Sunday, April 7, 2013

Shifting Baselines

Mrs. Beck used to show me photos of stringers full of native trout that came from what was now not much more than a trickle of a creek. At the time her and her husband caught those trout, the watershed of this stream was forested and theirs was the only house. By the time I came to know the Pumpkin Patch, it was degraded by decades of suburbia. I still loved that creek though. I stood on the bedrock that overlooks Principio falls and hoped for herring. I wanted to capture these fish in photos, not on stringers. It has been two years since I last saw herring in this stream. These are migratory fish. They spend the majority of their lives at sea and come into fresh waters to spawn in the spring. It is an eons old ritual I look forward to witnessing every year, and start counting days to their arrival long before the end of winter. They were so thick two years ago I could see enormous schools from the surface. Their eggs covered the bottom like a fine sand. They didn’t show up last year. They are in trouble and their numbers have fallen significantly mostly due to overfishing. I hoped their absence last year was just an aberration and not indicative of the precipitous decline in their numbers. I hoped the principio still had a herring run, and I had to wait an entire year for this moment, to get into the water and see if these fish returned. I scanned the stair step waterfall pools for any sign of herring, and found none. If they are here, they aren’t as abundant as ’11. I suited up and slid into the water. There weren’t any fish. Not even darters which have been abundant on almost every snorkel exploration here. I crawled upstream against a strong current, slid up a short falls and dropped into the first pool. Initially I just saw water clouded by algae fragments and fine entrained air bubbles, but then the first silver shape came just barely into view, then another. There were about six herring in this pool, where at least 50 held last time I snorkeled with them. But six was better than the none I saw last year. I floated and watched for a while, absorbing the sight. Six fish acted out on ancient instinct to get to clean freshwater gavel beds to spawn, to start the next generation of herring that will return to this river to start the next generation and so on. There was something immortal about the whole thing. I ascended a three foot bedrock ledge and slipped into the next highest pool and found more herring, acting with the same singleness of purpose to get up the falls to their spawning grounds. I felt better seeing this other dozen or so fish. Maybe the Principio herring run was intact. Maybe I would be able to share this incredible feat with my grandkids. Maybe I could pass this legacy on. There is something immortal about that too. I snapped photos as fast as the camera would allow. It’s the idea of shifting baselines. My baseline, my memory of what defines a healthy stream, is actually a degraded condition compared to what once was. The knowledge Mrs. Becks photos provided was the only way I knew what I perceived as pristine was far from it. I want my photos to serve the same purpose. I want my photos to remind us not to settle for less than what could be, because that’s all we remember. But unlike Mrs. Becks photos that show a lost abundance, I really hope my photos show a return to improved stream health. I hope my grandkids look at my portfolio and say can you believe how few herring there were compared to now? I hope the base line shifts to the positive.

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