Reflections on a paradox flowing down a culverted creek

I watched an edition of Frontline on the computer last night. Normally, this is an excellent series. This edition was about fish as a food source. They got a few things right. We raise salmon in nets and feed them ground up anchovetas from Peru. As it would probably be more efficient for us to eat the anchovetas,  the argument that this type of aquaculture is going to feed the world is somewhat illogical.  Salmon raised in pens spread lice and disease to wild salmon and mix with them—and native species in the area decline.

But then the show fell apart. It failed to mention the idea that restoring and enhancing natural systems would produce more, better quality protein for human consumption. And there were the usual claims that shellfish aquaculture is across the board, always good because among other things shellfish clean the water. Since shellfish clean the water of phytoplankton, and phytoplankton are water cleaners, the logic again is flawed and not universally supported by good science.

The show also failed even to mention ecosystem-based management. The introduction of shellfish can be a good thing if it’s done in a way that’s consistent with ecosystem function. But if we’re disrupting the ecosystem by doing things like growing geoducks in the intertidal zone where they don’t normally proliferate—spreading plastic debris in the process—that’s arguably not going to produce more high quality protein in the long run.

If we want more fish, the first step should be to look for limiting factors. Salmon typically spawn in a stream until all the good spots are taken. Then fish that enter the system later spawn on top of the redds [spawning nests] of previous spawners, to a large extent destroying them. So it’s a good guess that under ideal conditions, the limiting factor is the area available for spawning. If we want more fish, we need to create more spawning habitat in stream beds.

I decided a couple of years ago to take on the issue of Moxlie and Indian Creek, in downtown Olympia.  Here we have what was once one of the major stream systems in Budd Inlet which is heavily culverted. Removing the streams from culverts would provide spawning habitat and greatly improve oceanographic parameters like dissolved oxygen. I confess that I didn’t hold out much hope given the political climate in the town of Olympia,  but I thought I’d give it my best effort for as much as any reason to document just how foolish we are. And we are plenty foolish as it turns out.

Which brings me to the Fermi Paradox. Sometimes summarized by the question “where are they?” the paradox is this:  given the billions of stars in the galaxy and the probability that many (and even perhaps most)  have planets similar to earth, why do we see no signs of life out there? Why no radio waves that aren’t random? Why no space ships landing in Times Square?

This has been the subject of considerable debate. Maybe random naturally occurring radio waves drown out those coming from intelligent life. Maybe travel through deep space is simply impossible. Or maybe, intelligent life forms always do themselves in as soon as they develop the means of communicating through deep space.

Which gets into some pretty metaphysical stuff. There’s a lot we don’t understand. We know what light looks like and how fast it travels, which in galactic terms is pretty darned slow, but we really have no idea what it is. The same holds true for electromagnetism, gravity and other very basic things. We can measure brain electricity and know it corresponds to thought. What’s the relationship between thinking and electricity? Is there more of it going on out there than we see or understand? Is it all part of some greater design? Something we’re not supposed to understand? And when we start to understand it the great spirit in the sky pulls the plug?

Maybe it’s all random or maybe there’s some order to things. Maybe we’re at that point where we just need to self destruct as a species. And it’s OK. I’m going to go out today and enjoy this wonderful gift of life.

Harry Branch is a long-time sailor and community member who has been working for decades on ecological issues in the Pacific Northwest.