Archive for the ‘aquatic’ Tag
Ten-thousand pounds of trout is one big trout. Yet that’s what the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) is about to release into Northern California waterways within the next few days. Although not one, really large trout (which would be about the size of an elephant), but thousands of far smaller, hatching trout that weigh about half and pound each. These Rainbow Trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) come from nearby fish hatcheries, both government- and privately-owned ‘fish farms’ that raise millions of baby fish each year, all eventually transferred to lakes, rivers and waterways.
While many of these fish eventually are caught by fishermen and end up as someones breakfast or dinner, others who are lucky or smart enough not to be fooled by plastic worms can live ten or more years; grow up to 50 pounds; and become the parents of hundreds of offspring. Unless, in their best efforts to avoid sportsmen the fish are eaten by bears. Or raccoons. Or birds. All of which are reasons thousands of fish have to be re-stocked each year and for job security, being a fish-farmer might be a good choice.
Fish stocking often includes a brief, but exciting, water-park slide.
Fish-stocking (or planting) is usually scheduled twice per year, in the Spring before summer heat raises water temperatures; and again in the Fall, so the fish have a few winter months to grow. But due to the California drought which is slightly less severe this year, fish are being moved into lakes and rivers to encourage and support the local fishing industry (someone’s got to buy all that bait), and fulfill the Fish and Wildlife Departments responsibilities of not only protecting and preserving wildlife and wild places; but providing recreational opportunities for outdoorsmen and adventurers. Although the fish would probably prefer we all stay home. They’ve got enough to worry about with the bears, raccoons and birds all ready and waiting for fish buffet.
Michonne Says: Phooey. Who would want to live in the water and be wet all the time? And where would you sleep because there’s no place to dig or even if you did make a hole water would fill it up. To me, none of this seems like those fish planned very well.
Prior to the 20th Century, rivers throughout America ran freely: From their source headwaters; through forests and meadows, across prairies and sometimes underneath deserts; coursing toward the oceans while carving majestic canyons and molding the landscape; providing water and homes for countless fish, birds and other wildlife. The rivers were neither stopped nor faltered by any obstruction or barrier but surpassed and pushed through anything in their path. The rivers reserved all their energy for themselves, occasionally flooding farms and defeating towns to show humans who, really, is the boss. Selfish rivers. But beginning in the 1890s and continuing through the first half of the 20th century, humans took on this imposing power of uninterrupted water through the construction of hydroelectric dams; structures that, by channeling water flow and harnessing the power and strength of water provided tens of thousands of megawatts of electric energy to power the growth of cites and provide basic electrical power to rural communities. Take that, rivers.
While this all generally worked out fine for humans, hulking cement structures re-routing and blocking natural river flow was neither useful, not helpful, to wildlife: Fish, including Salmon and Trout (family Salmonidae) who need large stretches of turbulent water to thrive were restricted or populations cut off; wetlands were flooded or drained, the loss of homes to species from insects to mammals and vital to migrating birds who had fewer places to rest along flights of thousands of miles; and dams brought about changes in the amount and speed of flowing water (literally, the ‘ebb’ and ‘flow’), creating downstream basins holding millions of gallons of water in artificial lakes while upstream ecological communities suffered from water loss.
Dams can lead to stagnant water and unregulated algae growth. This can’t be good for anybody.
Crossing the border between California and Oregon lies the Klamath River. For centuries one of the main water sources for Northern California (the second largest river in the state) and a significant part of Oregon, the river continued unobstructed as Lewis and Clark charted a path to the Pacific Ocean; pioneers followed the Oregon Trail toward a better life; and 49er’s searched for gold. Local Native Americans believed the river was holy, balancing their lives with the river flow. But due to continued growth and development by the 1920’s dams were being built across the Klamath – by 1960 a total of four complexes providing power and regulating water resources to the benefit of man. Not so much to the benefit of anyone else.
While hydroelectric power is important, so is a healthy environment. Last month, the U.S. Department of the Interior; U.S. Department of Commerce; dam management company PacificCorp; and the states of California and Oregon entered into an agreement to remove all four dams on the Klamath River by 2020, resulting in one of the largest river restoration efforts in the country. Working with Native Nations; local communities; non-profit organizations and other interested parties, this agreement will work toward providing more equitable water resources to farms, ranches, and communities; allow for water recreation such as rafting and fishing; and perhaps most importantly, restore the river and river basin to its natural ecology. While this is a huge and hugely expensive project, the true cost can’t be measured in dollars but in the salmon who once again will be able to freely migrate to the ocean (and back!); flocks of birds who find a safe refuge in river-created marshes; and the numbers of people who just enjoy a peaceful afternoon sitting under a tree by the flowing water. And the only dams to be seen are built by beavers whose goal isn’t creating electrical power for televisions and computers and to light up the night sky; but just to keep the water from washing away their house.
Michonne Says: These ‘dams’ make water so there’s even more of it in one place? I don’t think I like that. Water’s best when it just passes by and maybe you can get a drink but then it doesn’t stay around. Then things could live in it and who knows that that could be. It’s best to leave that kind of water to bears (who like the fish) and striped-tail-night-mask raccoons (who don’t know better).
Unless you’re an ichthyologist (people who study fish), or a pescatarian (people who eat fish), most of us never, really, think much about these finned fellows; they’re just under the water, an environment (and world) most of us know little about. Unless it’s on the menu or represented as some sort of fearsome ‘monster’ on television or in movies, fish usually cross our thoughts about as much as they cross a road (actually, in Asia the Walking Catfish [Clarias batrachus] does briefly come out of the water to cross roads. Which will give you something to think about). But placing the ‘monster’ label aside (humans often identify anything we don’t understand as a monster), fish have much more to fear from humans and our human world, than we normally have to fear from them. Unless you’re swimming among a group of shark, barracuda, or piranha. Or choke on a fish bone during dinner.
Baby fish are called fry. (This has nothing to do with the ultimate fate of many of these fish, which makes the name disturbingly ironic). And life for a baby fish, usually an inch or less in length, is filled with dangers seen and unseen: Water current sweeps you away; small leaves, branches and debris, disregarded by other animals, become hazardous challenges; and just about everything, from birds to frogs to other fish, want to eat you. Chemicals in the water, both naturally-occurring and artificial can disrupt a fishes’ sensory and nervous system; run-off and turbulence resulting in cloudy or muddy conditions can disorientate or suffocate. Water temperature is vital; any significant change hotter or colder means death. Some fish can only survive within a temperature range of about 20 degrees.
Just like the canary in the coal mine of times past (miners would take a caged canary down into the mine. If the canary passes out due to invisible poisonous gas, it’s time for humans to return to the surface. There were far fewer animal rights spokespersons in those days), today fish throughout the world; and particularly freshwater species such as Salmon and Trout (genera Oncorhynchus and Salmo); have become the ‘canary in the water’, as entire populations disappear due to increasing global temperatures, isolation from diversion of rivers; and run-off from timber-cutting, farming, and other forms of land-clearing. In some areas water temperatures are already approaching the top range of these fishes’ tolerance, and any further upward creep – many scientists are projecting up to three degrees warmer in the next fifty years – would leave suitable freshwater habitat only in the deepest lakes, while most streams, ponds and even rivers remain empty. In a recent research study it was found of the 25 remaining species of America’s native trout, today 13 species occupy less than 25% of their historic habitat.
Young trout in a hatchery practice leaping over water obstacles they may find in the wild. Possibly on their way to school.
While this is unfortunate for trout and other fish that live their entire lives in high-country, mountainous environments, salmon must return, every year, to the ocean. And without healthy and open streams and rivers that allow migration from forested rivers to the sea; as well as the return trip back to the same stream where each individual salmon was born; the entire wild salmon species could collapse. Of course, humans raise fish in hatcheries and on fish farms (must continue Seafood Friday!), but fish can’t stay on the farm forever and when grown large enough, are normally released into the wild (even fish on farms want to one day go to the big city. Where they’ll probably be eaten). Throughout these recent years of drought and oppressive heat in California, multiple hatcheries have had to be temporarily closed due to inadequate amounts, quality, or temperature of water, and the fish (those that could survive the journey) trucked hundreds of miles to alternative and emergency locations.
Not many people, it’s likely, consider baby fish as we go about our lives. When thought of as food or a diversion, fish have always been there and so are taken for granted. But as our climate changes and each of us, human and wildlife alike, encounter more and greater challenges, we might want to look at the fish who could be warning us we are moving from fry, to the frying pan.
Michonne Says: I don’t know much about fish. They live in the water which is fine for them but I don’t care for it. Racoons and Hawks and Bears and all sorts of other sharp-teeth animals eat fish, but marmots would never, ever, not even think about eating fish. Or going too close to the water. You never know what could be down there.
One day, the future world will be to us an unfamiliar and foreign place. This may appear to be a dramatic statement, for a relatively un-dramatic truth: Trains and automobiles were viewed as deafening, noxious contraptions to those who depended upon horses; space flight, or even international air travel, was new and mysterious only seventy years ago (we’re still waiting on those personal jetpacks and flying cars we were promised); and our always-connected, smart-phone, data-driven lifestyle can be misunderstood and confusing by the separation of only a generation or two. Yet, humanity, history indicates, adapts and changes as the future dictates. But does wildlife, with whom we share the world, possess the same ability to ‘change with the times’ – or will we, in our rush for the new and the different and the improved, create a world where’s there no longer room for nature?
The California Black Rail (Laterallus jamaicensis), isn’t a high-speed train system, but a rather common, pocket-sized bird found mainly along California salt flats and Midwestern wetlands. This marsh-loving avian lives a very low-key and un-assuming life, content to wonder along the waters’ edge, seeking out insects, small water creatures, seeds and other plant material, not asking for much and happy to be generally un-seen and un-noticed. But through the severe drought California – and much of the West – is now struggling, there are fewer, and smaller, natural waters-edges to wander. Scientists and researchers generally accept the rule that many generations must pass for species to adapt to changing environmental conditions; and during these generations, some individuals adapt just enough to get by, while other individuals never catch on and aren’t heard from again (which might be one reason we don’t see mammoths and mastodons and sabre-tooth tigers on our daily commutes; but their disappearance probably has as much to do with early human activity, than a failure of adaptation to changing times). However our friend the Rail seems to be bucking the system and entire populations are moving from ever-shrinking natural wetlands, to the artificial marshes created by leaky pipes, livestock watering stations, irrigation ponds, and even drainage canals. And once discovered, the more scientists look the more rails they find living among the neglected maintenance and artificial sprinklers of man; so much so, some populations now depend upon these man-made ponds and muddy fields, raising the question: With all these rails, how long before someone builds a train station? No, actually the question is, have Rails become dependent upon man; and if so, is that healthy for the Rails – and for the environment?
This is not a Black Rail. It’s a beaver. It’s also an example of how when wildlife is searching for water, most any pool will do.
Of course the Rails – and all wildlife that find life-sustaining water, shelter, and homes in and near man-made ponds, marshes and drainages haven’t sought out these locations only because of the pleasant atmosphere – if this were true, there would be a lot more Rails at water parks. What the rails are seeking are the insects and aquatic life attracted to the water, and in turn, the riparian ecosystem that supports not only the smallest animals, but mice and rabbits and hawks and coyotes and any species that needs water, shelter, and safety to survive. Which is just about every species. These unique ecosystems, the result of human engineering to benefit ourselves and our livestock, just happens to be the exact environment the Black Rail, and dozens or hundreds of other species, need. While the drought continues – and the forecast for this summer is bleak – farmers, ranchers, range-managers and ultimately all of us could be forced to make the choice of protecting and preserving natural environments; or dedicating more money and effort into the repair and replacement of existing, leaky and disintegrating pipelines, canals and holding ponds – some over 100 years old – in an attempt to save water, but at the same time draining artificial marshes and water sources wildlife have come to depend upon. It seems that, adapt or not, the Rail and other species could suffer.
From the seemingly unlimited resources of the past, today we are faced with more and more trade-offs and concessions that must be made not between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’, but between multiple ‘goods’: Conserving water; protecting wildlife and their habitats; or providing the food and services humans need and demand. Maybe the answer isn’t an all-or-nothing decision, but choices of give-and-take, flexibility and living a more simple and less demanding life. After all, that’s what the California Black Rail would do.
Michonne Says: Birds drink a lot more water than marmots. I think that’s because things in water float and birds float in the air so they need all that water or else they’d live on the ground. I don’t know how they can sit in trees, though. They probably hold on really tight or else they’d float away.
Fish, we would believe, are all more-or-less the same. Fins, gills, scales and tails would be enough for most anyone to guess, here we have a fish. Or perhaps for many of us, the only relationship we have with these aquatic avatars is through the dinner plate. But what if a fish didn’t have these identifying features; or lacked not all, but just one or two? Would a fish still be a fish, by any other name?
Please meet the White Sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus), otherwise known as the Pacific Sturgeon; Oregon Sturgeon; and California Sturgeon. Not surprisingly, this is a fish native to the Pacific Ocean off the coasts of California, Oregon, Canada and as far north as Alaska. While he does sport fins; gills; and a tail (actually no fish has more than one tail. That’s a feature reserved for sea monsters); what Sturgey does not have, are scales. It’s not that he swims in the nude – in place of scales, he’s covered in scutes, large, boney plates that more resemble a knights armour than the sleek and slippery scales favored by today’s modern fish.
Because the White Sturgeon – along with all other types of Sturgeon that can be found throughout the world – is a very, very old fish. Individual sturgeon can live up to 100 years, which is a long life by anyone’s standards; but as a group, the family of fish that holds all sturgeon goes back 175 million years. That’s before any humans, or even anything resembling a human; before most any mammal; before much of the land and water features we know were formed; all the way into the Jurassic Period – the time of ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs, giant marine reptiles; of flying pterosaurs; of Brachiosaurus; Stegosaurus; and T-Rex. Also, we would believe, the time blockbuster movies can re-create, but the sturgeon doesn’t benefit from that because he doesn’t have a very good agent.
Back then, fish were very different from what we recognize today. Known as cartilaginous fish, or Chondrichthyes, these fish don’t have a skeleton made of bone like most other fish – and most animals in total (except for insects, of course. And mollusks. But that’s another story). Sharks, rays, skates (something like a combination of a shark and a ray) all have cartilaginous skeletons, cartilage being flexible tissue that in humans forms connections between our bones, but in cartilaginous animals serves as the ‘bones’; and, like Sturgey and every sturgeon, all cartilaginous creatures are also very, very old animals dating back millions of years. Sharks, that today so many think are dangerous man killers and should be destroyed, have been here far longer than any human has and obviously didn’t survive all this time by eating men which weren’t around to eat. So maybe it’s not the shark that’s the villain; but the human need to create an adversary.
While all this fish history is interesting (or maybe not so much), the white sturgeon is, thankfully, not a species that today is particularly in danger, threatened, or otherwise at risk (in the late 1800’s California sturgeon was overfished leading to restrictions and conservation, but since then the populations have recovered and can now support light commercial and recreational fishing). What may be most interesting about sturgeon is their size – recorded at 20 feet, with possible longer individuals that have never been documented – the White Sturgeon is the largest freshwater fish in North America, where they move between fresh and salt (ocean) water. And, of interest to some, while somewhat revolting to others, the fine dining indulgence of caviar is actually Sturgeon eggs. Almost exclusively from what’s considered higher-grade types of European sturgeon, this delicacy often considered the height of luxury and ostentation is actually eggs from a species so old, they’ve outlived millions of years of natures’ successes and failures. Except, of course, the appetites of man.
Michonne Says: This is another story about fishies and marmots don’t have much to say about fishies. Anything that lives in the water like that you have to watch out for. Who knows what’s hiding down there? Maybe there’s water wolves or water hawks or something. You never know.
A species must be in very, very precarious circumstances to be placed on the Endangered Species list. Rather than an honor, the list includes only those plants and animals that through no fault of their own have become rare; or are the unfortunate residents of an environment that is now in danger of disappearing and the list is literally the final stop on a path to extinction. So it’s even more rare when a species recovers and is removed from this ill-fated list. Today, we can congratulate one little fish that beat the odds and, while not exactly thriving, has managed to step (or rather, paddle) away from the edge.
The Oregon chub (Oregonichthys crameri) is a small silver, white and olive-colored minnow most people would overlook and not give a second thought. Living only in the usually calm, often stagnant floodplains formed in the Willamette River Basin of western Oregon, this less than three-inch guppy has survived for generations by peacefully inhabiting the limited confines of small ponds, marshes and swampy environments with water only a few feet deep; ‘hibernating’ in the undergrowth and pond-side detritus; living the best life a little fish could live considering its’ world is limited between the banks of about 200 miles of shallow water. Over time, though, these resilient – and, it turns out, incredibly buoyant – fish have learned to ride the waves of infrequent floods that wash through the valley, moving the fish into new environments; creating new wetlands; and re-distributing the population. It’s not known if this relocation also requires the younger fish to transfer into new schools.
So all was well with the Chub (other than what sounds like a boring lifestyle), until human development diverted streams and filled in marshes; flood control projects and dams ended, or greatly reduced, the periodic flooding; expanded farming, run-off and chemicals harmed native plants and the chub, themselves; and the introduction of non-native species such as bullfrogs; bass; and mosquito-fish which became formidable predators to the chub.
Oregon State fish biologist Brian Bangs enthusiastically searches for chub while wading in the shallow waters of a remote channel. He’s also thankful he didn’t decide to be a piranha researcher.
A little fish can only take so much, and in 1993 the chub was added to the Endangered Species list. With only eight known scattered and isolated populations totaling a few hundred individuals, the future for this little fish – and the unique environment it calls home – looked bleak. But through hard work, careful planning and some good luck, last month the Oregon Chub was officially removed from the list of threatened and endangered species, along with a determination of the habitat that’s critical for the fishes’ continued success has recovered to the extent that, with responsible stewardship, the Chub should now be out of danger. Other than good news for the Chub – who, we are certain, doesn’t quite understand anything about an endangered species list but is very happy that his home is now unpolluted and there seem to be more chubby-friends to associate with and the pond is generally bullfrog-free – this one little step, by one little fish, demonstrates that endangered can, in the best situations, not be the beginning of the end – but just the start of a second chance.
The Oregon Chub is the first fish to ever recover and be removed from the Endangered Species list. While significant, this doesn’t necessarily make this little guy king of fishes (and it would almost impossible to find a small enough crown, anyway); but it does make him the reigning member of a very small community of all species that have beat the odds and recovered from the edge of going away, forever. There are over 16,000 species officially listed as endangered – including the ironically named Common Thresher Shark (Alopias vulpinus), unfairly targeted for hunting because people believe all sharks are bad and must be killed; and the oldest fish species known to exist, the African Coelacanth (Latimeria chalumnae), one of the last members of a group that has been on earth for 65 million years. So the story, here, is about more than one species of minnow that managed to pull through; it’s about how, as the saga states, sometimes it’s the smallest and least known that leads us forward toward a greater good.
Michonne Says: That’s a nice story about a little fishie. I don’t know much about fishies, and marmots almost never go near any ponds and marshy-swamps and other places because you never know what might be hiding in there – but I don’t know why the chubby fish lets others call him that name. He’s probably not that chubby at all, maybe he’s just big boned.
In an extraordinary decision, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife have released all fish from two up-river hatcheries because of the unusual low water levels of neighboring streams and rivers, and the rising temperature of water that’s still flowing. The young fish – called ‘fry’ or ‘fingerlings’ or ‘juveniles’ – are normally kept in hatcheries through the fall and winter, only released into the river system when they are old enough to care for themselves; but this year, in order to save as many fish as possible, officials have taken the never-before step of, literally, opening the flood gates and setting loose over 430,000 fingerling Steelhead Trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss); Rainbow Trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) and Chinook Salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha).
The fish, which require water temperatures no more than 63 degrees, will hopefully seek out deeper and cooler lakes and reservoirs on their way to the ocean – but even so, the fish may be too young to follow their ‘swim to the ocean’ instinct and scientists are monitoring the fish populations to better understand how these little fish will respond to life in an even-more-harsh-than-normal environment, and this research could help in future release schedules and planning. What is certain, with all of these snack-size fish set free in ever-more shallow water, could lead to a feast for raccoons and hawks and eagles and bears and most any other animal that isn’t about to let a fish lunch swim by.
In past times of low-waters or rising temperature, hatchery officials have requested fresh, cool water be released from nearby lakes. But with the severe, almost unimaginable drought in California and through most of the Western US, there’s not enough water in many lakes to even reach spillway level, the parts of a dam that are designed to allow water to pass. And the water that is in the lakes is too shallow and warm – in some places estimated to reach 78 degrees or warmer – to do the fish any good.
While it’s expected the fish in most of California’s hatcheries should be fine and can remain in their nurseries though the summer, it’s ironic that this mass release comes only a year after one of the most successful fish count-and-release seasons on record. In the 2013 season (fish grown large enough for normal release through the autumn and winter of 2013 – 2014), more Trout and Salmon passed through fish-counting stations, on their way to the ocean, than any previous season.
With fall and winter rain and snow the hatcheries will be able to re-stock and help grow another generation of Trout and Salmon that will help maintain a healthy ecology and provide recreation and income for fishermen and business owners that rely on a balanced environment. But if the expected (and hoped for!) precipitation doesn’t come, in a worst-case situation we could be seeing fewer fish fry – and more fried fish.
Folsom Lake, California, March 2011 on the left – on the right, January 2014