Allow me to introduce you to fish you’ve likely never seen in the wild.
The Clear Lake hitch, the California salmon, the Pacific lamprey, the Owens Lake pupfish, the surf fish.
These fish, ranging from tiny minnows to toothy eels to historical behemoths providing nitrogen fertilizer to forests hundreds of kilometers from waterways where the fish live, are so vitally important to their surrounding ecosystems that their presence could said to define the lakes, streams, and coastlines where they live.
And yet. Most of us have never seen these fish, and some of us have never heard of them.
Our lack of familiarity with these fish is due, in part, to our [sub]urban lifestyles, our grocery-store reliance, and our societal tendency to divorce ourselves from the natural world by every means possible. Yet our lack of familiarity with these fish is also due to the fact that we are so far removed from them that we are permitting – even facilitating – their disappearance, through our ignorance.
It’s a vicious cycle: we don’t know what we are losing, and we are losing more than we know.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Because it took all of us to get into this mess, it will take all of us to get out of it.
For many years I offered film festivals on salmon. Now I write grant proposals to protect the hitch. But film festivals and projects will never be enough to stop the free fall population dives of these iconic species.
Today, an article I wrote about the hitch was published in The Revelator, a publication of the Center for Biological Diversity (an environmental nonprofit I support). It is part of a full-court-press effort to get the US Fish & Wildlife Service to do what they should have done years ago: declare the hitch endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Think of the ESA as the Medicins Sans Frontieires (Doctors Without Borders) for wildlife. When the ESA is invoked, all manner of ecological aid comes to the rescue, not only of the species in question, but for surrounding species, too.
The ESA is a powerful tool in our toolbox. It is largely responsible for bringing the bald eagle, humpback whale, the California condor, and many others (estimates range from the dozens to the hundreds) back from the brink of extinction.
The law prohibits harming or killing endangered species; bans the import and export of endangered species; requires protection for land and water vital to species recovery (“critical habitat areas”), and necessitates the development and implementation of recovery plans for listed species.
It is the latter two: protecting habitat and implementing recovery plans, that we most need for threatened species.
Of course I wish we didn’t have to undergo complex, lengthy legal processes to do the right thing. But this is not the world we live in.
Every single fish I’ve fallen in love with is highly endangered.
That these fish are also endemic, irreplaceable, and culturally significant to countless tribes and tribal communities is not coincidental.
I’ve written about the confluence of cultural and ecological genocides before: in my essay “The Language of Silence,” an ethnohistorical recounting of parallel, horrific crimes against Native tribes and aquatic wildlife of Clear Lake; in my research article “Invasive Plants Impact California Native Plants Used in Traditional Basketry,” (published by the California Native Plant Society), and in my multi-media piece “Holdfast” about the loss of kelp and tribal territories along the Mendocino coast.
This is the life of an ethnoecologist in the twenty-first century: I document loss.
I repeat: It doesn’t have to be this way.
We know what do do. We have always known what we need to do: pull our self-centered heads out of dark places and stop being greedy.
I would much, much rather be documenting the wins.
This is where you come in. Learn about the tragedies of California’s largest lake (Clear Lake). Understand the decisions, the science, and the history, behind the tragedies. Share the story of the hitch with one other person.
Then get on the phone, or get busy on email. Call and write every single decision-making body, every politician you can think of.
Tell them, “no more standing by while lives we care about disappear.”
Tell them, “I care just as much about a little fish as I do about big fish.”
Tell them, “we have the power to do the right thing.”
And then, come visit Clear Lake. Fall in love with another place that merits your attention.