I pull my jacket sleeves over my fingers to shield them from the frigid air and grip the handlebars tightly to keep the protective layers of fabric in place. My bicycle tires crack through a faceted layer of several-days-old snow. It is the first sunny day in a two-week stretch of winter weather and the perfect day, I had decided, to bike to work at the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR) fisheries lab at Walla Walla Community College (WWCC).
My commute follows the path of Mill Creek, a stream segmented by concrete weirs into a series of sixty-foot-long ponds separated by miniature waterfalls. This previous fall, I used the weirs as a walking platform upon which I would wade into the creek, barefoot, to catch tadpoles and insects amongst the submerged grasses. Today, the stream is partially frozen, and the thought of entering sends an achy shiver into my swaddled toes.
Cemented into its current form in 1942 by the Army Corps of Engineers, Mill Creek is a riverscape that has been transformed and irreversibly damaged by humans. In many ways, it is a microcosm of the dramatic transformations that occurred across the greater Columbia River watershed throughout the 20th century. For decades, biodiverse and robust river systems were systematically fragmented for greater levels of efficiency and control over nature. Populations of river critters plummeted, and many species either went extinct or currently exist at the brink of extinction. However, despite claims of ecological ruin, Mill Creek is a lively ecology that can teach us many valuable lessons about living in in the tumultuous times of the Anthropocene (The Anthropocene has become the go-to name for the current environmental era, in which human damage to Earth’s biogeophysical systems has become a dominant planetary force).
As I close in on the WWCC campus, I disembark my bike and walk the short stretch from the bank (a concrete levee) of Mill Creek to the CTUIR fisheries department. For the last six months I have worked as a lab technician in the CTUIR aquatic propagation lab, where my research team investigates the artificial rearing of Pacific Lamprey and freshwater mussels for release into regional watersheds. These are a few of the aforementioned critters who are threatened by dams and ongoing habitat destruction.
Approaching the back door, I stop to examine a set of unusual tracks left in the most recent layer of snow (a cottontail, I later suspected). As I enter the large, sterile room of the lab I am greeted by the loud hum of a generator and the hissing of pumps and other aquaculture paraphernalia. I am struck by the difference between the wild cottontail, who is free to hop through the snowy fields behind the building, and the lamprey confined to shoebox-sized bins and fed on a weekly schedule. It is worrisome that the survival of these ancient creatures depends on the mechanical life-support systems of fisheries science labs. However, I am hopeful that aquaculture can serve a temporary role in rebuilding lamprey and mussel populations so that their populations can flourish in the future without hatchery assistance.
The Pacific Lamprey and freshwater mussel propagation project is an offshoot of the CTUIR “First Foods” approach to ecosystem restoration and regeneration. Although less significant of a food source than salmon, lamprey and mussels were both regularly eaten by pre-colonial Columbia River tribes. In addition, both species are important water regulators and filterers (especially mussels, which can filter toxins out of more than 18 gallons of river water per day). By filtering water, mussels and lamprey transform their ecologies; they facilitate the detoxification of river systems and create more livable worlds for themselves and their co-dependents (salmon, for example, and more).
The “First Foods” approach, in many ways, emerged in response to colonization and consequent ecosystem transformations. The work that we conduct in our lab, therefore, is tangled into complex and sometimes-conflicting agendas of environmental restoration, science, and decolonization. Because of this, my experience in the lab has been both challenging and enlightening, and it has provided me with a strong sense of hope for the possibilities of regenerating more just and livable ecologies and economies in the future.
Experiences like Frankie’s are made possible by the Whitman Internship Grant, which provides funding for students to participate in unpaid internships at both for-profit and non-profit organizations. To learn how you could secure a Whitman Internship Grant or host a Whitman intern at your organization, click here or contact Assistant Director for Internship Programs Victoria Wolff