We recently got our hands on a copy of Matthew Miller’s new book, Fishing Through the Apocalypse: An Angler’s Adventures in the 21st Century. Miller is Director of Science Communications for The Nature Conservancy and a great writer.
The book dives into the subculture of microfishing, the tropical invasives of Florida, the glory of chasing huge gar, sturgeon, and even bluegills – all full of brilliant writing and wildlife biology insight, and told from the viewpoint of someone who loves to fish.
Miller writes of streams of the east and upper Midwest, the places I grew up where the water ran foul and unnaturally orange, devoid of any life, places that had once ran thick with shad, eels, chubs, bass, or other species. Those ecosystems are almost surely irrevocably destroyed. Hardly anyone has a living memory of what those rivers and streams had been like. And so Miller wants to document what it means to fish now, to avoid losing what is there today to shifting baselines.
But he also wants us to look critically at our chosen (hobby, lifestyle, career, religion…idk?), with clear eyes, to see modern fishing for what it really is. A few excerpts below:
Much of the fishing we experience in the 21st century is no less unnatural than pulling Amazonian fish from a trash-strewn Miami canal. The aesthetics may be more pleasing, but the situation is just as synthetic. We just can’t see through it through the haze of nostalgia and the pleasure of a fish on the line.
You can catch a hatchery rainbow and perhaps lie to yourself that it is actually a wild fish. You can’t do that with a banana trout. You know it was only recently swimming around a concrete run, gulping pellets. For this reason, perhaps all stocked fish should be bananas. Then maybe anglers could acknowledge the reality that much of the 21st century fishing relies on similarly unnatural fish.
The annual sportsman’s show at the county fairgrounds has a large inflatable pool filled with trout. Kids can stand around it and “fish” for those trout. You never see an adult do this, of course. You couldn’t dangle a line into a swimming pool and not feel a fool. And yet, many ponds, streams and reservoirs offer exactly the same fishing situation, just in a more natural setting.
Can we still delude ourselves that our hooks and lines connect us to the natural world?
Fisheries managers boast of their scientific approach, but this science belongs to modern livestock production, not wildlife biology.
No matter how real they make it, you can’t shake the idea that it’s an inferior copy of something magnificent… And if we aren’t careful it could be the symbol of our future.
The book also delves into the other side of hatchery programs, the state agencies and wildlife organizations doing everything possible to keep tiny populations of wild native fish alive. These scenarios haunted me as well.
There are a few examples in the book where the survival of these populations will rely on sustained intensive human management.
I asked Miller, “Do you have any reservations or concerns about putting that much effort into conservation project with no hope of reaching a sustainable state? Aren’t invasive species part of fishing in the apocalypse?
I ask as someone who for a long time would’ve wanted to fight to save every precious relict subspecies. But when we are supporting these populations, how wild are they? How are they different from a hatchery program? And could these resources potentially be directed toward more sustainable instances of preserving biodiversity?”
Matt responded with the following:
This is an excellent question. First, in many places, the habitat is so changed that restoration of native species (or removal of non-native species) is simply no longer feasible. Certain waters would be a waste of time and money to try to restore. These ARE novel ecosystems, and we are going to have to make peace with the fact that not everything can be restored to a “pristine” state (whatever that is).
That said, I think intensive management in a number of instances CAN restore native species. I believe it is worth the expense and effort, for reasons I’ll explain in a bit. For many native trout streams, particularly in the West, the problem is not habitat or water quality or massive, landscape-scale changes. It’s because someone stocked the waters with non-native species, often for angling purposes. That’s a problem, but not an insolvable one.
In Yellowstone, for instance, the habitat is great. Cutthroat trout will thrive if invasive species are removed. That requires a massive effort, to be sure. And it’s reliant on the hope that no one will restock the waters illegally (this is a matter of outreach and changing angler values, another difficult but not impossible problem). However, the effort is working towards a sustainable state. Cutthroat trout can thrive in Yellowstone. I believe we will live to see this full return to native fish glory in the park.
Gila trout similarly require intensive management now. And events like fires have hampered the program, but that’s because the full restoration hasn’t occurred. There is progress. Again, Gila trout can thrive in many areas if the non-natives are removed. That’s possible without much difficulty in some wilderness streams. In others, it requires interventions like the concrete barriers I describe in the book. In others, it will mean Gila trout are sustained through hatcheries. But the bottom line is that this is all working towards sustainability: towards a future where Gila trout are abundant and resilient. Again, I don’t think that is impossible.
For me, the underlying principle is Leopold’s admonition to “save all the parts.” I think intensive management is worth it because in the future, values towards nature can change, restoration techniques and technologies can change, a lot can change. If we have still have the native subspecies and strains, we can work towards a future where they thrive without intervention. In the meantime, that may require human intervention. That may be idealistic, or wishful thinking, but that’s the future I want to see.
I think there are many thorny issues around all wildlife in the Anthropocene. Right now, nearly any surviving rhinos require 24/7 surveillance of armed guards. The options appear to be to forego this intensive protection, and have rhinos go extinct. Or guard them with the hope that someday we will not need to guard them and rhinos will go on with their lives. Some believe we are only delaying the inevitable by guarding them. I do not have the answers, but ultimately it comes down to values.
I value native fish. Maybe that ultimately blinds me to the reality, but I think it’s worth doing what it takes to “save all the parts” and work towards a future where these intensive efforts aren’t necessary.
Freshwater ecosystems are our most endangered and fragile. This book provides a great lens for looking at these species with an angler and conservationists’ eye. It’s bracing, but hopeful. Definitely put this on your reading list. -MS