Swimming with Sturgeon

Jason Rainey
Thursday, December 8, 2011

Several years ago I picked up the morning newspaper and came across one of those stories that forces you to sit down, breathe deep, and read on. No, it wasn’t the latest inter-governmental report on climate change forecasts nor a numbing reminder that the global economy is extinguishing species at an average clip of 200 per day. It was an article about Green Sturgeon.

When I lived in Russia as a young man, I’d come to know this ancient and mysterious creature mostly through their roe, and their lore: a fish without bones (having taken a different evolutionary path from bony fish a long time before the dinosaurs stopped roaming the Earth), longer than an out-stretched Olympic swimmer, reaching sexual maturity and the end of a natural life at about the same time as you and me.

As a dam-removal activist in California, I’d come to learn of the green sturgeon’s anadromous habits (birth and spawning in freshwater, getting big in oceans and estuaries), of its finicky reproductive patterns (they can wait many years until ideal spawning conditions are found), and of the highly threatened existence of the “Distinct Southern Population” that plies the waters of Oregon and California.

I had become, well, emotionally involved with the species in 2006 when we located and photographed a pair of sturgeon on the Yuba River circling in the plunge pool of an impassable dam. Scientists, who admittedly know little about this enigmatic and elusive fish, informed me at the time that there were likely only be a couple dozen spawning-aged green sturgeon that utilize the whole of the Sacramento River and her tributaries. We went ahead and gave “our” Yuba sturgeon nicknames, knowing full well they wouldn’t stay there long.

So to read in the newspaper that morning in 2007 that ten (10!) adult green sturgeon had been crushed in the gates of a diversion dam on the upper Sacramento River was a blow to my mind and my heart. “Did we really just lose nearly half of the remaining spawning population for this river?” I asked myself. “Were the two that we had come to know on the Yuba among the dead?”
The subject of biodiversity is ultimately one about relationships more than statistics. The statistics are indeed grim: we’re losing species at 1,000 times the normal rate and these losses are most pronounced in riverine ecosystems.

Yet it’s the inter-relationships between species that create resilience in a community—an ecological community as well as our human community. As Janine Benyus, a pioneer in the field of bio-mimicry, points out, “Life creates conditions conducive to life.” It is this fecundity and species richness that has propelled the evolution of life on Earth, and which created such a diverse and hospitable place for humans to find their niche, enmesh within the web of life, and to become what we call today “indigenous.”

As a species, we’ve obviously crafted lifeways that are undoing a couple billion years of interdependent planetary evolution, a process of diversification of life that really ramped up after the last extinction climax 65 million years ago. The irretrievable loss of the Yangtze River baiji dolphin or the extinction of a third of all wild salmon runs on dammed rivers throughout the US West are just the most charismatic examples of shredding the safety net that supports our own existence and viability.

We’re losing life forms that have the ability to nourish us, keep our water clean, produce breathable air and fertile soil, and ultimately make our planet the amazing place it is.
If we don’t protect our biological richness and diversity, we undercut the re-generative capacity of the Earth, we undermine the prospect of life creating the conditions conducive to life.
This is one of the reasons why International Rivers—and you as a supporter of our work – are so important in this zeitgeist. We are defending the Earth’s lifelines: protecting aquatic biodiversity while simultaneously lending our muscle and smarts to changing an often fool-hearty and pernicious economic development model that persists in under-valuing healthy ecosystems and the protection of biodiversity.

At International Rivers, we’ll continue to make our stand arm in arm with resistance movements throughout the global South, to give space for the necessary redesign of human systems to meet our needs in a way that enhances and regenerates the planet’s biological diversity. The alternative is to take our chances swimming with the sturgeon.