It happened in a flash. A broad silver flank with a pink tinge lifted clear into river spray, a single twist, and a lunge towards a roaring steep slope of weir. The body jolted and slipped backwards into the white froth from where it had leaped.
He did leap high. I saw him. Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar), and most likely a male with all his freckles.
It’s mid November, late salmon-leap time here in Wales. These are the kings of anadromous fish, symlings of the great Arctic pelagos and the free ocean waves. They return thousands of miles ‘home’ using quantum magnetic sensing and smell-vibrations, navigating to their intimate place of spawning in the shallow streams of inland mountains.
I waited for half an hour, again for another glimpse, but no sign. He was recovering somewhere deep, perhaps to try again later, or give up. I saw nothing more that day but the downward flow of the Taff and gulls skimming over the silken curve on the weir’s upper glossy lip.
Despite all public admiration and hope of a recovering river, the Taff is still well short of free-running salmon. Those baselines have shifted, and shifted. At a time before coal, pre-weir, thousands of salmon would have passed this same point, now maybe 500 in a very good year. Facing over-fishing, plastic and pollution, an enormous and energy draining fish ladder on Cardiff Barrage, this magnificent cock salmon I glimpsed has spent months in the Bay and the river preparing for his voyage without food. He’s relying on fat reserves laid down just under the ocean waves.
This salmon needs to swim upstream with all his being. His neurons and reflexes drive him on ~ smell-vibrations of ‘home stream bed’ in watery traces are as intoxicating as a siren calling him by song. The urge for genetic flow is as strong as the flow of the water. Stronger. And now he is blocked by a wall built by men to control his river, to limit their own crazy built-up flatlands from its annual, pulsating floods. The wall is as high as a willow… and its slope too sharp… and the water too fast. It’s all too much for even the fittest of cock salmon, leave alone one who has endured oil slicks, engine noise and a eutrophied man-made Bay to get to this point.
There’s a fish pass, I know. So I go to the other side of the weir to investigate. It takes me a while. I have to trudge a long way back downstream to the dual-carriageway laden with traffic and fumes, with particulates falling into the river. Then I cross the bridge, and walk back up the Taff Trail avoiding speeding cyclists. I cautiously make my way down the river bank to where I see children play in high summer.
There are empty plastic bottles in the stopper wave at the bottom of a concrete box. They jump around like giant see-through beans. If I were a salmon, or a trout, or an eel, I too would keep well away. I witness no fish passing, even with the river in spate. None.
What’s really needed here is no guilt-ridden, fly-fisher enabling concrete fish pass, but no weir at all.
Take it all away. Dig it out; use a bulldozer if needs be. Free up the flow to riffle, glides and pools once more, and let these magnificent evolved beings, microbiomes, food webs, flow with no additional assault on adrenal responses, energy reserves and interconnectedness.
This is a metaphor for how we deal with Earth Crisis, as Fluminists.
Rebellions and sci-prediction-model-paranoia? What is life truly all about? Flow. What’s happening here, so drastically unlike the leaky diversity-engineered beaver dams, is the flow of water and little else. Rivers are the blood vessels of the land. They need to be life-flow.
Get rid of the blockages. Liberate the wilder life. Flatten out impassable or energy-sapping weir-like hierarchies. And instead of forging more techno fossils that signal the insanity of the Anthropocene, loose go of our ever-tightening grip on Earth processes and dismantle the unjust structures humans have built that cause so much suffering to all life.
How many more knee-jerk solutions by those cripplingly late to Earth Crisis do we need to tolerate before everyone realises a second grave error has been made. Huge compromises, pragmatism-based anthropocentrism, brings non-human life more into the human realm, not less. And less is more, in every sense!
Tree-planting by the billion as opposed to natural succession: Legal Rights as opposed to compassion, education and responsibility: Fish ladders as opposed to weir removal. We are seeing an entrenchment of Homo hubris under the guise of “just do something” as opposed to “do what’s best.”
I know it’s hard. Because we have to face down and re-orient the popular mass of neoliberal culture. The politics is hard. But what is glaringly obvious to me now, at least, we have no real choice if life (as we know it) will survive the next one hundred years.
2019 is International Year of the Salmon. I want to come back soon and see this weir gone, the salmon free and their incredible voyage and evolutionary existence celebrated. And maybe some of our human social structures blocking life flow falling away in the same vein.
Do go find a salmon leap near you, perhaps, and meanwhile enjoy this video produced by World Fish Migration Day …