Friday, October 28, 2011

Pacific Salmon in the Great Lakes

Lattices of salmon ribs litter the banks of a stream. On cold autumn nights, frost flowers bloom reflecting star light. The stream babbles and unintelligible song as it rushes westward. It is the salmons’ place to be born, to spawn; it is their place to disintegrate and die. Salmon are anadromous fish, fish evolved to follow an elegant rhythm of always returning to their birth stream to spawn after maturing in a saltwater or sweet water seas.

For male and female salmon alike, the imprint of place is their obsession. As smolts they burst from their transparent eggs still wearing a yolk sac on their bulging bellies. Like their ancient ancestors who breathed glacial melt water through their gills, the newborns streak down stream to the freedom of the great inland sweet water seas known as the Great Lakes. In jade green waters they feed their voracious dream until their bodies grow heavy with it—until they resemble silver purses stuffed with treasure: slick coral beads and pearly white milt.

Summer sun dazzles down through the thermoclines—the layers of warm, cool, cold water—where it enters through the fishes’ pineal eyes—triangles on top of their heads—giving them sure knowledge of their place in the larger scheme of things. They bide their time drifting in schools, fanning their tails in repose, gorging on small fish. They dream of their place where clear water chortles over quartz and granite under shifting shadows of white pine and tamarack. It is their place and as their urgent need to return gathers force under a moon that grows heavy on the horizon, a moon the color of salmon eggs, a moon that must change to bone white, the salmon mill about in the harbor.

The fishes’ bellies grow heavy as the harvest moon. The dream becomes reality as celestial cues, the sun, the moon, the stars enter each cellule and each dancing atom of their bodies. Then they begin. The fish return to their stream and nothing will stop them: they ignore hunger, snares, treble hooks. On their silvery sides their lateral lines carry everything they need to know; their maps and compasses imbedded in the circuitry of their bodies…the hereditary wisdom of their species carried in a network of circuits from pineal to tail. It is a sure knowledge of the west Michigan river system linked to the Great Lakes, or in other places, other river systems and other fresh or salt water oceans. It is also the wisdom of the constellations and the way their light glaces from silvery skinned fish, sparkling a wisdom older than mankind. To a salmon obsessed with its sense of place, failure means nothing. They defy high dams, leaping, leaping, leaping again and again until they hurl themselves over the top.

Home at last, the female hollows out a nest on the stream bed with her tail then cascades hundreds of coral bead like eggs into it. The male waits driving away his rivals with fierce charges. It is time. The male salmon releases a small galaxy of milt that will begin the life/death cycle again. Male and female have spent their silver purses in the stream. They are finished. In the next few days their flesh will fall away while they linger, easy prey for the raccoons, bears, ospreys and eagles. With their bones picked clean and their young curled in sleep on the stream bed, the transformation begins again. An osprey shadow glides over the shining stream. The sun rises as the moon glows faintly in the West.

Previously published in The Grand Valley Review, a publication of Grand Valley State University.
copyright by Barbara Spring

*Pacific salmon were planted in the Great Lakes as predator fish to control an invasive species, the alewife. Fishermen have been delighted with these sporty fish. Read more about this phenomenon in my book, The Dynamic Great Lakes available on Amazon's Kindle reader and widely available in paperback.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Climate Change affects the Great Lakes as reported by the AP

Al Gore, who shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his campaign to awaken people to the climate change threat, said warmer temperatures could nullify much of the progress made in recent decades to heal the battered Great Lakes. Increasingly, severe storms made worse by greater volumes of water vapor in the atmosphere are causing wastewater treatment system overflows that dump raw sewage into the lakes, he said. That forces beach closures and promotes growth of algae blooms that create oxygen-deprived zones where fish can’t survive.

“We’re still acting as if it’s perfectly OK to use this thin-shelled atmosphere as an open sewer. It’s not
 Gore said. “We need to listen to the scientists. We need to use the tried and true method of using the best evidence, debating and discussing it, but not pretending that facts are not facts.”
Gore, who shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his campaign to awaken people to the climate change threat, said warmer temperatures could nullify much of the progress made in recent decades to heal the battered Great Lakes.
Increasingly, severe storms made worse by greater volumes of water vapor in the atmosphere are causing wastewater treatment system overflows that dump raw sewage into the lakes, he said. That forces beach closures and promotes growth of algae blooms that create oxygen-deprived zones where fish can’t survive.
After largely disappearing as phosphorus discharges into the lakes were reduced decades ago, the algae problem has returned and is worse than ever in some places, primarily on Lake Erie. Smelly clumps of algae are fouling beaches on Lakes Michigan and Huron.
Gore’s critics have accused him of making exaggerated claims about climate change and cashing in on his activism through investments in green technology. But leaders of the International Joint Commission said his comments about the Great Lakes were based on findings of scientists in the region.
“He’s quoting what the researchers are saying,” said Ted Yuzyk, the Canadian co-chairman of an IJC group that plans to release a report next spring on how climate change is affecting the lakes. Researchers have found that heavy storms promote algae growth not only through sewage overflows, but also by washing greater amounts of nutrient-rich soils into the lakes, Yuzyk said.
Lana Pollack, who was appointed by President Barack Obama as the U.S. chairwoman of the commission, said: “There’s absolutely no doubt the challenges we face are greater and more confounding because of climate change.”

Friday, October 21, 2011

A Salmon Poem

Light from a star that died

shines out
from jade green eyes.
A salmon tail fans streambed stones
and dark silt swirls.
Millennia ago a star spurt fire and
now a constellation of eggs
and white milt spiral down
in black water.
Fishbone lattices litter the stream
that speaks of glaciers
and purls.
Frost flowers bloom on the cut bank
while embryos curl in sweet cold sleep below.

from The Wilderness Within by Barbara Spring

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Lake Erie is in Trouble Again

Lake Erie
Lake Erie is in Trouble Again
Editorial from the Detroit Free Press 10/18/2011

With Erie's health in jeopardy, years after herculean efforts to clean it up, there's a dire need to take action before it worsens -- and spreads.
In August, for example, the view from space showed algae spanning almost the entire western basin of Lake Erie. Well into this month, stringy swirls and vast nearshore swaths remained.
The algae can choke out other life. It creates even more problems -- and stink -- as it dies off. And the mass of algae in Lake Erie is increasingly dominated by more toxic varieties that already have been known to poison pets.
Research to date suggests the problem arises from a combination of agricultural practices and the weather.
But no one can do much about the weather, in this case the increase in major downpours that flush fertilizing phosphorus off fields rather than helping it soak in. Last spring was particularly rainy, almost certainly a factor in this summer's algae growth.
Another factor, tentatively identified by University of Michigan research Donald Scavia, is a trend toward fall fertilization on farms, rather than waiting to do it entirely in the spring each year.
Among the confounding factors: Back when Lake Erie was in trouble before, researchers knew that keeping soil on the fields would also help keep fertilizer on the fields. Farmers made dramatic improvements in reducing the sediments that got swept away -- only to find now that the phosphorus somehow escapes on its own to nourish the algae.
Continued agricultural research can presumably solve the riddle of timing and placement of fertilizer, but it must be done quickly and it must be well-funded.
Meanwhile, climate trends are hardly in Lake Erie's favor.
The frequency of heavy rains began increasing in the 1990s, Scavia said, and is expected to double by the end of the century. A longer growing season -- one of the potential pluses of climate change, in some people's view -- also gives algae more time to grow each year. At least one new type of algae has been found, and the mix of algae types runs heavily toward those that have toxic qualities.
The lake's dead zones also are growing. They occur when decaying material, such as from algae, takes up so much oxygen that none remains in the water for fish and other biological entities that need it.
And Toledo, whose water intake is perilously close to where major algae blooms can form, now spends an additional $3,000 to $4,000 a day on filtration to keep its drinking water safe, according to a University of Toledo researcher.
Scavia's research suggests that the arrival of zebra and quagga mussels in Lake Erie has not been a determining factor, although it's hard to believe they don't contribute at least a bit to the problem. As for fertilizer types, agricultural studies to date suggest the problems are just as severe in tributary basins where farmers don't use liquid manure as in those where they do. And since farmers would rather grow crops on their fields than algae in Lake Erie, they are very likely to follow whatever guidance they can get on fertilizing -- but someone has to figure it out first.
And the explosion of algae, in all its complexity, is only one of the problems facing the lakes.
Issues old and newSeveral groups joined together last week in Detroit for Great Lakes Week, making all of the serious issues highly visible. This unprecedented event offered the best opportunity yet for everyone involved with the lakes to mingle, to work toward maximum coordination of research, restoration and activism, and to speak with one voice in Washington and Ottawa, and in state and provincial capitals.
The problems are both new and old -- algae in Lake Erie being the best example of an old horror story spinning off an even more frightening sequel.
The other threats are equally large, and often as complex:
Invasive species: A newer problem, the ongoing threat of invasive species continues to top most people's lists. There's no doubt they have upset, and perhaps decimated, the balance of food for fish in the lakes, in addition to other problems they cause.
Overflows and runoff: After strong progress on upgrades to sewage treatment plants decades ago, storm-induced overflows increasingly put more waste into the water again. Combined with the effects of surface runoff, that impact shows most obviously on beaches that must be closed to swimmers after major rainstorms.
Contaminants: The lakes face other, less visible threats, too. The ban on dioxins and PCBs led to a decline of their presence in the lakes, but they still show up in fish tissue. And so do many of the chemicals that replaced them. Pharmaceuticals and compounds used in personal care and cleaning products are detectable in the water, too. Dangerous substances such as mercury continue to drop into the big lakes and inland waterways, washed in by rain after they've risen from the smokestacks of sources such as coal-fired power plants.
Glimmers of hopeThe most encouraging news involves parts of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and other projects that have begun to take hold.
The Great Lakes Legacy Act, the result of a long campaign by former U.S. Rep. Vern Ehlers, R-Grand Rapids, has gathered enough steam that some of the region's biggest toxic hotspots are being dredged out and restored. Within a year, three of these spots will be ready for delisting from their Areas of Concern designation. Over the next two-year cycle, assuming consistent funding, five areas are to be cleaned and delisted.
Restoration activities appear to have exploded this summer. Wetlands have been restored, land-based invasive species have been cleared out, partners have worked together along shorelines and riverbanks all across the basin to improve water quality and wildlife habitat in areas that feed the lakes. Several of these projects got targeted to accompany work at Areas of Concern, so the newly cleaned spots will also be newly welcoming to wildlife -- and people.
And, as beautiful as the lakes are, people remain the bottom line. Beauty has little value if the water doesn't meet the three priorities for human use: drinkable, swimmable, fishable. Lake Erie is coming perilously close to being none of those things. As a harbinger, it is a call to action.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Wooded Dunes of West Michigan

I painted this while at Hoffmaster State Park on the shore of Lake Michigan.  Pictured are the trees on wooded sand dunes.  Right now the colors are in their glory.  It's wonderful to get out and see them. 
To learn more about the Great Lakes and their wooded dunes, read The Dynamic Great Lakes.  Available from Barnes & Noble, Schulerbooks, Amazon's Kindle and many other fine bookstores.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Birds in the Wooded Dunes on Lake Michigan

In the wooded dunes along Lake Michigan some birds are preparing for winter.  The tufted titmouse hammers seeds into the bark of trees for times when they will be hard to find.  Woodpeckers fatten on insects found in the bark of trees.

I painted this watercolor of a woods near my home.  We see pileated woodpeckers that remind me of the cartoon Woody Woodpecker.  When I was a kid, I loved that cartoon.  A dead tree recently fell and it was filled with large holes made by the pileated woodpeckers.  When they are at work on a tree their loud hammering resounds through the woods. Their calls sound like tropical birds. But I did not paint that sort of woodpecker.  Pictured is the downy woodpecker that we often see and the tufted titmouse that often hangs out with chickadees. These birds will stay with us for the winter.