They are back. Finally after a long wait the first run of herring have returned to Principio Creek.
I watch as the first fish make their way back into the creek after what was perhaps a thousand mile journey. The pioneers battle current through swift riffles. The majority of the fish swirl into the rocky shallows where a number of smaller males chase larger females. Tails beat the water into a boil, but I don’t see any spawning and I think this might just some courtship behavior. Black tipped tails beat hard to propel the fish upstream and the school looks like blurry lines as I swim upstream with them. Their bronze backs and silver sides glow in shafts of sunlight that penetrate the water.
Thinking about the immensity of their journey makes me feel small in comparison and inspires awe at the complexity of the cycle. These fish started here, in this riffle 4 or 5 years ago as sandy colored eggs. The eggs that aren’t eaten and remain viable hatch into frail two eyes and a squiggle of a fish. Of the millions of eggs laid and fertilized, maybe 1% survived their journey to the ocean, and a fraction of that survived running the oceanic gauntlet to return home. These aren’t just a bunch of fish. These are the survivors. I can’t understand how these fish knew to return to the stream they were born. The intelligence it took for these fish to arrive here, in their natal stream, is beyond my comprehension. Some of these fish won’t survive to return to the sea. Others will. Either way these fish have a singleness of purpose: procreate. Perpetuate the species. There is a kind of immortality in that.
This moment of being in the water with thousands of fish was a celebration. Mid Atlantic herring populations have declined by 95% over the last 2 decades. But they still return in spite of us, and our dams, our over fishing and sediment clogged gravel bars. That they are so thick is hopeful that we can reverse the declining trends. I am watching the alpha and omega, finality and immortality. The beginning and the end of thousands of lives, the end of one generation and the beginning of another