I never met Elmer Crow, but I feel like I know him after watching Lost Fish, a movie by Freshwaters Illustrated. What Elmer says resonates with me. I get it, and Lost Fish does a great job of telling the story. Elmer is part of the Nez Perce tribe and tirelessly worked to restore Lamprey. He saw what he thought was the last Pacific Lamprey on the South Fork of the Salmon River in 1974. He was puzzled as to why the Creator showed him this one fish swimming over a sand flat, and he worried that he might have seen the last one. So he dedicated himself to preserving Pacific Lamprey. Elmer died last year and I wish I would have had the opportunity to meet him in person.
Last May I saw a lamprey for the first time. I was running a trip with 5th graders and the students and I were amazed by this 2 foot long tube of muscle. I watched the lamprey in the water for as long as I could without losing the class. The caramel brown fish clung to a rock with its sucker disc mouth. Its eyes were set back on its head and watched me as I watched it. There was a consciousness in that eye, a kind of ancient wisdom. Its spiracles, precursors to the gills on more evolutionarily modern fish, pumped water. Its nose was beaten and white due to its incredible journey from the sea to this stream. Maybe it was the look of the fish, and its prehistoric place in the evolutionary ladder. Maybe it was its calm demeanor. Even though it was surrounded by 50 legs, it just held onto that one rock. Maybe it was the knowledge that its life was almost over after this incredible reproductive journey. Or maybe it was the feeling that I might be looking at the last one in the Octoraro, just like Elmer experienced in the South Fork in 1974. There are few surveys of lamprey where I live, and we don’t have a good assessment of lamprey population trends. It is likely that numbers of these fish are dropping like other aquatic migrants such as shad, eels, and sturgeon, due to dams and declining water quality. Maybe it was all of those things, but whatever it was, something instantly bonded me to this lamprey. Like Elmer, I felt a connection to that one fish.
It’s pretty amazing how one person’s passion can be the catalyst needed to inspire others to act. Thanks to Elmer Crow and Freshwaters Illustrated ’s story telling ability we are working on a migratory fish education program and are putting energy into dam removal efforts on a few eastern rivers. Understandably the two are closely related. We are excitedly preparing to take a group of inner city 5th graders on an exploratory journey that will investigate removing the first dam in a string of 11 on a river that runs through their city. It might be the igniter needed to drop the 10 others and re open this river to shad, herring, lamprey and eels. I try to tell people about these amazing ancient fish, and the other aquatic migrants who are declining in number every chance I get. But maybe most importantly, I try to share a little of Elmer’s passion in the hopes that it will inspire more.
Lost Fish by Freshwaters Illustrated will be released this spring. Go to their web site www.freshwatersillustrated.org for more info and to orrder your copy.