What is Conservation?

written for http://atightloop.com/Winter2014.html

I went to bed thinking about it. I awoke this morning still contemplating it. Later this afternoon, as I was engrossed in my annual What is TU? and What does Conservation mean to you? presentation for the Salmon in the Classroom students at Sheridan Elementary, I was still tossing around those questions.  
The definition of Conservation, according to Webster’s (archaic, I know) Dictionary, is quite simply this: n. 1. The act of keeping or protecting from loss or injury. 2. The preservation of natural resources. 
Well, that seems pretty simplistic and straightforward. But, throw human nature into the mix, and quickly we realize how much harm we have already done, and  how much we need to undo before we can start on the “Protecting from loss or injury part.” So much has happened and accumulated throughout the passing  decades: the building of super highways, shopping malls, and millions of fossil fueled vehicles.  Before we can even scratch the surface on the devastation of a hundred years, we need to do away with our utopian vision, and aim to restore this river to its once native state. Really? Can we? Do we even have the slightest idea of what that was?
I bring this up because a few years ago the DNR asked for public input on gear regulations for specific trout rivers we love to fish across the state. Many of our local suggestions were dismissed due to ‘lack of fish population/creel surveys, lack of public access, or possible public dissent.’  Although I understand the delicate balance of keeping the peace with the constituents of the state who should be purchasing licenses, the obvious fact is that we are no longer stocking these same rivers the way the DNR did back in the eighties.  Yet, today we seem to treat them as a ‘put and take’ fishery.  We wonder why the fishing isn’t as good or the bigger fish aren’t there as often as they used to be. Floating down a favorite small river with one of our local elders, he points to every bend, undercut bank or sweeper and exclaims, “Yup, used to get a twenty incher out of there every spring, over there too. Down around the bend is where Mack landed a 28 incher on the Hex.”  Yup, sure enough, I believe him.  I have seen the pictures, stingers full of 18+ inch brook trout and twenty something inch brownies all day long.  I have to choke down my words as they creep forward in my mind. ‘But you ate them all, didn’t you?’  I quietly say to myself.  But, that was our Grandfather’s generation. They didn’t practice catch and release. 
So I begin to ponder the world today, a couple of decades later. Can we bring these precious resources back to their once natural state? Keeping in mind the state of Michigan never knew a brown trout prior to 1883, and steelhead from the Pacific Northwest had not yet found a home here until the seventies, can we protect our resources from further loss or injury? What becomes non-native or invasive? 
I have theories that are not necessarily original or earth shattering, but have been contemplated by many, as well as myself.  What if we double up stocking on certain rivers and alternate the years we stock them? What if we designate certain rivers for the individuals who wish to fish for sustenance, and we stock them solely for that purpose? What if we didn’t fish a few select rivers at all for a year or two and see if they actually stabilize or naturalize in any way?  I mull over these questions more often recently because the Jordan River, my home river, has seen more fishing pressure in recent years and stocking numbers have declined in hopes of seeing larger stronger fish.  This trend is evident in the salmon fishery throughout the Lake Michigan tributaries. Some fear this may be the precursor for the collapse of the salmon fishery much the way Lake Huron lost its sustainability for the large salmonids years ago.  Steelhead have also been caught in double digits with some frequency this fall, as well, on the Pere Marquette. 
Where can we be in a hundred years? This earmarks what conservation is to me. What can I do for this river system that will help sustain a healthy fishery for generations to come? Will we ever see rainbows snacking on the carcasses of salmon like they do in Alaska? I doubt it, but wouldn’t that be cool? Can the Boyne River or Jordan River ever have a phenomenal steelhead fishery like the PM? Again, I have my doubts since they aren’t long enough, they are not as rich in biomass, and they are not as nutrient diverse as those bigger rivers that meander and cut their journey to Lake Michigan.  But we can try. We can push the envelope for a better fishery. We don’t have to kill every fish we catch. One of the best rivers around is the Manistee throughout the flies-only stretch. A slot limit allows me to keep one fish over 18” or two under 14”, making nearly every fish I, or a client catches, a fifteen or sixteen incher. Those are the best for fighting and very rewarding to the angler who works hard at catching a fish on the fly. More rivers might benefit from better management.  If you need fish for sustenance, purchasing them from a local fish house is definitely the better way to go. 


said on Tuesday, January 21st, 2014

Brian, thanks for sharing. I think a lot about conservation in the Great Lakes, and what that means. I don't have a good answer, but I'm glad to know I'm not the only one kicking around some of these thoughts.

said on Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

you and I shall share some water this year and bounce a few ideas around...

I think that would be awesome.

Tight Lines,



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