Thursday, February 25, 2016


It was pivotal phrase from Jurassic Park, in both the move and in the novel.

After being reassured that the park had strict control of its dinosaur-production process, and that there was no way that unauthorized—and potentially dangerous—natural reproduction could occur outside of the lab, one of the more cynical characters expressed severe doubts. 

Questioning whether humans could ever exert complete control over natural processes, uttered five simple words.  “Life will find a way.”

And, of course, it did, which led to all sorts of unpleasant consequences in that fictional world.

Now, it seems that life is finding a way in the real world, too, but on those occasions, the consequences are nothing but good.

For example, just a few years ago, Atlantic salmon returned to France’s River Seine.

The fish had been missing for most of a century, victims of the dams, farm chemical runoff, sewage and industrial pollution that have teamed up to destroy runs of anadromous fish in rivers and streams all over the world.

Suddenly, without any formal effort to reintroduce them, the salmon were back.  And it wasn’t just one or two fish; hundreds, perhaps one thousand or more, swam right past Paris in 2009.  The only thing that people needed to do—although it was a big thing—was get the pollutants out of the river.

More recently, Atlantic salmon surprised folks on this side of the ocean, too.

Historically, New England’s Connecticut River hosted a strong Atlantic salmon run, perhaps the southernmost such run on the American coast.  But hundreds of years ago, perhaps even before the United States gained its freedom, the same twin plagues of dams and pollution annihilated that run.

For forty-five years, the National Marine Fisheries Service worked with the states to return Atlantic salmon to the Connecticut River, breeding hatchery fish in an effort to create a naturally-reproducing stock.  Their success was extremely limited, with only a few of the released salmon returning.  In 1991, they discovered a redd (salmon nest) in the Farmington River, but its location and timing made it highly unlikely to produce any young.

Finally, in 2013, NMFS shut down the salmon restoration program.

Some of the salmon released into the ocean had found their way home.

Before the hatchery program was terminated, about 2% of the released salmon returned each year.  However, no natural spawning took place, as biologists captured all of the returnees they could find, to maximize hatchery egg production.  

Now, with the hatchery program shut down, the salmon are trying to make it on their own.

The odds are against them.  Three nests don’t produce many fry, and the perils of life in the ocean are great.  But yet…

Things work out even better when people pitch in to give fish a hand.

On every coast of this nation, even those of Alaska and Hawaii, obsolete and unneeded dams are being removed to reconnect rivers’ headwaters to the sea and anadromous fish with their upstream spawning grounds.  Where dams cannot be removed, there has been a renewed effort to restore fish passage and recreate historic spawning runs.

The results have been very good.

The nation’s largest dam removal project, on Washington’s Elwha River, began in 2011; salmon were soon ascending above former dam sites, seeking spawning grounds that they had been denied access to for one hundred years.  With the dams removed and sediment no longer trapped behind concrete walls, habitat is being restored throughout the river's course, from the now swift-running channels to the new sandbars growing where it meets the sea.

But projects don’t need to be big to be successful, and while salmon are beautiful and iconic creatures, they are far from the only fish that run upstream to spawn.

In the spring of 2013, the Village of Babylon, New York, aided by the Seatuck Environmental Association and a federal grant, built a fish ladder on the Carll’s River, a modest stream on the south shore of Long Island. 

The following March, as part of a project to monitor river herring runs in Long Island’s waters, I was standing on the banks of that river one evening when I spotted what might have been the first river herring in over 100 years attempt to reach upstream spawning grounds.

Yes, it felt like a victory, and it felt even better when I later learned that a video camera set up inside the ladder recorded a few hundred herring ascending the river that year.

America’s fish stocks have suffered countless abuses in the five hundred years since the founding of Jamestown.  Dams, pollution, habitat loss and just plain overfishing have whittled down their numbers and extinguished spawning runs.  On top of those historic insults, waters warming from climate change has created further challenges for many populations.

It is easy to despair.

It is easy to believe that we will never again see healthy populations of winter flounder or Georges Banks cod, or that drought, dams and irrigation’s demands will doom California’s salmon.  

It is easy to talk ourselves into giving up, instead of “wasting” time and effort on a cause that was lost long ago.

But easy paths are seldom the right ones.

Instead, we must find occasions for hope.

We must gain inspiration from the River Seine’s salmon, and from the Carll’s River’s herring as well.

Life will, indeed, find a way, if given the slightest chance.

It is our job to create such chances.

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