This time of year, sea birds are appearing on coastal waters, having left their Arctic breeding grounds. Scoters and king eiders, buffleheads and goldeneyes travel great distances to spend the winter in warmer climates, often returning to the same harbor or river bend year after year.
Animal migrations are some of the greatest stories on the planet, connecting places that on the surface seem very different.
Tiny, colorful warblers link the Central and South American tropics to Canada’s boreal forest. Old fields and meadows of the United States are carried in the genes of generations of monarchs to the forests of central Mexico. Terns fly a hemispheric distance between the South Pole and the North Pole.
Oceanic migrations of fish, whales and turtles are no less amazing, but they happen out at sea, beneath the surface. Most of us don’t see them the way we might observe the seasonal comings and goings of warblers, monarchs and sea birds. There is one group of fish, however, that does come into closer contact with humans: the “sea-run” or “diadromous” species.
Salmon, eels and nine other sea-run fish make great migrations across the Atlantic Ocean and along the Gulf Stream and Labrador Current, migrating inland, along the East Coast of North America, some as far as hundreds of miles to spawn in shallow riffles at the feet of the Appalachian mountains. They are the subject of Running Silver: Restoring Atlantic Rivers and Their Great Fish Migrations by John Waldman.
Others have written about these fish individually over the decades: John Hay’s The Run (river herring), Dick Russell’s Striper Wars (striped bass); Richard Carey’s Philosopher Fish (sturgeon), James Prosek’s Eels, John McPhee’s The Founding Fish (shad), and multiple treatments of Atlantic salmon.
Thoreau had some thoughts on sea-run fish in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (Waldman quotes Thoreau and dedicated the book to the 19th century naturalist-writer), but Running Silver is the first non-technical book that covers the entire “suite” of diadromous species throughout their entire range and the shared history of their abundance and decline over the last few centuries.
Running Silver is, therefore, both comprehensive and wide-ranging. Waldman poses many questions, and he answers most of them, drawing on examples from his research and that of other scientists to tell the story of these 11 fish and their “primordial” character.
Waldman is an aquatic conservation biologist and a professor at Queens College in New York, and he spent 20 years as a scientist with the Hudson River Foundation. While his academic scientist side shows through the jargon that slips into his prose, it is the glimpses of his work as a scientist that are the highlight of the book.
The snippets of field work up and down the East Coast—improvising a fish analysis laboratory in a motel room in Maryland, waiting for the “shad crew” to arrive on the banks of the Delaware River, haul-seining striped bass from the surf on eastern Long Island, counting glass eels trapped in a tributary of the Hudson River—help show how science works, the mud and sweat and care and thought that are part of being a scientist.
Waldman is not afraid to advocate on behalf of his subject: “The book is my attempt to re-inspire efforts to reverse a badly shifted baseline and what I view as a (largely) squandered legacy,” he wrote.
Waldman has written previously on the “shifting baselines syndrome,” a term coined by fisheries biologist Daniel Pauly to refer to his fellow scientists’ habit of only going back as far as the data set, or the beginning of their own education, to set a baseline number for fish populations. As Pauly called on scientists to dig deeper into historical records, Waldman and others (such as filmmaker Randy Olson) have extended the idea to the popular imagination.
“The slow, ‘invisible collapse’ of these fisheries meant that the role these fishes played in the lives of early river-valley residents and the people they traded with faded,” Waldman writes in Running Silver. This “forgetting” resulted in the fish losing their societal standing, “so that their absence provides a sort of ‘permission’ to continue adulterating rivers.”
Waldman wants to resurrect these “ghost fishes” in the minds and memories of East Coast residents:
“Their fates need to matter; in our minds, they need to pass from poorly remembered specters to living creatures in need of a fair chance,” he wrote.
In his final chapter he proposes “ten ideas that could make a difference,” including more scrutiny of existing dams, more and better fish passage, more grassroots organizations, greater protection for healthy rivers and more children and their parents getting wet and getting to know their local waterway.
Running Silver offers another idea, that of stepping away from individual rivers and state boundaries to a perspective that considers all of eastern North America, and its shared cultural and natural histories. Local action to restore the fish that once filled rivers from Newfoundland to Florida might inspire a regional identity with nature, not politics, at its core.
Catherine Schmitt works at Maine Sea Grant and teaches writing at the University of Maine.