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.