World (Fish) Migration Day

Through my interest in migratory fish, I’ve developed faith in nature’s ability to recover. I’ve witnessed instinct, and experienced empathy.

I’m drawn to salmon and shad, alewives and eel by an attraction I can not explain – I just feel it. Perhaps it is not the actual species, but their lifecycle, and the power of their instinct. As I pedal toward midlife, refining the purpose of my existence, I’m envious of a salmon’s confident knowing of where to go, and what to do. It gives me hope.

Their need for distinct habitat at different stages of their life necessitates migration. The fish make pilgrimage; using smell they navigate from the nutrient rich waters of the sea, up rivers and tributary streams to the cold, sweet water where they were born. They dedicate their life to making new life. A circle. A cycle. A life complete.

My heart aches when I see the impediments that humans have put in their way in the form of dams, culverts, hydropower turbines and weirs. As others fight for women’s rights, fair immigration policy and equality for all races, I am building a case against ecological bigotry. Barriers in our aquatic systems keep out native migratory species, just as walls at our borders keep out human migrants. To whose benefit?

Every species has ecological needs. It takes work to achieve our needs – effort driven by instinct to survive and prosper – but foremost access. Give us a chance to prove ourselves. Open the door.

As biologist Anne Hayden said of the restoration of River Herring in Maine’s Penobscot River, “unbuild it and they will come.” The Fish (collectively shad, alewife and blueback herring) numbered only 2,300 in 2009. After two major dams were removed and sophisticated passage constructed around a third, the 2017 estimates were 1.9 million. These Fish returned to the river to reproduce, and in so doing they brought nutrients to our streams, exported phosphorus from our lakes, affirmed our faith in nature’s ability to recover, and even boosted our economy through harvests and ecotourism.

So how do I practice my faith in ecological recovery? By making my own type of pilgrimage, following my instincts, and building human connections.

That is why I traveled to the Netherlands for World Fish Migration Day. This biannual event is celebrated the world over, even in my home town, yet I wanted to be at the source of its inspiration – the university city of Groningen, headquarters of the World Fish Migration Foundation. Why? Well, I wasn’t really sure, it just felt that is where I needed to be. So I navigated barriers such as flight delays, bridge closings, hospital visits and flat tires, but I made it. And on April 21 I celebrated amongst a dozen new friends while paddling the canals of the city, waving flags and sporting banners.

The day is designed to raise awareness. But by witnessing the migratory trials of fish, you build empathy, and with that faith, that nature’s ways are good ways. That the instinct of a salmon to swim upstream, despite the challenges, is worthwhile. And so I continue on.

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And away I go

 

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You know, almost anything can be connected to ecology, and we should make an effort to do so. We may start with an interest in a particular organism, an alewife, for example; but let’s put that fish in a bigger ecological context. An alewife is a migratory fish, often lumped together with shad and blueback herring, to be called River Herring – thats its ecological population.  Now let’s place that population of river herring within a biological community, such as a stream in MidCoast Maine. In May and June, thousands of  sexually mature river herring migrate from the ocean, up rivers, into tributary streams and finally to lakes and ponds where conditions are right to spawn. During the course of their migration, the fish feed the communities they pass through. Their rich oily flesh is a welcome energy source for osprey, gulls and eagles, who congregate in trees along the stream to dive and feed; otter, mink, fox, raccoon, skunk, weasel, fisher, and turtles feast as the fish swim by; and once upstream, trout, landlocked salmon, large and smallmouth bass, pickerel, pike, and perch are eager for a meal. The  river herring are as appealing and convenient as a home delivered pizza. Dinner to your door after a long hard winter. And now we can expand to an ecosystem perspective – all the organisms, as well as abiotic factors that influence a biological community, such as nutrients, rainfall, temperature and the quality of the water.

And this is why I went to the Maine State Capitol the other day for a clean water rally. Fish need clean water just as much as we do; so I unfurled my World Fish Migration Day banner and smiled at the TV cameras.

Tomorrow I embark on another adventure to promote clean water and aquatic connectivity. I’m returning to the Netherlands for a two week trip on a traditional Dutch canal boat called de Fuke (“eel catcher” in Fresian). Can you guess where my WFMD banners will be hanging?

Journey accomplished, misssion underway


In Katwijk, just a few meters from the pump station, the Oude Rijn spills into the sea. And at this sight I felt a combination of exultation and loss. 

We did it; the river, the bike and I! We travelled 1322km (river) 1567km (me) through six countries, speaking five languages, navigating three signage systems, spending two currencies and making lots of friends. 


Over the 32 nights of my trip I paid for accommodations only five times thanks to the generosity of some old friends:

“Hey Linda, I know you haven’t heard from me since we were in 8th grade in 1984, but I see on FaceBook that you live in Basel. Can I stay with you for a couple of days?”

And new aquaintenances, and many generous hosts through CouchSurfing and WarmShowers; international hospitality platforms based on the belief that people are kind, interesting and trustworthy. I’d be greeted with smiles, handed a key, pointed to my bed & the shower, and asked what I’d like to have for dinner; again, and again and again. These types of interactions completely nullify cultural stereotypes, and create lasting friendships. 

And what could I offer in return? Well, I tried to arrive with a bottle of wine; I confirmed their disbelief in our current political situation; I offered to weed their garden; I was full of questions about local customs, history and geography, but mostly I wanted them to “Show me your river”, and listen to the ways they connected with it.

And that question can be asked in many places around the world. I wonder where the bike and I will go next? 

But before I undertake any more cycletours, I’m going to help the World Fish Migration Foundation & The Nature Conservancy recruit nature centers, conservation groups, citizens and communities to host events on April 21, 2018 & raise awareness of the need for free flowing, fish friendly rivers so that  migratory aquatic species can follow their instincts and complete their lifecycle – just as we desire to do. 

Thanks for following along!

Vigilant

Bound between a rising sea and a river’s discharge, the Dutch are vigilant, perhaps even a little distrustful. In a month of cycling, this is the first place I’ve been advised to lock my bike, but there are still painful memories of the night of January 31, 1953 when strong winds met high spring tides and water levels in Zeeland, this western region of Holland, rose 18′ (5.6m) above mean. 1,835 people were killed here, and more at sea. 30,000 cows, sheep and goats drowned. The Dutch are wary of trouble, even as the cows graze placidly on the polder and windmills turn slowly overhead. 

    20% of this country is below sea level and 50% is less that 1m above it, so a little extra water does lots of harm. 

    Disaster often leads to development of policies and programs designed to prevent repeat devastation, so it’s no coincidence that shortly after the storm the Delta Program was formed and designed the Delta Works, an extensive system of dikes, dams and sand dune storm surge barriers (the public parking garage at the beach in Kanwijk is built into one of these dunes). 


    In Katwijk, just a few meters from where the Oude Rijn meets the sea, is Koning William Alexander Gemaal, a pump station run by the Water Board of this region. 

    One day a year pump stations across the country are open to the public to show the role they play in public health and national security, and to justify the watership taxes citizens pay, “your contribution to dry feet and clean water” says the website. But as this was not the public day, I was grateful for a tour by Simon, the manager of this impressive facility. 


    The station is essentially insurance against disaster. It is a series of pumps, run remotely by computer from the office 15km away in Leiden, and backups of backup energy systems so that if another 1953 perfect storm occurs, this station will push water from the land to keep feet dry. 

    Keeping the sea out, does also mean that migratory fish are prevented from entering the Rhine system. Tests have been made at this facility to show that the pump’s turbines don’t harm outmigrating eels, but the sluice gaps are too small for salmon and other mature fish to migrate in. In fact, along Holland’s entire coastline, only the man made, massively busy, Rotterdam canal provides unimpeded access to the Rhine’s extensive spawning habitat. But ICPR is making progress to improve this. 

    Simon did mention the irony of dumping sweet water into the sea, when other European nations, like Spain, were desperate for fresh water. But so it is in the Low Countries – can’t be too careful when you live below the sea. 

    Dedications

    A month on a bicycle along a river; its over now and was so much fun! Although I set out on my own, I was never alone. 

    I give my thanks to Herman Wanningen of World Fish Migration Foundation for planting the seed for this trip in 2015 when he introduced me to restoration practitioners in Holland during bonus days on my sustainability cycle tour. 

    Sandra Chevret and Kerry Brink who coordinate World Fish Migration Day (April 21, 2018) and sent me encouragement and contact information for their river colleagues. 

    Bas Deelman, WFMF’s communication guru who made my cyclefish logo, and WFMF colleague Joost van Deelan, who met me in Katwijk for a jubilant celebration and a fun photo shoot on the beach.  

    Josh Royte of The Nature Conservancy, who over a breakfast in Brunswick, ME coined the directive, “Show me your river”, and so launched this trip. 

    Patagonia, creator of exceptional gear backed by corporate values that not only honor workers, but nature’s planet too (with a new line of rewilding rivers T-shirts). 

    The community building, culture sharing, hospitality providing, budget saving networks of Couchsurfing and WarmShowers

    And of course, to the Rhine, in his many forms. He guided me from the place of his conception, through phases of playful then serious, awe inspiring then beleaguered, wild then tamed; to his transformation into the sea. 

    Here are some impressions of each segment of the river. 

    ALPINE RHINE: Swiss glaciers, swift rapids, chiming bells and rich chocolate;

    The novelty of LICHTENSTEIN;


    LAKE CONSTANCE (Bodensee): My short dance with Austria;


    HIGH RHINE: French croissants, fortified cities and chance encounters;


    UPPER RHINE: Germany’s coordination of restoration, informative signage, a gradual understanding of language and Riesling. 

    MIDDLE RHINE: castles, more castles, perfect bike paths and more castles. 

    DELTA RHINE: The giant skies, tidy farms and ever present examples of land+water in the Netherlands. 

    And the NORTH SEA!

    Low Countries

    From its source 2,349 meters above the sea in Switzerland, the Rhine drains six  countries in an area the size of Nebraska (200,000 km2). This massive flow of water and sediment saturates an area of Western Europe known as the Low Countries (in Dutch: De Nederlanden, in French: Les Pays-Bas) where much of the land is at or below sea level.  

    https://www.researchgate.net/figure/245327878_fig1_Figure-1-The-Rhine-catchment-area

    Rhine catchment area

    This is the Rhine Delta, a splintered  series of lakes, canals, sluices, dykes, and rivers heavily managed to prevent the sea from flooding in, or the rivers from flooding out. 

    “The Rhine built our country,” said a Dutch climate scientist I met on the banks of the Oude Rijn. 

    Dutch riverside communities have the highest flood risk from increasing peak discharges with potential for human casualties and significant economic loss; while in the tidal river areas, rising sea level is pushing up peak water levels during storm surges. The Dutch government has set up the Delta Programme to prepare for the impact of climate change. Essentially, they restoring natural functions under a program titled “Rivers Ambition”. 

    The Delta Programme has created a “preferential strategy” for the Rhine involving dyke improvements through raising and strengthening and river widening by lowering floodplains, constructing flood channels, and developing retention areas – just as I’d learned about at ICPR in Koblenz, Germany. 

    Without coordination and cooperation from upstream countries, the Netherlands has minimal influence over the force of the Rhine spilling over its border toward the sea, or the quality of the water which is depended upon for drinking and wildlife habitat. Therefore the Dutch government had significant incentives to develop the current international agreements to improve/restore the Rhine. Yet initial concern over water quality dates back before climate change was named, to the late 19th century and the decline of the salmon population due overfishing, dams and pollution. 

    https://www.deruijter.net/publications/long-term-scenarios-for-the-rhine-estuary-drecht.html

    Oude Rijn

     

    At the German – Netherlands border the Rhine splits into its two main branches: the Nederrijn (Lower Rhine) and the Waal. Ten km downstream at Arnhem, the IJssel branches north from Nederrijn, to Ijsselmeer, the largest lake in Holland, and formerly the South Sea before being blocked by a sluice. The Nederrijn splits in three at the town of Wijk bij Duurstede; a canal shoots northwest to Amsterdam, the Lek winds west creating Europe’s largest port in Rotterdam, eventually greeting the sea at The Hook of Holland; and the Kromme Rijn (Crooked Rhine) winds its way toward Utrecht splitting and merging with the innumerable channels to eventually become the Oude Rijn (Old Rhine). 

    It is this trickle that I follow a mere 50km more to the sea.


    In Roman times, it was the main Rhine branch, forming the northern border (Limes Germanicus) of the Roman Empire. In medieval times, it was used for river transport paralleled by a towpath, many parts of which have now been converted to cyclepaths and roads. The river silted up in the Middle Ages and lost its importance as a navigable route by the 17th century, but still forms part of the city moat around  Woerden and Leiden and is now used by shallow draft boats for recreation. 


    No longer can I navigate by simply following “the river”, as there are rivers, streams, channels, canals, ponds and puddles everywhere! More water than land (more bikes than people); this is the Netherlands!

    ICPR

    If only every river could have an International Commission overseeing its wellbeing! Located in an impressive building on the west bank of the Rhine in Koblenz, the International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine aims to “attract attention to the protection of waters and resources, the required ecological network for migratory fish, intact migration routes between the Rhine and the North Sea/Atlantic necessary for their life cycle as well as the importance of alluvial areas for floods and low waters. The ICPR equally provides information material for visitors’ centres at fish passages or in nature protection areas and offers to support their networking.”


    After an informative two hour discussion and presentation by Dr. Laura Gangi, I wished that I’d started my trip with a visit to Koblenz, so that I’d be cycling with a better understanding of:

    • Restoration objectives 
    • Current projects
    • Visitor education centers 
    • Catchment area and tributaries 

    The ICPR bases its work on the European Water Framework Directive, adopted by the EU in 2000 for the protection of water quality and the European Directive on the Assessment and Management of Flood Risks. 

    Gravel bars are being installed to reduce velocity and flooding in a straightened section of the Rhine in Rüthi, Switzerland

    I’ve seen evidence of these international agreements throughout my trip as gravel bars and braided stream restoration in the High Rhine; fisherman’s comments in the Bodensee about the water being “too clean”;  the installation of rocky groins to slow water velocity and create wildlife habitat (and swimming spots) and bikeway detours as backhoes convert agricultural fields to flood plains in the Middle Rhine. 

    A hot air balloon floats over the Bodensee (Lake Constance) in Bregenz, Austria

    In a river, groins prevent erosion and ice-jamming, which in turn aids navigation. Trechtingshausen in the Upper Middle Rhine

     
    Another relevant document ICPR maintains is the Masterplan for Migratory Fish including maps on barriers equipped with upstream passage, and those with, or in need of, downstream passage. Dr. Gangi & her colleagues deserve praise for all that ICPR has accomplished by coordinating local restoration efforts in three languages across the six countries of the Rhine watershed. 

    Map of Rhine catchment coded for connectivity and passibility of Salmon and Lake Constance Trout


    A new working group was created last year to study effects of climate change, particularly the current challenges of low water in the Rhine catchment.  Since the ongoing plan called “Rhine 2020” ends in 3 years, the ICPR has started work on “Rhine 2040″.

    Mother Mosel

    In the German city of Koblenz, about 550km upstream the North Sea, Father Rhine and Mother Mosel meet. The Mosel River is the second largest tributeary of the Rhine; I also met the Main in Mainz, the Necker in Mannheim, and the Aare in Waldshut, plus other smaller tribs like the Alb and Sieg. 
    At this significant confluence is a plaza called Deutsches Eck (“German Corner”) with fluttering flags, accordion buskers, tourists and a monumental equestrian statue of William I, first German Emperor. Just up the Rhine is a cable car to travel across the river and up to the Ehrenbreitstein Fortress. 

    This part of Koblenz was enhanced for the 2011 Federal Horticultural Show (Bundesgartenschau), which brought 3 million visitors and had a budget of €102 million. Cities apply to host the biannual show and invest significantly in landscaping, infrastructure and visitor amenities. 

    One of the investments was the MOSELLUM, a fabulous riverside visitor center with a silver shiny exterior designed to resemble fish scales. It looks out on the first dam on the Mosel (in its 645km length there are ten dams in Germany, and twelve more in Luxembourg and France).  The director gave me a great tour, but confessed that his primary job was with a different department of the government and he didn’t have sufficient time or staff to offer educational programs. But the permanent exhibits (in English and German) explain the geography, trade & transportation & construction of dams and hydropower,  sensitising visitors to the effects on the ecosystem, specifically on fish migration.  It’s a perfect site for a World Fish Migration Day event. I hope they will start a volunteer docent or student intern program to capitalize on their well designed facility. 

    ​​

    The dam offers three types of upstream fish passage, but no safe downstream route. A disturbingly honest sign showed what happened when eels, migrating out to their mysterious Sargasso Sea breeding grounds, were swept into hydroelectric turbines. Until a technical solution is devised, fishermen are hired to catch the eels and transport them via truck down to the Rhine, which is free of turbines for 700 km from the sea to Iffezheim. K

    Learning to Linger

    Door detail. Speyer Cathedral, founded in 1030, one of the most important Romanesque monuments from the Holy Roman Empire.

    Sure, it’s possible to cycle 150km in a day, but then I’d be on a bicycle trip, not a Rhine River exploration. Although I’m traveling alone, there is little chance to be lonely in some of Europe’s hotspots in the height of summer. While on a ferry across the Rhine from Karlsruhe, I was invited to join some cyclists on their way to a Biergarten in Speyer. A concept begun in Bavaria to keep beer cool in summer, they are now all across Germany, with attractive gardens, shady chestnut trees, gravel ground, and communal tables for families to drink, eat, and mingle. 


    One morning I cycled with two couples through several villages until we found the perfect place to stop for kaffee und kuchen (“coffee and cake”). And there, next to the impressive townhall and downhill from the massive gothic cathedral, we sat for over an hour. Sipping. Watching. Talking. 

    Katharinenkirche, Oppenheimer Germany. A town know for its wine, and home to the German Wine Making Museum.

    Cycling shorter distances and learning to linger, brings more chance encounters. Enjoying lunch at a riverside table in Eltville, I took a closer look at the large barge quayside. It was not like the cargo vessels I’d seen transporting gravel, liquid fuels or shipping containers (the Rhine is one of the world’s busiest inland waterways, with as many as 300 ships passing this stretch per day). It was emblazoned with the word “SCIENCE” and my even I could understand the banner that read “Meer und Ozean”. 


    MS Wissenschaft is a floating, touring science center funded by Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research in partnership with 20 participating research institutes and universities. Exhibits change annually to align with a national theme, this year it is Seas and Oceans. There were plenty of fish tales to share with the crew.