Can we save freshwater fish?

In today’s newsletter, it’s climate change vs. trout; saying goodbye to a century-old scourge; how birders can help the environment; controlling wildfires; washing dishes right … and are college students an environmental menace?

This article is an adaptation of our weekly Planet Possible newsletter that was originally sent out on September 7, 2021. Want this in your inbox? Sign up here.

By Craig Welch, ENVIRONMENT Writer

My wife took me fly fishing on our first date. I’d spent my adult life in the mountains, huffing up lupine trails and clambering over granite boulders, eager to gulp that high-country air. But I’d never tossed a drake or a tiny blue wing olive into a riffle on a bend in a mountain stream. This woman had, and it had transformed her.

As the icy Snake River pushed against my knees, and the hot southern Idaho sun baked my shoulders, fishing began to change me, too. My future partner showed me the little cases that caddisfly larvae build on stones. She taught me to spot barely perceptible shifts in current and to tell the difference between whitefish and cutthroat trout just by the way each tugged on my line. Over the next 20 years, we’d spend hundreds of hours on the water, in Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington. We fished across Canada and alongside bears in Alaska. I started seeing rivers and mountain ecosystems through new eyes. You could say I’d fallen in love twice.

So, I felt a sharp pang when writer Christopher Solomon detailed all the ways climate change may spell doom for many freshwater fish. As winters warm and snows come less often, rivers grow too thin and hot for species like trout and steelhead, which need rushing frigid currents. Some die outright, while others grow more susceptible to disease. The bugs they eat are disappearing, too, and native species are hybridizing with others. (Pictured above, fly-fishing guide Hilary Hutcheson with her family; below, a distinctive westslope cutthroat trout, Montana’s official state fish, which is threatened by hybridization.)

Freshwater fish went extinct twice as fast as other vertebrates in the 20th century. Forty percent of North American inland fish are still imperiled. Brook trout in Virginia are retreating higher into the Shenandoahs and may keep doing so until they’re gone. Brook trout in Wisconsin are expected to vanish from 70 percent of their waters before my teenage daughter is my age.

This type of loss is insignificant in the face of deadly wildfires, menacing heat waves, more powerful hurricanes and extended drought. A less diverse array of fish species will persist, and there are small signs of hope. Planting more trees could shade and cool water, for example. But, as Solomon writes, 700 million people around the world fish, and these shifts are a reminder that climate change is remaking the world in subtler ways, too, altering how “we move through our daily lives.”

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What’s being done?

• There are government efforts to protect native cutthroat trout in Montana’s Flathead River system from introduced fish that hybridize with them. How? By digging up spawning beds of the invaders, erecting barriers to block non-native fish, and trapping and moving non-native fish to small ponds for kids to catch.

• To keep bull trout alive near Glacier National Park, some scientists literally carry them in backpacks and dump them in cooler streams.

• There's also some evidence that some fish could adapt.

TAKE SIX

PLANET SMART

A welcome departure: A century ago, gasoline producers added lead to make the fuel easier on engines. Since then, the world discovered that lead in gas affects people’s balance, reduces cognitive development of children, and weakens the bones of women. Last week, after a long campaign, the last leaded gas, in Algeria (pictured above), went off the market. How big is removing leaded gas from the world? The U.N. estimates the move prevents 1.2 million premature deaths annually, Ingrid Lobet reports for Nat Geo.

What’s next? The U.N. group that fought to end leaded gas is now aiming to get producers to remove sulfur from diesel and with it, a major global lung cancer risk from diesel particulate.

READ ON

ONE MOMENT

Could a birding boom in the U.S. help conservation take flight? Millennials, people of color, and other Americans picked up their binocs during the pandemic. Their hobby has led to more conservation donations, which might help save warblers and puffins, Nat Geo reports. (Pictured above, a family watches birds at Alabama’s Dauphin Island Audubon Bird Sanctuary.)

The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, funded Explorer Çağan Şekercioğlu’s work. Learn more about the Society’s support of Explorers highlighting and protecting critical species.

BIRDERS UNITE! 

How to help: Purchase a Duck Stamp ($25 a year) at a sporting-goods store, national wildlife refuge, or online. Sales of the waterfowl hunting licenses by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service benefit conservation efforts and grant holders free entrance to any national wildlife area in the country.

IN A FEW WORDS

FAST FORWARD

You might be washing dishes all wrong: If you’re serious about saving energy, it seems counterintuitive NOT to do a few dishes in the sink rather than a dishwasher load, but using the dishwasher generally saves water, according to these eco-friendly tips in the October issue of National Geographic. Another tip: let the dishes air dry instead of using the heat dry cycle. Also, if you MUST pre-scrub a few things, writer Christina Nunez notes, do it with water in basins, not running water.

SUBSCRIBER EXCLUSIVE 

We hope you liked today’s Planet Possible newsletter. This was edited and curated by Monica Williams and David Beard, and photographs were selected by Heather Kim. Have any suggestions for helping the planet or links to such stories? Let us know at david.beard@natgeo.com. Thanks for stopping by!

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