Fish don’t usually make the list of charismatic species. They’re slimy and brown. They don’t have any immediate characteristics that are akin to humans. And, they’re hidden below the water, where you may never see them without a visit to the aquarium.
I think that’s what makes fish conservation challenging. On a Sunday drive to the supermarket, you could pass right next to a stream containing an endangered species and never even know it. It’s fairly easy to find images and videos of polar bears searching for food, panda populations declining, and stories on elephant poaching. But, when it comes to fish, even professional cinematographers often shy away from the challenge. It makes my job tough, because it’s hard to “sell” people on conservation of an animal they can’t appreciate outside of recreational angling.
Truth be told, as a biologist it’s also easy to forget the species you work on is more than just numbers on the computer. I got into this profession after years of conducting behavior observations on trout, and becoming fascinated by the social dynamics and personalities of fish. They may not be cuddly and furry, but fish have all the same social dynamics as the other charismatic megafauna that are the poster children for wildlife conservation.
This week, Ty and I travelled to Loyalsock with the mission of getting some pictures of fish. We’re always giving presentations to kids, adults, scientists, and non-scientists, but we take few pictures of us working, and even fewer of the fish in water. And, as the adage says, ‘a picture is worth a thousands words.’
A picture is also worth thousands of dollars. Trying to capture photos in dark, coldwater means you need wetsuits, snorkeling gear, and fancy cameras. Thankfully, Ty was able to use some grant money to fund this excursion, and we hit the water in search of brook trout. Unfortunately, flows were pretty high that day, making it difficult to hold yourself in place, and to see fish more than a few feet in front of you. And, only one camera was operational that day, so I just crawled around the stream while Ty took photos.
But, what I saw reminded me of why I love my job. Having sampled this stream many times, I had a good guess on which pools would be good for snorkeling, which was key because the stakes for snorkeling an empty pool are a little high. It takes trout 10-20 minutes after you arrive to come out and resume normal activity, and the water is cold. While the wetsuit helps, it’s the kind of cold you never really get used to, but that ironically you’d rather stay submerged in rather than get out, heat back up, and then get back in.
The day started slow, and I was a little nervous I might not find fish with the high flows. But, I eventually found a nice pool and just settled on staying there until I saw something that moved. I nestled into an area of lower flows, gripped onto two rocks and waited. And waited. And waited. My hands were starting to go numb from the position I had then in, and right as I went to reposition I saw what looked like a tail right at the end of sight. I slowly inched forward enough to see not one, but two 6-inch brook trout. I stayed there for about minutes watching them feed before moving up to a new pool to start the process all over again. That next pool had even more fish, some swimming right next to my face, attempt to eat my glove, and fighting each other from their territories.
We ended the day by going out to mainstem Loyalsock, where we were rewarded with warmer temperatures, large brown trout, huge largemouth bass, and a few smallmouth bass that were happy to follow us around as we were overturning rocks.
Here’s a few photos of the day.