Swimming with the Fish

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On a cold blustery day back in February, dozens of Sacramento fishermen and conservationists gathered in room eager to hear the fate of their own striped bass. With the ongoing problem of reduced numbers of Salmon and Delta Smelt, it had been proposed that the striped bass was, as one of their natural predators, the cause. The obvious solution, at least to the group called the “Coalition for a Sustainable Delta” which lobbied on behalf of the irrigation company, was to open up regulations on striped bass and help to eradicate this “non-native” species and increase the salmon and smelt populations.

However, when Commission President Jim Kellogg came out and spoke about his own personal experience of watching them turn on the irrigation pumps on in 1966, he spoke of a very different problem.  “I was there when Governor Reagan was there to cut the ribbon on the completion of 7 pumps, including 4 big ones and 3 small ones,” said Kellogg. And he relayed the story of watching hundreds of fish being sucked into the canals. This, coupled with the fact that striped bass populations have decreased at the same rate that salmon and delta smelt, made the 4-0 vote against the proposal seem like the only logical conclusion.

Fish lovers generally cheered the decision, thankful that this species which has co-existed peacefully for over 100 years would not be singled out for an aquatic ethnic cleansing. Others, however, were upset simply with the loss of a chance to do what they loved to their hearts content.

But wait…does it really mean they can’t? After all, fishing regulations are somewhat hard to enforce, relying heavily on the ethics of the fisherman to abide by them. So what’s to stop daredevil line casters from throwing that 12 inch striped bass into a cooler instead of back into the water?

Man throws his catch into a cooler

The answer:

Nothing.

Which is exactly what one man witnessed, while out snapping pictures at the river. Intrigued, he later googled the fishing regulations and realized what was going on. So while the proposed deregulation wasn’t passed, it would appear that the dwindling fish population will continue to struggle for survival not only against the pumps that suck them into oblivion, but from overzealous fishermen as well.

The striped bass are not the only ones to be blamed for the beloved salmon dilemma. Sea lions are being targeted as well. In 2011, the National Marine Fisheries Service passed a regulation that would allow the agency to kill up to 85 sea lions annually. In an almost surrealist way these agencies are doing their best to turn nature against itself, doing all it can to blame naturally occurring relationships for the damage that our own actions have caused.

Far across the globe, fish everywhere are struggling to survive as companies overfish the seas to make a profit. One of the main solutions to this has been the manufacturing of Fish Farms.  But this creates others problems including bland, unappealing fish and pollution due to excessive waste. A solution to this problem comes in the form of a man named Miguel Medialdea, a biologist by trade who focused not on the issues of food or even sustainability, but the relationships between environments and animals. And in the end, that’s what it all comes down to, relationships. In 1982, he took a vast wetland in Spain that had been drained and destroyed to be used as for cattle and rice farming (endeavors that failed).  Reversing the process which man had imposed on it, he pumped water back into the wetlands, managing not only to restore it but to turn it into a wildly successful fish farm and bird sanctuary. A highly sustainable one at that.

The farm, called Veta La Palma, has created such a natural environment that the fish are completely sustained by it, requiring no additional feed. By respecting that environment and farming “extensively” and not “intensively”, they manage to not only create a thriving business, but one that actually compliments and is in harmony with nature.

Flock of flamingos at Veta La Palma

If you visit the farm, you will find flocks of pink flamingos and other birds feasting on the fish. But they are not harmed, hunted, or even deterred. They are welcomed as part of the natural environment, even though they are predators and eat over twenty percent of the fish there. The owners here measure the health of their farm by the health of its natural predators, quite a revolutionary concept in the age that knows only to destroy them.

Here we have a real life solution to a problem that plagues many of our waterways. Hopefully we can learn from their example and avoid the ecological suffering endured by the wetlands in Spain. It would require a serious shift in conventional thought and practices however. It has been mankind’s tendency to attempt to bend nature to fit our needs, and unfortunately it often takes drastic tolls before we realize that the consequences of those actions affect not only the natural environment, but our society as well.

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  • Chas

    My husband and I were having a conversation about exactly what is in this article just yesterday. Funny how many people blame things like sea lions for the mess that mankind has made of our waterways and fish populations. Thank you for writing this!

  • D

    Take the dams out up river and many problems will resolve themselves…but you also forget pesticides and herbicides are all flowing into these watersheds.