There is an inequity between the way we measure the health and well being of our land-based environments versus our water-based riverine, aquatic environments. It is best described as an inside out versus outside in perspective. Consider the following questions for a moment.
You are viewing a freshwater wetland consisting of 90% purple loosestrife and 10% native plant species. How would you assess its overall health and well being as a naturally functioning wetland? Would you say it was healthy and thriving, in a state of well being? Or would you say it was in trouble?
Perhaps you are viewing a tidally restricted salt marsh. It consists of 90% phragmites and 10% native salt marsh species. Would you say it was healthy and thriving, in a state of well being? Or would you say it was in trouble?
Or, perhaps you are evaluating the health of your own backyard environment as it pertains to bird species. If all that came to your bird feeders were pigeons and English sparrows, if there were no bluebirds, cardinals or robins, what would you think? Would you say that your backyard bird community was healthy and thriving, in a state of well being? Or would you say it was in trouble?
Most of us familiar with land-based environments would say yes. These environments are in trouble. They no longer support healthy thriving populations of native plant and animal species. Because we are intimately connected to our land-based environment throughout our daily lives, we have a different, inside out perspective toward it.
Conversely our riverine aquatic environments and their accompanying native species are often quite foreign to us. We are not in these environments or with these native species throughout our daily lives. Therefore, we tend to view them with an outside in perspective. Specialists within the fields of the aquatic sciences may understand them. However, to the casual river traveler they are too often foreign. Sometimes even within the scientific fields clear understanding of aquatic riverine relationships are fragmented, species become divided into groups studied separately rather than as a whole. Accurate historical perspective within these fields is often lacking as well.
As an example consider the freshwater mussels for a moment. Freshwater mussels are an important environmental indicator species for a rivers health and well being. Much like native birds and plants on land, diverse and thriving mussel populations in our rivers signal us that things are well with the water. How many of us know what mussel species reside in our river? What are their individual environmental requirements and life cycles? While paddling down stream we see some mussels on the bottom and think "this is good we have mussels in our river." However, what are we seeing? Are these mussels representative of a diverse, healthy and thriving population of freshwater mussels? Or are we seeing a diminished, struggling population dominated by the most tolerant species? In most cases we have no idea what their population status is.
Along this theme, we may read published literature about a river survey that found regionally threatened mussel species in our river. How do we interpret this information? How did the author interpret the surveyor’s data? How did the surveyor interpret what he found on the river bottom? We might read this document thinking "this is good we have regionally threatened mussels living in our river." Is this good? Yes, in simplest terms it is good they are here. However, in broader terms, from the inside out perspective, what are we seeing, how good is it? After all they are regionally threatened species. Do the populations in our river represent a healthy, thriving and increasing population? Or do they represent a population that continues to be threatened, surviving as small pocket populations unable to thrive in what has become a chemically and physically altered aquatic environment.
Compounding this lack of perspective caused by the fact that we are not in or part of our aquatic riverine environments. Is our often detached historical perspective. When eagles, ospreys, hawks and other birds began disappearing from our woods, fields and backyards we were aware of it. We became alarmed because many of us had a long relationship with them, a common bond, they were familiar faces in our everyday lives. We knew their names and songs, understood their environmental requirements and habitats. We were stakeholders together in protecting and ensuring a healthy environment for both our well beings.
It is safe to say that most everyone living in the Taunton River Watershed knows the robin. We know that it builds a nest, we know that its eggs are blue, we know that it flies south for the winter and signals the arrival of spring when it returns. We take this knowledge for granted. On the other hand, how many of us in this watershed know the American Shad, rainbow smelt, blueback herring, Atlantic sturgeon, brook trout, fall fish, American eel, sea lamprey, tom cod, white perch, and striped bass? How many of us realize that the American Shad and these other species were once as abundant in the Taunton River as the robin is along its shores. To the Wampanoag's and later to the English settlers the return of the American Shad was the first and most celebrated rite of spring. Before the turn of the century their were extensive commercial fisheries for shad in the Taunton River. Today the American shad and these other species are seldom found here.
How about the fisherman drifting down stream through Titicut? He throws his lure behind a rock where the Wampanoag's weir once stood. A largemouth bass darts from behind the cover, seizing the lure. After a brief battle he brings the five pound trophy to net. The angler catches several more fish that morning and feels good about his good fortune. While heading back upstream he pauses at the rock which held the mornings trophy. Reflecting on his success, he thinks how fortunate he is to have so many largemouth bass in the river. What he may not realize is the spot that yielded his trophy largemouth today once swarmed with blue back herring and their ever present antagonists the native striped bass. Many of these native striped bass would have been as long as his leg, and more than ten times the weight of his introduced trophy largemouth bass.
This outside in perspective coupled with our detached historical perspective has the effect of dumbing down our expectations for the river and for ourselves. We focus on the undeveloped green corridor which borders the river. We drift down stream wringing our hands over a regionally unique wetland or threatened species, when beneath our canoes the globally unique ecosystem that is our river lies crippled. Species that once pulsed like blood through the veins of our river the Shad, blue back herring, sturgeon, rainbow smelt, sea lamprey, striped bass, American eel are today viewed as curiosities. Populations of native anadromous fish which at one time surged up stream by the millions. Whose juveniles poured down stream in late summer through fall by the hundreds of millions, now exist as remnant populations. Water which once boiled with life lies quiet, populated by scattered populations of introduced species, largemouth bass, carp and pike.
Today, thirty years after the passage of the Clean Water Act the Taunton River and many of our New England rivers are at a crossroad. No longer fouled by raw sewage and industrial waste, they appear quite healthy from our outside in perspective. Quite meanders, peaceful tree lined banks, wide marshes all bustling with birds and terrestrial creatures lull us into a sense of complacency when viewed through our outside in lens. These land-based environments are important and must be preserved and protected. However in doing so we must not loose sight of what once was in the water and what can be there once again. We must re-focus on the water from the inside out perspective and view our rivers historical fisheries and indigenous aquatic species with fresh eyes. Only then will we realize the incredible potential that awaits us in the waters of the Taunton and so many of our other New England Rivers. It’s all there, waiting, patiently and quietly for us to act.
When I stand on a riverbank
When I stand on a riverbank, not as an angler, I am enchanted.
Enchanted by the flow of the water, and the reflections of clouds.
Enchanted by the bank-side vegetation, and the nodding flowers.
By the birdlife as it clacks and quacks, peeps and sings, and flashes by in iridescent feathers.
And by the smells of crushed river mint, and water parsley and fragrant flowers.
Yet, not as an angler, I am soon bored, and turn away, not knowing what else there is to see.
A fleeting few moments that refresh the soul.
But when I come to the water as an angler, I come not to see, though see I do, but to engage the water as a creature of the river, and to learn, and to play a part.
As a mock predator, my senses are sharpened and my observation made far keener than any casual onlooker.
I see beneath the surface, just a little with my eyes, more so, much more so, with my mind.
Building a picture of that unseen land from small clues of swirling water and growing weed, and from the knowledge that I have learned of the habits of the creatures there.
Not for a few moments, or for many minutes, but for hours on end, I will delight in what nature has to reveal.
Even when fingers burn cold, or cold wind driven rain whips against my face, I will stay and see and listen and enjoy.
You don't have to be an angler to enjoy going to the river, they say.
And by saying that betray a lack of understanding, not only of an anglers passion, but of what is missing from their lives.
As they miss the sound of a gnawing vole, the site of a chub rising to a struggling fly, the companionship of a robber robin, and a sunburst through an evening mist.
Because they paused, and then passed by.
And having missed all of this, I could never explain to them the thrill of a dipping float, nor holding in my hands a piece of gold alive, and watching it return with a casual grace back to that half mysterious place below where their vision ceases, and an anglers vision goes.
Lines - Leon Roskilly
Note on the Alewife: Although the Nemasket herring run is often sited as an example of the Taunton Rivers aquatic health, it is in reality an example of the Assawompsett Pond complex's aquatic health. This is due to the fact that the pond's are the spawning and nursery habitat for the alewife. The river only serves as a roadway by which they access their spawning habitat in the ponds.
All other above mentioned species with exception of the eel are river spawning species. The mainstem of rivers are their spawning and nursery habitats. All of these species which rely on the rivers for spawning, shad, blue back herring, sturgeon, rainbow smelt, sea lamprey, striped bass are almost non-existent in the upper Taunton River today. Furthermore, although Nemasket has a run of over one million alewives this only represents a fraction of the Taunton's historical and potential alewife population.
More to come soon