January 2008

Monthly Archive

Refuge OpEd, Rutland Herald

Posted by on 31 Jan 2008 | Tagged as: Nature

The following appeared January 30th, in the RutlandHerald

Karl Meyer

                              Towards a true refuge

The Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge is currently accepting public comment on the direction the Refuge should take in its preservation work for the next 15 years.  Here’s one suggestion: preserve what’s here.  This is not a flip answer.  As a FISH and wildlife refuge they should take their mandate seriously.  Preserve the FISH.

I don’t’ want them chasing ghosts—continuing down the failed 40-year path of farm-raising hatchery Atlantic salmon and tossing them in the river to replace a run that’s been extinct since 1815.  Just 140 return per year. 

I want the Refuge to include plans to preserve the 300,000 American shad that came upriver in 1997–the year the Refuge was founded.   I want a plan that shows what the Refuge has done, and what it will continue to do, to nurse and nurture the 64,000 blueback herring that also swam upstream in 1997.  Part of the Refuge’s mandate is “watershed education” to create an informed public “that supports and understands anadromous fish restoration.”  The shad run is withering; the blueback herring is all but extinct since Conte arrived.  There is little evidence the public understands this tragedy.

The first three species in the Refuge’s conservation mandate are “Atlantic salmon, American shad, and river herring.”   It’s unconscionable that the public is unaware the shad run up the Connecticut River has been virtually reduced by half since Conte began.  Just 159,000 fish swam past Holyoke dam this year, compared to twice that many a decade back.  Blueback herring are now scarcer than sub-prime loans—just 69 swam past Holyoke in 2007, while there were 64,000 in 1997, and 310,000 five years before that.  As a FISH and wildlife refuge, that’s failure.

Another failure is what the public is being left to believe.  Many think salmon is an endangered species here.  It is not.  The Connecticut River’s native salmon strain became extinct two centuries back.  And though it is widely believed that dams put the final nail in that salmon-run’s coffin, it is likely that a short-term climate aberration called the Little Ice Age (1300 – 1850 A.D.) brought cold Atlantic currents–and Atlantic salmon, south to the Connecticut at that time.  When cold currents receded, so did salmon.  They were visiting the southern-most major stream in their fluctuating footprint.  When currents warmed, detouring runs withered—at the same time dams blocked the last spawners.

Salmon is a mythical fish.  It’s big.  It leaps.  Fishermen moon over it like hunters who want to believe in wolf packs and cougars in the woods.  These are ghosts.  The extinct salmon run is simply extinct.  Global warming will not favor a cold water species on a warming river.  Shad were never extinct.  The river teemed with them a decade back.  Why this fish was never prioritized is a tragedy.  It’s been salmon first.  Salmon in grade schools; salmon studies at Conte Fish Lab; and preserving “salmon” streams.  The return on this has been misled school kids and 140 hybrid fish produced at huge expense in energy-sucking hatcheries.

Isn’t it time for change?  Studies left quietly under the radar show that American shad are virtually blocked at Turners Falls dam.  The number of shad passing successfully through fishways there is hovering at 1% since the year 2000.  That was the first season after deregulation allowed hydro-operators–at Turners Falls and just upstream at Northfield Mountain, the unencumbered ability to pump the Connecticut up and down according to spikes in hourly prices on the electricity “spot market.”  Since that change shad passage has plummeted by 85% at Turners.   The river population of shad has dropped a full 17% since 2000.  New Hampshire and Vermont no longer have shad runs. 

A main Refuge artery is blocked—adjacent to a Refuge Visitor Center and the Conte Fish Lab.  The public hasn’t a clue.  No clamor is raised by researchers and the Connecticut River Coordinator’s Office because the handful of salmon that reach Turners fishways pass there easily—all SEVEN this year.  The facilities were designed for salmon, not hoards of two-foot long, green-gold shad, or shiny, foot-long herring–this river’s living fish.  These are not sexy enough, apparently.  So grade school teachers offer kids myths.

Sadly, decades of failed marine fisheries policy may have doomed herring runs to extinction due to wildly fluctuating populations of predatory striped bass.  But the Refuge could keep its name as a true FISH refuge if it prioritized saving the eminently preservable, arguably magnificent, American shad.  The public—in classrooms, in Vermont and New Hampshire; along the entire River, could have an enduring refuge symbol.  But that recently blocked artery at Turners Falls dam would have to be unstopped—fisheries experts would have to speak honestly; committees charged with preserving fish runs would have to stand up; FERC regulators would have to regulate; lawmakers litigate.  That would lead to a real refuge, one with an informed public and real fish—one with an honest future.  Preserve what’s here. 
                                         #  #  #

 Karl Meyer lives in Greenfield, MA.  His book Wild Animals of North America has been given a 2008 Teachers’ Choice Award for Children’s Books.  


Conspiracy to bird

Posted by on 08 Jan 2008 | Tagged as: Politics

The following essay appeared as an OpEd in both the Daily Hampshire Gazette and the Greenfield Recorder on January 2, 2008.

Karl Meyer © 2007
Conspiracy to Bird

I am standing at the intersection of Wildlife and Freedom—or that’s what it feels like. Actually I’m on Northeast Street, a secondary road with farms on one side and condos on the other. It’s fifteen degrees on Christmas Bird Count Day and I’m looking for birds in Amherst, Massachusetts. I’ve returned to this college town each December for 23 years–since about the time I voted in Amherst Town Meeting for funding to preserve these farms.

When I turn around a policeman is there, cruiser lights flashing on low. He rolls down his window and peers at me–laptop and police equipment in easy reach. I’m surprised, mildly annoyed. He is friendly though, “Hi Sir, could you tell me what you’re doing here with binoculars?”

Here it makes sense to set the scene a bit more. I’m 5’8”, with white, white, hair. I’m standing on the shoulder in a bright yellow anorak, wool pants, and mittens–a pair of binoculars at my neck. I’ve been peering into patches of scrub and staring at old farm silos hoping to identify birds. My main concern—what with the yellow slicker, is not getting shot by deer hunters—or picked off by a car at this farmland edge. I’m as conspicuous as can be, and it’s backfired. An officer of the law is now assessing my threat status.

“I’m looking at birds,” I say. “Looking at birds?” he repeats. I nod. I can tell this is making sense–the binoculars, the funny dress. “Someone called–I had to check it out.” This too makes sense. I offer a little more, “I’m counting birds, it happens every year. They usually hold the count on a Sunday, but changed it to Saturday because of the weather. There’s a bunch of people out doing this.” This seems plausible. “So, you’re counting birds?” “Yup.” With that he appears satisfied. I turn back to my business. But he hesitates, “Could you tell me your name?”

At this point something shifts.

I look back at the young man in the cruiser. He hasn’t been impolite. But now I’m dealing with a whole different animal. Can you tell me your name? I ponder this existential moment: a middle-aged guy in flame-yellow and mittens. I understand. Some older person saw me peering through spy glasses, grew nervous; called. This officer came to check. It should have ended there. His further question moved a polite inquiry to the level of personal invasion, given my lack of guile. My expression changes again, to surprise; annoyance.

I can see the charges—including conspiracy to bird. Will there someday be a national registry–birders spying on birders?? I consider the next twenty years at this spot; a country grown more suspicious, fearful. I look at the computer. I’m staring at a rolling data bank when I’ve come for horned larks.

That’s when I state, with more than disinterest, “You’re going to have to talk to a lawyer, pal.” I should have left off the pal, but my rights were being trampled. I was threatened—like that old person. Civil rights are my territory. They’re every citizen’s turf–that free space in our hearts and minds that make each of us safe. They make this country of common laws special. Each time we cede them, individually, collectively—we are less safe; less free.

And so I reply with, “This is a public way. These are binoculars,” and walk on. His lights flash as he drives off. But that computer had likely long-ago scanned my plates. He had my information—likely knew it while we talked. He didn’t offer his name.

Just like the edges of these farms–slowly disappearing before developer’s cash–our rights are eroding. They fray from disuse, ignorance, the abuse of fear by an increasingly secretive government banking on a sheep-like acquiescence of citizens. Absent an understanding of civil rights, we are no special country at all. We trumpet math and science, while the tenets of freedom, privacy, and democracy gasp for air. Perhaps why I head out on cold December days is to feel a little free. It’s why “pal” slipped into that brief interrogation. My rights are a bit raw at the moment. It’s why I chose to be simply “free citizen” that day, under blue sky.

The next morning the BBC interviewed Judith Krug, Director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom for the American Library Association. Krug has fought for the right to free inquiry for decades–has stood up to keep the government from snooping library records of ordinary citizens. She’s defended books banned for stating simple truths. Her final question was “why have you kept up the fight so long?” She answered–clear as a winter day, “Because I’m not a person that the government can rule by fear.”

Fishing the Big Three

Posted by on 07 Jan 2008 | Tagged as: Humor

* the following commentary aired on American Public Media’s Marketplace on December 27, 2007.  If you scroll down the right side of this page to “Blog Roll,” there is a link to their web page and the story.  I think it works…

KarlMeyer                                                                                           © 2007

                                     Fishing the Big Three


There was no room for panic; no margin for error.  I watched–as if from above.  One minute I’m enjoying the simplest of quick-lunch pleasures; the next I’m hurtling down a path toward oblivion, a twig-like object wedged between my teeth.  The culprit was a can of chunk white albacore.  I plunged my hand into the mess and clamped on the menacing stick.  Pulling back, I experienced the same rush cardiologists must feel when the paddles bring a heartbeat back to life, “I’m rich!”

The tuna bone, an inch-long relict of Thunnus alalunga, glistened.  My eyes darted to the can.  Yes!  I’d hooked into one of the Big Three!  Now, instead of my life ending in premature asphyxiation, I’m suddenly contemplating ascension to the ruling class.  Call me lucky, call me Ishmael– just don’t call me late for dinner!

Shaking, I washed the bone.  I contacted the tuna company’s website, stating facts: I have the bone; I have the can in a photo with a dated newspaper.  I didn’t mention lawsuit, or involuntary manslaughter.  We’re all professionals.  This could be handled neatly.  I’d await their generous offer.  I started pricing houses and hybrid cars.

The letter arrived a week later, standard mail, “A bone the size you reported is not typical of our efforts to produce the highest quality canned tuna on the market.”  A settlement of sorts was enclosed: four free cans of albacore with hopes that this would restore my consumer confidence.  They requested the bone back, and included two coupons for 25 cents off.  Big Tuna, showing me the love.

So this was customer care?  Double coupons–my loyal-silence secured for the price of stinking mackerel??  Well not so fast Chunk Lite!  Even a fish knows fishy when he smells it.  No deal–bottom feeder!  Try starting with roses next time, maybe a little sushi.  For now, I’m securing your little tuna terror-bone in a tiny evidence bag.  Have your people get in touch with mine.  We’ll talk turkey, brand-loyalty, hybrid cars…