prepared my lecture notes by candlelight and would wake up to find them all rumpled from the moisture of coastal fog," he recalls.

By applying such statistical sampling techniques as randomization, and by securing various research grants, Hankin began clarifying the status of California and Oregon fish stocks from a wider geographical perspective.

With a colleague, G.H. Reeves, he began in the mid-1980s to develop designs for estimating fish abundance--or, more recently, lack of abundance--in small streams. These methods relied essentially on snorkelers' direct visual observations in various habitat types, an approach so successful that it has been adopted throughout the Pacific Northwest and the southeast U.S.

A testament to how Hankin's work has set the standard came at this summer's meeting of the Western Division of the American Fisheries Society, where a special symposium on basin-wide inventories was entitled "Beyond Hankin and Reeves: Issues of Sampling and Scale."

Further evidence of the utility of his groundbreaking research lies in the number and diversity of ways they are applied. The Hoopa Valley tribe has employed his methods to discriminate between wild and hatchery fish on the Klamath River, and his sampling ideas are being considered for Sacramento River hatcheries, too. The Pacific Fishery Management Council is using his research as the basis for managing Klamath chinook salmon, and Hankin has developed survey designs to assess the recovery of fish populations following a toxic chemical spill that killed all stream life in the upper Sacramento River in 1991. His research on crabs, sponsored by the California Sea Grant College Program, has led to changes in female harvest regulations.

Hankin is motivated by a sense that the "consumption mindset is destroying our priceless fishery resources." He worries that his children--Charlie, 9, and Dorae, 6--will only be able to fish these waterways via virtual reality by the time they're his age. That's why Hankin rarely catches fish to eat anymore--except when he's in Alaska. He insists that Alaskan spring chinook salmon from the Copper River, marinated and barbecued, makes the best meal.

"It's all about contextual ethics: It was ethical for your grandfather to catch many salmon because there were so many, but it's not ethical now." He adds that if he were a college student today, he would study population control because it underlies so many environmental problems.

Although he says he's learning patience about convincing policymakers to advocate sustainable resource use, he considers the recent maneuvers designed to prevent transfer of water back to rivers such as the Trinity and Eel "absolutely outrageous."

"In the long run, no amount of freshwater habitat improvement will help if insufficient water gets down our important rivers," he says.

As comfortable in waders as in the proverbial ivory tower, Hankin believes that "science should influence policy" and that his sampling theories have huge potential applications, including helping regulators to determine when imperiled species such as coho salmon have returned to levels of sufficient abundance to be judged recovered.

"We need to get away from the notion that development is virtuous in itself," he says. "Otherwise, there is little hope for the salmon that we all love."

Supporting his selection as Humboldt's Scholar of the Year, Hankin's colleagues around the country describe him as a "consummate scientist" who seems always to ask the right questions and whose publications "are destined to become classics within their field because of his innovative thinking and use of novel analytical techniques." But, like a salmon bypassing a lure, the fishery biologist shrugs off such praise. Instead, he prefers to single out his exceptional students, many of whom will be featured in an upcoming talk.

"Fisheries majors are the most loyal group, with the most stable enrollment in natural resources programs at HSU," he says. There's a good reason that many of them end up in important positions of leadership and scholarship, shaping policy and advancing our knowledge.

"They just love fish." And, apparently like their mentor, they love to learn.

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