The sign was prominent, with a big red slash through the silhouette of a fish. Don’t eat more than 2, 8 ounce meals of fish per YEAR taken from this river. No wonder why many people think our local streams and rivers are dead. No wonder people think there is nothing of worth or value living in our local creeks. No wonder people don’t act to protect what is still there. I am not suggesting these signs are not necessary, they are. But they only tell one small part of the overall picture. Yes we have polluted our environment to the point it is no longer safe to eat fish, drink water, or breathe air, for that matter, in some places. And somehow these degraded conditions are accepted as ok. How is it remotely ok to have fish so contaminated eating more than 2, 8 ounce fillets in a year can cause health effects? How is it ok to have water we can’t drink or air we can’t breathe? Unfortunately we need these warning signs, and I hope they serve as a wakeup.
But what this sign doesn’t reveal is the incredible ecosystem that remains in the Brandywine and our other familiar rivers, in spite of the insults we throw at it. I slid into the water after explaining that there really are things to see in this river to a father and his 2 sons. I am sure snorkeling here looks odd in the summer. I’m sure it is perceived as flat out bazaar now, at the end of November.
It didn’t take long before the first fish came into view. A large northern hog sucker darted off from right beneath me in 2 feet of water. I followed the motion to a flat rock, where the fish let me slowly approach. I watched the hog sucker for a while, until it finally had enough of me and swam upstream. I let the current carry me gently downstream and started to explore a pile of logs on the stream bank. A tail of some kind of large fish stuck out of a rotted hole. It beat the water frantically as I approached, trying to push the fish deeper into the cavity. A bass held beneath the clump of wood and watched all the commotion. He was well camouflaged among waterlogged branches and piles of recently shed leaves.
A tessellated darter took a short hop away from me and stayed on the bottom. One of the benefits of snorkeling this time of year is the cold water slows everything down, and a lot of fish seem to be more reluctant to shoot away, so I have more time to watch and film.
I see a few dead freshwater mussel shells, as I expect, but don’t see any live mussels, as I also expect. Mussels in many of the rivers I snorkel don’t seem to be reproducing and there is growing concern about their future, so I’m doubtful I’ll encounter any here. Then I see the well camouflaged end of the shell of an Eastern Elliptio. Then I see another, and another. I am drifting over a vast mussel bed, and everywhere I look I see mussels. Mussels are filter feeders, and help maintain water clarity. Seeing these animals here gives me true hope in the future of the Brandywine.
Maybe we need to amend the signs. Yes we have crapped up the environment. Yes, fish is unfit to eat as a result. But it is far from a hopeless situation and there is a ton of incredibly beautiful, intriguing life waiting to be discovered and protected in our local, familiar rivers and streams. You just need to stick your face in the water.