Thursday, September 11, 2014


The fish was only 3 ½ or 4 inches long, but it was perfect.  In some ways, it looked like what a talented sixth-grade student would draw if told to draw a fish; streamlined body, sharply forked tail and a single dorsal fin, with the tip of a longish pectoral sticking out down below.

It was clearly a herring.  Without a field guide, you might not know just what kind, but no one could fault you if you guessed “alewife” or “Atlantic herring” or maybe even “juvenile menhaden.”

But all those guesses would be wrong, because the fish belonged to the genus Knightia, and last swam though its home waters about 50 million years ago.

Yet, although so many years have passed, it was remarkably familiar.  It was already built to the basic herring blueprint, and like today’s menhaden, it often schooled up in the shallows, where too much hot weather could turn the water hypoxic, and kill the fish by the untold thousands.

And that’s how Knightia and I crossed paths. 

For the past nine days, my wife, Theresa, and I were wandering around southern Wyoming and northern Utah, visiting places such as Fossil Butte and Dinosaur National Monuments, immersing ourselves in deep time and getting a feel for what came before.

In Wyoming, we found a lost world that was, in many ways, remarkably similar to the one we know today.   The limestone of Fossil Lake—a huge body of water that once spread over much of the region—holds a number of species very similar to those we all know. 

We visited a fossil quarry a few miles outside of Kemmerer, where we spent half a day splitting stone and finding the remains of fish—mostly Knightia—that last saw the sun 50 million years ago.  Each time one of us split a slab and disclosed a new fossil, we laid eyes on something that had never before been seen by man, but was present on Earth about 250 times longer than Homo sapiens sapiens has walked on this planet.  

It was humbling, yet familiar.  Knightia acted so much like menhaden, and filled such a similar forage role, that it was hard not to see one emerging from the rock and think “I’ve got another ‘bunker.”  Then there were Priscacara, a fish that we’d probably call a “panfish” if it still swam today, for it filled the same ecological role as a crappie or bluegill, and was roughly the same size and shape.

And, although their remains are far rarer and we never saw them, creatures such as sturgeon, bowfin, gar and pike also swam in the Fossil Lake waters, and would be clearly recognizable to today’s freshwater anglers.

After we left Kemmerer, we drove down to Jensen, Utah.  

There, we sampled some of the 200,000 acres of Dinosaur National Monument, where 23 exposed strata of rock tell a story of Earth dating back over one billion years.  It is a story of change over eons, as conditions on Earth gradually altered, and life itself altered and adapted to new conditions.

Again, it was humbling to look at a stone in the Morrison Formation, and realize that a dinosaur leg bone was sitting an arms-length away, still half-buried in the stone of a Utah mountainside.

And yet it was comforting, since over those billion-plus years, life endured, despite the great warming at the end of the Permian that killed off 90% of the creatures on Earth, the asteroid strike that closed the Cretaceous and sent every last non-avian dinosaur to their eternal doom and other, similar extinction events that, in the end, merely reset the clock and brought new and wonderful forms of life into being.

Which brings us, of course, to today, and the health of the fish stocks that we have all known so well during the course of our own lives.

None, at the species level, is nearing extinction; at least that’s true here in the Northeast and along the mid-Atlantic shore.  But at the same time, we can look at our coastal ecosystems, and the holes that we have torn in the web of life, and realize that they are no longer as healthy and complete as Fossil Lake was 50 million years ago, even though we probably only know about a fraction of the life that once swam there.

We can look at the slow changes that took place through the ages, and the gradual extinction and replacement of species, and wonder whether we are contributing to extinction today, and leaving nothing behind to fill the niches that we alone have emptied.

Consider the rock coast of southern New England, perhaps along the western Connecticut shore where I first learned to fish.  When I was a boy, tautog—we called them “blackfish”—bit from May through November; in the spring, just casting from shore, it was possible to land a few dozen good fish on a single tide.  The only problem you faced when trying to fill a feed bag were pesky bergalls—more properly, “cunner”—who picked and nipped at your baits remorselessly, and were generally considered a “trash fish” because they were too small and bony to be prized for food.

Tautog were tied to the rocks, the wrecks and the mussel beds; with square crushing teeth that looked surprisingly human, they scraped barnacles from the sides of boulders and crushed whatever mussels and crabs they could find.  Bergalls, their distant relative, were too small to tackle large shellfish, but had the same sort of dentition and cruised the same habitat seeking appropriately smaller fare.

However, in the past thirty or so years, a new market for live tautog and cunner has led to unprecedented commercial harvest—both legal and illegal—which has driven down the numbers of both species.  Tautog, once lavishly abundant in both spring and fall, have grown scarce, and harvest is strictly—if ineffectively—regulated.  Where cunner once swarmed in such numbers that anglers cursed them as a nuisance, they are now notable for their absence. 

No superior competitor has driven down the tautog’s numbers; it has not succumbed to the relentless rules of natural selection.

Instead, it was yanked out of its niche by an unnatural desire for profit, often illegally gained, and no one walking the Earth today seems responsible enough to say that such devastation is wrong.

We can see the same thing in the bays of Long Island (and elsewhere), where winter flounder numbers are falling ever lower, and may—we can’t know ‘til it happens—be approaching some point of no return.

Again, extinction at the species level is not an issue, for another stock on the banks of New England still thrives.  However, for some “distinct population segments”—that’s a term from the federal Endangered Species Act, intended to cover just this situation—the possibility of extinction looms large.

The best known example is in Shinnecock Bay, where researchers from Stony Brook University, deploying acoustic tags, determined that the bay is apparently home to two different populations of flounder that spawn at different times and have different life histories.  One population spawns in the bay during the winter but travels offshore during the summer, while the other population remains in the bay year-round. 

Overfishing and other factors have badly depleted both populations—depleted them so badly that they are now threatened by inbreeding—but the State of New York is now considering regulations that would allow anglers to target the flounder all summer (current regulations give the fish a respite from May 30 through March 31).  Such additional angling pressure may well be enough to drive the unique population that summers in the bay beyond the brink of extinction, and there is no reason to believe that similar populations, living in other Long Island bays, won’t be destroyed as well.

If that occurs, through the irrational actions of man rather than the irresistible forces of evolution, yet another niche will be left unnaturally empty, and our world will be further impoverished.

So I return from my recent vacation—which, because of its focus on fossils, I’ve dubbed “The Extinction Tour,” with markedly mixed emotions.

On one hand, I am again awed, fascinated and inspired by the pageant of life across the ages, and the distant familiarity of places such as Fossil Lake and even the landscapes of the Mesozoic, where creatures never seen by human eyes lived out their time on Earth until other creatures, more suited to changing conditions, stepped in to fill their niche.

On the other hand, I am again angered, embarrassed and disgusted by the pageant of uncaring greed that has destroyed coastal habitats, impoverished marine ecosystems and left near-empty niches in biotic communities up and down America’s coasts.  For while evolution and extinction are constants that lead to new and wonderful life, the irresponsible depletion of our native waters—and regulators’ unwillingness to step up to the plate to fix the problems—is an aberration that is neither natural nor rational.

Viewed against the great pageant of life that Theresa and I sampled on our recent trip, it is nothing less than an offense against life itself, against nature and against whatever creative force each of us may choose to believe in.

And thus it is deeply, and morally, wrong.

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