This morning began with an oatmeal breakfast under a cotton candy sky that hovered above the river. Eventually I’ll get used to these early morning wake up calls… till then, more coffee. Dr. Greg Garman, the Director for the Center of Environmental Studies and Research Director at the VCU Rice Rivers Center at VCU gave the class an intriguing lecture on his perspective on the past 400 years of the James River as a Fish Biologist. Walking us through a time line of the river and its life, we were shown how human induced changes have had an extreme effect on the river’s function and flow, and on the life the dwells within its waters. Dr. Garman discussed his belief that the river has changed more in the last 400 years than during all other periods of the Holocene Epoch. Our arrival in Jamestown in 1607 provided the first-hand accounts that helped shape our view of what the James may have been like only 400 years ago. Those who documented what they saw and understood of the river, like John White and John Smith, give us important details on both plant and animal life that existed in the river. Some of the species they recognized, and some they attempted to make up along the way often giving incorrect names or very aloof description of what they had seen. The major mention of sturgeon in their work though provides a reality shock in that in only a short period of history we have all but depleted a species that created an entire subsistence for many settlers and those who were already dwelling along the shore. Through pursuing our own fleeting interests such as trade or economic opportunity, we have completely diminished a population that deserves credit for much of the early success of our nation.
Our construction of dams to make easier trade routes or access routes for industrial use have completely shifted the aquatic subsidies that have supported the areas life for longer than we have been present within its borders. How could we be so shallow-minded when it’s now 2014! We have finally recently begun to deconstruct these massive river obstructions, but have yet to restore many of the spawning routes at-risk species had historically traveled year after year before we destroyed them. Dr. Garman also discussed the introduction of non-indigenous, non-native and invasive species to the river in previous years. The Blue Catfish, introduced into the Chesapeake to mimic the hunt and gaming experience of catfish occupied waters of other areas has led to massive destruction of both other fish species and the plant-life they might otherwise survive off of. In only one month (April-May 2012) over one million Atlantic Menhaden were consumed by the Blue Catfish. This being an at-risk species, depletes the limited population even more, and at a rapid rate too. For our own recreation and sport we have destroyed entire ecosystems of life. Alongside introducing foreign species, we have allowed heavy and dangerous pollutants to run into our river. This dates back to the Civil War when we destroyed much of the war material that took up our fields and dumped them into the river. We need to learn to take responsibility for the effect we have had on our environment and make moves to preserve the life that has sustained OUR existence. Dr. Garman’s insightful lecture addressed all aspects of why this should be done, and should be done as soon as possible. Again, I am so privileged to be able to experience these lectures and consume this information first-hand alongside the river that is in question.
Following our lecture, we went out into the water to conduct some common fish research. The James River actually currently holds the record for the largest Blue Catfish caught. 150lbs! How wild. Thinking about how much biomass this catfish has to consume to survive almost makes you cringe when you realize the destruction it has employed to survive in the James. After the electrifying experience on the water, we traveled to the Harrison Lake Fish Hatchery. At the location, they are conducting research to breed and help survive species that have been otherwise hindered by either our construction of dams or the many other ways we have effected negatively the life below the water. Both shad fish and freshwater mussels were being breed at the location and then being released. The mussel, in order to travel upstream, as it is consistently pushed back into less nutrient water by the tides, actually will attach to a passing fish to make this movement. It will release a mucus that it shapes into a lure for the passing fish. These mucus forms can resemble something specific as a small fish that might attract a larger fish. When the fish goes to take the lure, the mussel will release a cloud of glochidia. This causes the fish to pull in as much water as it can to retrieve the oxygen it needs. The larval mussel glochidia will then attach to the inside of the fish gills and then travel with the fish, feeding on the fish and dropping off when it is content with arriving at a proper habitat. These processes almost sound like fantasy, but here they are happening in my own backyard.
This evening we had our first class discussion about the Powhatan Nation and will tomorrow morning begin our official discussion on Natural History and the roles it play in preserving our own species and those species that support our life around us. This trip, in only a few days has already expanded my understanding of this massive world of life around me… I can only imagine where I might find myself by week 5.