Friday, January 31, 2014

Remembering Not to Forget

How did we lose sight of the riches our streams and rivers once provided?  Accounts from early European settlers tell of unimaginable numbers of fish filling the rivers during spring spawning runs. There were so many fish that thousands could be caught in a day, and hundreds were placed in fields as fertilizer. Eels were in such large abundance that they were used for everything from horsewhips to hair oil. It’s been estimated that eels once made up one-fourth of all fish biomass in rivers on the Atlantic coast.

In his book, RunningSilver, John Waldman talks of the shifting baselines syndrome where we begin a pattern of forgetting that over the generations shifts our understanding of the true nature of these systems. You can say the same about global warming. As each generation becomes more and more used to a world without snow, we will forget that outdoor ice skating was oncecommonplace in Rhode Island and will believe that ice on Narragansett Bay is an“extraordinary” occurrence.

In the beginning, fish runs were preserved with bypass channels as mills were built, and farmers would come and take dams down by force if necessary. A 1735 Massachusetts law did not allow dams on rivers that would serve as a barrier to fish. This law was generally ignored and as rivers were taken over by human machinery, many mill owners just waited until the fish runs became smaller and smaller to the point where people forgot. They then claimed that fish had never run in the river, and it made no economic sense to restore them. A 1920 state inventory of river herring found that the Mill River in Taunton was so badly polluted by manufacturing waste that restoration of the fishery would be “impossible”.

We began to forget, but the fish did not. The fish persisted and even in the beginning of this century runs of river herring on the Taunton River remained above two million fish. Today, we have removed some obstacles and have restored water quality to a degree, but the fish are not returning. We all speculate on the reasons, and they are many.

Slowly, our public resources were taken over by private interests and now restoration must be done with public money. Many private dam owners are willing to take down their unwanted dams, but not without the help of federal and state agencies who pay most if not all of the cost. Because fish passage restoration is a goal of the government, we are willing to see this happen. State agencies have the duty to protect the public, so they inspect private dams, rather than require owners to do it themselves. How did we get here, and why do we allow these attitudes to persist? It certainly is the tragedy of the commons, but we should not leave it at that. We should reevaluate what a shared resource means for all people and all species, and not forget what we once had, even if we can’t go back in time.