There is not a single brook, river, or stream left in Germany that has not been influenced by man. Flowing waters serve various functions in the majority of the Federal Republic of Germany: as transport routes, energy sources, drainage for agriculture, and catchment basins for wastewater from industry and households.
Straightened, degraded, over-fertilized, and polluted—these are the primary characteristics of most of Germany’s flowing waters. Perhaps this is one of the main reasons why numerous German fly fishers have developed a penchant for (long-distance) travel. Clear, cold, alpine salmonid waters, tropical seas, and wild, untamed salmon rivers on the Russian continent—these are the dreams of many anglers, including Germans.
As I now attempt, alongside my colleagues, to reintroduce the Atlantic (Rhine) salmon (Salmo salar) to Germany, a species considered extinct for over 30 years, this project often feels like a Sisyphean task. But that’s another story and just the prelude to what happened to us this fall during our fieldwork.
Recently, a few weeks ago, my team and I embarked on a search for naturally spawned juveniles of Atlantic salmon in a small tributary of the Rhine River. We conduct this routine electrofishing survey every fall, and in most cases, we come up empty. However, this time, we caught a fish that amazed us even more than a juvenile salmon could have. In my colleague’s net was an 8-inch female brown trout with a strange “belly decoration” around her body. It turned out to be a part of a plastic bottle cap, as used for commercial soft drinks. The ring had embedded itself deeply into the fish’s flesh, resulting in an ugly open wound that was visible both ventrally and dorsally when my colleague carefully removed it.
The question arose whether we should release the animal or not. We decided to release the lively-looking salmonid. The female had clearly spawned, and we wanted to give her a chance to mate. The cool water temperatures in the fall would certainly mitigate any risk of infection to the wound.
When I shared the corresponding video of the incident on Instagram, I received an overwhelming response. Outrage, sympathy, sadness, and anger were among the emotions expressed. “Pictures from the oceans are the only way to know something like this.” I agree; I feel the same way. But it made me wonder when some people from Europe and the USA told me they had experienced the same thing. The probability of such an incident is certainly low, and the frequency of detection puts this insignificance into perspective. For me, the image of the trout in a plastic corset is symbolic, striking, and drastic, but it only scratches the surface of what is happening to our flowing waters. Microplastics in massive quantities are entering small streams and rivers, ultimately ending up in the sea. Wastewater from industry and households consistently contains new cocktails of chemicals, fertilizers, and medicines.
Agriculture with its fertilizers and pesticides must not be excluded from this equation. What should we do? Despair? Close our eyes? Say, “There’s nothing we can do about it anyway!” So we travel far and wide, contributing to climate change that might ultimately devastate the last salmonid populations in Germany. Many trout have adapted to moderately polluted waters, but the excessively high water temperatures we’ve recorded in recent summers are unsustainable for these animals. Ecology operates like clockwork; remove a cog, and something changes inevitably.
So, what’s the solution? Speaking as a German for Germany and its fishermen and women, my analysis can likely apply to numerous countries in Europe or perhaps even overseas. It’s not enough to wrap ourselves in Patagonia clothing or sign online petitions for water protection. Discussions on social media are futile. Hashtags like #naturelover are mere lip service, not advocacy. The key is to start locally and on a small scale, to become active in your own environment. Build support, persuade local politicians, educate, seek consensus, and above all, be patient. Changes in people’s actions and thinking often take time, and while climate change may not afford us that luxury, we won’t change minds by force.
We can find fantastic fishing opportunities in Germany, not just in Bavaria’s clear and cold flowing waters but also north of the Alps. However, it seems that a community of fly fishers has partly written off their own country in search of the “fish of a lifetime” in other areas. This needs to be reevaluated. It’s not too late to reform environmental policy, break lobbying efforts, and adopt a holistic and sustainable approach to water, wastewater, and agriculture, as well as land use.
The unfortunate female trout can be a symbol, but the much larger issue may be overshadowed by economic greed. We can take action at our doorstep with patience, understanding, love, and one keyword that should guide us toward a sustainable future: renunciation.
The global mission to eradicate plastic waste should be embraced by all, particularly us fly fishermen committed to preserving the waters we cherish. Some eco-friendly alternatives to plastic include: