Lesson Plan - Difficult decisions: The sakinaw sockeye case study

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Prescribed learning outcomes and curriculum organizers

Science 8

Life science (diversity)

  • compare and contrast how organisms have adapted to the conditions in their biome and how these organisms interact with each other

Life science (social issues)

  • assess different impacts of using renewable and non-renewable natural resources
  • relate the extraction and harvest of earth's resources to sustainability and reduction of waste

Life science (global ecosystems)

  • evaluate how major natural events and human activity can affect local and global environments and climate change

Support may be available

Contact your local Stream to Sea Education Coordinator or Community Advisor or phone 604-666-6614 to find out if an Education Coordinator in your area assists with this activity.

An exercise in consensus decision-making through role playing that enables students to devise a solution for managing dwindling Sakinaw sockeye salmon stocks.

Lesson overview

Overview of activity

This lesson plan over two classes introduces students to decision-making on an individual and group level. Then, students will use their critical thinking in a role playing exercise by considering the different perspectives of various interest groups. Students, in their character roles, will try come to consensus on how to deal with the dwindling Sakinaw sockeye species while best meeting the needs of all the stakeholder groups represented.

Estimate of time required

Other required material:

Fish-shaped crackers; one bowl for each 4 students; 1 cup per student.

Suggested assessment activities

Discussion questions may be used as an assessment tool; an answer key is provided.

Recommended additional resources and optional enrichment activities

(E.g. Web-sites, Teaching Guides, Student Reading, Videos/Audio-tapes, Posters and Brochures, Field Trips)

Activity description

This is a two-part lesson. In the first hour, the lesson first introduces two decision-making activities. Then, based on their background reading, students take on roles of different community members and prepare to present their opinion according to the group they represent. In the second hour, students learn through role-playing the value of cooperative decision-making and the human role in sustaining natural populations.


Teacher: Review the Activity Description, The Species at Risk Act, and the Student Questions and Answer Key.

Students: During class time or as homework, students should read The Species at Risk Act in preparation for the final activity of Part One.

Part 1

Materials required

Fish crackers, bowls, cups, one Role Introduction page per student

1. Decision-making processes

(modified from Table Talk (DFO), page 828).

Many decision-making activities involve ranking items from a list based on personal experiences, values, commonsense and knowledge. The following ranking activities will allow students to discover decision-making processes, and will point out the differences and similarities between individual and shared decision-making in small and large groups.

2. Cooperative fishing and the tragedy of the commons

Using fish-shaped crackers, conduct the Cooperative Fishing and the Tragedy of the Commons activity (appended below). This activity will point out benefits of cooperative decision-making, the concept of sustainability, and resource overuse problems. During this activity, students are given the challenge of cooperating with their group to ensure they get the most "fish" in their cup. By trial and error, then by working cooperatively and strategizing, they will strive to get the most fish.

3. Role-playing

  1. Assign each student the role of a person from a group that has an interest in the Sakinaw sockeye or its habitat: commercial fishers, recreational fishers, shoreline land owners, government representatives, conservationists, local business owners, etc.
  2. Provide each student the Role Introduction page of the handout to complete describing their assumed role/character. The completion of this handout is in preparation for Part Two (below).

Cooperative fishing and the tragedy of the commons

Copyright © 2005 Jeff Fletcher (UBC Let's Talk Science Partnership Program) 

Learning objectives

Familiarity with concepts of the tragedy of the commons, free-rider problem, role of government and social rules in protecting the common good, sustainability, over-fishing and other resource overuse problems.


One bowl for each 4 students and one cup for each student.

Box of fish crackers.

How to perform the experiment

First explain that there are 8 fish in each bowl and there will be two turns per round and several rounds per game. For each turn, each student can remove one fish or zero fish and put it in their cup. Once fish are taken from the bowl they cannot be put back. Explain that after the two turns, you will double the fish in the bowl and then there will be more turns where they can withdraw a fish, etc. Explain also that the object is to get the most fish in your cup and that at the end of the game only fish in your cup count. Explain that no fish are to be eaten during the game.

For the first game I tell them there is to be no talking or other communication. At least some groups will deplete all their fish after the first round, but go ahead and play three rounds - they are just out of luck, but it is still good to emphasize the long term consequences of their "overfishing". They may try to put fish back in the bowl, but explain that the fish are already dead and therefore can't reproduce to make more fish.

For the second game, I tell them they can talk for 30 seconds and then we will play another game in silence. Usually results improve somewhat. For the third game I tell them that they can create rules among themselves about how to play the game (but that the rules of the overall game cannot be changed). To enact the rules a majority must agree and then all must follow the rules.

Explanation of what's happening:

This is an example of a tragedy of the commons where doing what is best individually does not lead to the best result in the long run. Optimally, students will remove one fish per round (forgo one of their two turns) and then each round their fish are replenished. But if everybody else follows this strategy, it still pays an individual not to. If 3 players take 1 and one player takes 2, then there are 3 left and they double to 6. Then if all take one, the "defecting" player ends up with 3 total compared to 2 total for the "co-operators". If the students know how many rounds will be played, then it makes sense to take all the fish on the last round, so leave the number of rounds ambiguous.

References (if applicable):

There are similar exercises I saw on the web. Search: "Tragedy of the commons" "fish crackers.

Part 2

Materials required

One The Species at Risk Act document and Decision-Making Chart per student, Student Questions and Answer Key, colour pens optional.

1. With the teacher, have students read over the pages titled The Species at Risk Act and Sakinaw Lake Sockeye Backgrounder. Have students review the map of the Sakinaw Watershed (since the map will print in black and white, it may help to have students find the lake, its various inlets and outlet and highlight them in colour).

2. Provide students the Decision-Making Chart page. Using the roles that they developed for themselves in the last part of the lesson( Role Introduction), have them individually fill out each section with their ideas around making decisions for the management of the Sakinaw sockeye species.

3. Using the Role Introduction and Decision-Making Chart pages, have students present or discuss their character's individual views about the the management options for Sakinaw sockeye (within the context of their interest group (i.e., land owners, business people, etc.).

4. Lead a discussion based on the Student Questions and Answer Key.

5. Students will now use the decision-making and collaboration skills they learned from the last part of the lesson. Have students (in their character's roles) try to come to a group consensus on how to deal with the dwindling Sakinaw sockeye population. Ensure the interest groups the students represent speculate on the effect that local water concerns, development, and pollution will have given current population growth rates.


Student handout

The Species at Risk Act (SARA): Working together to protect aquatic species

The Species at Risk Act (SARA) was created to protect wildlife species from becoming extinct in two ways:

The Act became law in June 2003. It includes prohibitions against killing, harming, harassing, capturing or taking species at risk.

A collaborative effort

Three government departments are directly involved in protecting species at risk: Environment Canada, Parks Canada, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Fisheries and Oceans is responsible for all aquatic species, freshwater and saltwater alike. 

From the beginning, it was recognized that no single government, industry or community could protect Canadian species at risk on its own. Governments and stakeholder groups across Canada must all work together. In fact, SARA was designed to encourage such cooperation. 

The good news is that everyone can help in some way: by knowing the species at risk and understanding why they're threatened (for example), or by taking steps to care for their habitat.

How does a species get on the list?

Species are designated "at risk" by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), an independent body of experts that assesses wildlife according to a broad range of scientific data. The federal Cabinet then decides whether those species should get legal protection under the Act. These decisions are made after consultations with affected stakeholders and other groups.

Species can be listed as:

Extinct: no longer found anywhere on the planet.

Extirpated: no longer in the wild in Canada, but existing in the wild elsewhere.

Endangered: a wildlife species facing imminent extirpation or extinction. (The species could soon become extirpated or extinct).

Threatened: likely to become endangered if nothing is done to reverse the factors leading to its extirpation or extinction.

Special concern: a wildlife species that may become a threatened or endangered species because of a combination of biological characteristics and identified threats.

More information about Species at Risk can be found at http://www.sararegistry.gc.ca/default.asp?lang=En&n=24F7211B-1

Sakinaw Lake sockeye backgrounder

Photo of Sakinaw Lake

Sakinaw Lake is located in Pender Harbour on the Sunshine Coast in south-western British Columbia. There are ten lakes that feed into Sakinaw Lake, forming part of its watershed (see map). Its surface area is 8 km2, and its average depth is 43 meters. The lake is unique in that the water in the deepest section of the lake (below 30 metres' depth) is salt, a remnant of geological times when there was a direct connection between Sakinaw Lake and the ocean. Scientists believe that after the kilometres-thick glaciers receded from the coast, the land rose and cut off the direct connection that Sakinaw Lake had with the sea. The deep salty area of the lake has oxygen levels of low to nil, making that part of the lake unusable for sockeye.

Photo of Sakinaw sockeye spawners

Sakinaw lake sockeye salmon (Onchorhynchus nerka) are a unique population due to the fact that they spawn specifically in Sakinaw Lake, and unlike other sockeye salmon (which spawn in rivers), they spawn on lake beaches and require beaches near creeks or ground water sources. These sockeye return to spawn earlier than most, and over a longer period of time, with an unusually long stay in the lake before spawning. The adult fish have a small body size in comparison to other adult sockeye. The smolts (fish ready to return to sea) are large in comparison to other sockeye smolts. 

Although the Sakinaw sockeye reproduce only within Sakinaw Lake, it shares migration routes and feeding habitat in the Pacific Ocean with other sockeye salmon populations. The Sakinaw Lake sockeye are killed as direct catch in terminal fisheries (where this species is specifically targeted), but more significantly, as incidental catch in fisheries where they are not the target species. Sockeye salmon have generally declined in abundance in the southern parts of their range and no longer naturally occur in California.

In the early 1900, the lake was dammed at its outlet (Sakinaw creek) for log and water storage. In 1952, a permanent dam and fishway were built by Fisheries and Oceans near the lake outlet. This fishway is a structure that enables movement of fish past the dam, allowing spawners to return to the lake, and smolts to migrate to sea. The problem with this fishway was that fish were vulnerable to predation, most notably by river otters and seals, and also illegal fishing. High water temperatures of 22 - 24°C during adult salmon migration are a major stress factor (warm water has low oxygen levels).

In 1995, passage to the fishway was improved by the installation of two large rock weirs below the fishway which created large pools in the creek. These pools reduced the height salmon needed to jump from 2 metres to 1 metre (reducing the height the fish have to jump helps reduce the stress to the fish). These pools also provide protection from predation and illegal fishing.

Recreational and residential development within the Sakinaw lake watershed has affected the water level and temperature. Feeder lakes and streams (e.g. Ruby Lake) provide warm water at lesser rates as demand for water increases. Domestic water usage contributes to low summer flows, which impedes adult salmon migration into the lake; without enough water to fill the fishway, salmon can not access the lake.

Although COSEWIC has recommended that the Sakinaw sockeye salmon be listed as "Endangered", to date the decision has been not to list this species.

References: (Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada - COSEWIC - Status Report on Sakinaw Lake Sockeye Salmon, Chris Wood, 2003, and pers. comm. with Grant McBain, Community Advisor, Fisheries and Oceans Canada).

Map of the Sakinaw Lake watershed

Map of the Sakinaw Lake Watershed

Role introduction

Something unusual about me Main interests At the round table My picture
(picture & key words, web, chart) (Why were you chosen to represent your group?)

Decision-making chart

The issue
Your interests
What are your criteria?
What are some options?
Research each option
Select the best option

Evaluation/assessment tools

Student questions and answer key

1. What factors can negatively affect the Sakinaw sockeye stocks?

2. What could be done to mitigate or lessen the negative effects on the Sakinaw Sockeye stocks?

3. What factors can shift management decisions away from benefiting a biome or species?

Management decisions can be influenced by many different things, not always resulting in what is best for a biome or species:

4. What effects might unchecked human population growth in the Sakinaw Lake watershed have on the Sakinaw sockeye?

5. What effect could the events at Sakinaw, human or natural, have on global environments and climate change?

Additional suggested discussion points

Lesson Plan Written by: Dianne Sanford and edited by: Elizabeth Leboe