The Incredible Exe Salmon

Salmon mean a lot to people for their amazing journeys, their waterfall leaping skills, their size and their appearance in our iconic rivers. They have a place in the mythology of our culture as heroic creatures and sources of wisdom. And they are on the decline. Dramatically. They are at the centre of a complex eco-system and as such their decline makes them the proverbial canary in the mine. So what is going on? and inspired by questions gathered from the local community in the Exe Estuary boxes: When are the salmon coming back?

We are working with the Creative Arc, a unique collaboration between the University of Exeter, Exeter City Council and The Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery to explore how the museum and its collections can help shape a better Exeter – with the focus of our project on ‘the environment and sustainability’. As part of this we explored the RAMM archives and researched the tidal reach and the history of the river and the city and its tides over time (see blog The Tides Reach). The mammoth Salmon caught in 1924 and weighing 27.8kg and now on display in Topsham Museum captured our imaginations and Salmon seine netting is banned for ten years on the Exe as numbers are so low.   See blog post on The Last Salmon Boat. Salmon that do survive find their way back to the Exe estuary from as far away as Iceland and then continue through the busy city of Exeter and onwards to the spawning grounds in Exmoor where they were born. We want to link the estuary as a transit place for many species within the wider river catchement and the city to its more-than-human inhabitants and the river as habitat, as source of health, food and life.

We have set out to celebrate this creature and to highlights the challenges facing it. To do so we have begun by empathising with the creature and trying to see the world and the river and estuary as she sees it.

Update: Salmon Run date set: September 25. See Salmon Run blog for details.

What is it like for the fish in the river as it passes though our man-made world? And how or what does she see?  We have explored the very lens they see through and the view from the waterline.

How the fish sees?
Fish eyes are popularly known to be 180 degrees. If a fish looks up it increases it’s view of what is above through refraction at the surface of the water. Strangely their eyes contain a perfect spherical clear lens inside a circular lens inside the actual eyeball. We have found that the inner sphere is so clear that it actually works as a ‘fisheye’ lens so naturally we have tried taking pictures through them to see as the fish sees! An ambition is to take a photo using a fish eye lens with the lens as the pin hole in a pinhole camera. Note: the lenses stay totally clear for about 1-2 hours after being extracted.

Yes these amazing perfectly round clear balls are from the inside of a real fish eye!

We would also like to revisit an experiment made by in 1906 American inventor Robert W Wood based on how a fish would see an ultrawide hemispherical view from beneath the water. Wood first coined the term fisheye was coined in 1906. This shows how a fish uses the natural refraction of light through the surface of the water. Below are illustrations showing the experiment, a result/print and a diagram of the fish using reflection as well as refraction!

 

How does it feel? The Salmon Run
Following the journey of returning salmon from the wild north Atlantic to the higher reaches of the River Barle, over one day in Autumn a relay of runners of different ages and abilities will pass between them a hand designed salmon icon from the sea to the spawning grounds – travelling right through the heart of the city of Exeter, a journey of over the 50 miles. During the time moving up river the salmon don’t eat and rely on stores of food energy accumulated at sea.

There are at least 14 weirs before they reach their spawning grounds some of these may have been to create pools to make it easier to catch the salmon and other fish. After that they were made to create water power creating leats that channelled water to water wheels. The growth of human intervention created barriers for the salmon which however they were able to adapt to famously throwing themselves up the weirs or waterfalls with gymnastic power. But the salmon’s ability to vault these huge structures depends on reliable amounts of water in the rivers at the right times and in the right qualtities. Each weir crossing slows their journey and depletes energy as they leap over concrete or traverse fish ladders, often pausing for long periods to wait for the water levels to be right. Water levels are increasingly too low due to drought or too high due to increased flashy rainfall. Waiting at weirs can pose dangers for the salmon as they gather for example through predation and disease transmission between the salmon.

The Exe Valley Way is made up of all sorts of surfaces including footpaths, tarred cyclepath and sections of road (some quiet, some not) and passes through the amazing quiet rural countryside and several beautiful villages with nice pubs!  There are many parts when it travels close to the river and other parts where you get a view of the whole Exe valley. Travelling up river you get a real feel for the change of scale and environment that the Salmon navigates in her lifetime from wide, deep ocean currents and tides to floods or shallow tree lined, gravel bedded streams and waterfalls.

Why is the salmon jumping over a log in our design at the top of this post? Well it is not. The thing that looks like a log cut through with tree rings (or indeed a finger print) is in fact the scale of a salmon which can be read to find out how much time it spent at sea and in the river and much more about the conditions in which it swam!

Recently books have been found containing records made by a Robert Gibson in Canada in which he intermittently smeared some scales from fish while recording individual salmon. These scales are turning out to be a goldmine of information telling us much about what has changed for the salmon in 100 years. Unfortunately the future is not rosy for the Atlantic Salmon although there are things we can do to give Atlantic Salmon a fighting change of survival. As part of Salmon Run we are making a short podcast that will talk about some of the threats and challenges to Salmon living today in the Exe.

 

Holdfast

 

I love drawing these roots of toughened rubber – some still holding onto a mosaic of tiny pebbles, sometimes clamped to a big rock – washed up on the shore.  Clinging on, never letting go, even when the stem, like this one here, is dried, ribbed and woody. Holding fast. A claw for tiny creatures to live amongst. What force does it take to dislodge you, bringing your home with you to new shores – broken but still holding on?

 

The Sea In Me

In February and March 2021 I made a one hour radio show for Occupy the Airwaves, a day of programming on Phonic FM for International Women’s Day 2021 curated by Dreadnought South West, a regional cultural organisation promoting and celebrating women’s stories. It was a pleasure and a joy and lots of work and I am very grateful for the opportunity to be part of it.

After Tidelines’ summer read project of the inspirational book by Rachel Carson The Sea Around Us I wanted to explore the book and Rachel Carson further in the context of contemporary activism, science and the arts and immerse listeners in the watery world of the oceans.  Rachel Carson was not only a brilliant, poetic and ground breaking science writer she also kick-started the environmental movement in the 1960s. The Sea in Me invites female scientists, researchers, writers, musicians and artists to respond to quotes from Rachel Carson’s book to reflect on ecology, science, the state of our oceans today. My guests include: Dr Ceri Lewis from the Global Systems Institute, University of Exeter; Cordelia Roberts from the Marine Biological Association; Naomi Hart, artist; Shelley Castle, artist; Louisa Adjoa Parker, writer, Dr. Lora Fleming, Chair of Oceans, Epidemiology and Human Health, University of Exeter; Hannah Martin, musician and songwriter, Catherine Cartwright, artist and Exmouth sea swimmers Rosie, Anna, Ruthie and Debs.

I am particularly interested in bridging different ways that we get to know things through the arts, through local knowledge and academic research.  Rachel Carson brilliantly evokes our connections to the sea through our own biology and ancestry and the programme starts and ends with local sea swimmers in the sea.

The impacts of sea swimming on mental health and well being are well documented  and more and more people are taking the plunge.  Local CIC Healthscape are running weekly sessions in Exmouth to introduce people to the benefits of cold water therapy on Sundays at 3pm. See their website for details – all are welcome. Anna, a volunteer for Healthscape in Exmouth explains: “We don’t go out of anyone’s depth, we stay together and look after one another. This creates bonds and a feeling of togetherness as well as helping everyone access the benefits the cold sea offers – helps anxiety, decreases chances of dementia, relieves stress. It encourages you to be entirely present when having to focus on your body being dropped into the parasympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) which you have to breathe through and look to your fellow participants for support.The sounds of the sea are also calming.”

Through Tidelines we are keen to make the connection between human wellbeing with meaningful connection with the natural world and care for the wider health and wellbeing of our estuary and coastline. Individual health and ecosystem heath are completely connected – the natural world is our life support system.  Our marine ecosystem is at risk from human made pollution & climate change which is impacting ocean chemistry, ocean temperatures and marine life in many ways.  Tidelines is about learning about and understanding these changes, restoring healthy ecosystems and caring for and celebrating our home together.

 

Listen to The Sea In Me:

http://dreadnoughtsouthwest.org.uk/occupy-the-airwaves-2021-programmes/

https://www.mixcloud.com/dreadnoughtsw/the-sea-in-me-anne-marie-culhane/

20th October 2020

EDGELARKS

 

Eleven years ago, we moved to a small house in the fields, a 15 minute ramble from Woodbury village. An old shippen, the walls were clammy and the winter cold seeped inescapably in. But the back of the house looked over a small garden, which in turn fell away across an ancient field system, all the way down to the river. We needed no television. I would lie and watch the clouds scud slowly across an ever changing sky. We tracked the position of the setting sun, as it wandered throughout the year across the horizon. The river was our constant, marking the rhythm of our days, sliding in the distance, always heading for the sea. 

When we left that house and moved down into Exmouth, we were closer to the water. I miss the panorama, the daily exposure to the seasons, the big skies and living by a clock made of hedgerows and weather. But here, in town, our house is warm, and we can walk to the river or the sea. 

I have always needed to live close to water. Something about the ebb and flow of tides mirrors the cycles of creativity. I think that in our work (whether writing or playing music), we are trying to capture a fleeting moment, to reflect something we have found to be true. To approach something that ebbs and flows. In a world that is often cluttered and crowded, I orientate myself by the sea. I’m always aware of which direction it is in, in relation to me; for there is the point where the busyness stops. Where the flotsam of the shoreline must give way to the clarity of deeper waters. The point at which humans – even now, in their smart, technology filled world – must cede control to greater forces. Exmouth, with two faces to the water, threaded through with the lines of the tide, gifts us many chances to try and catch a glimpse of our own reflections. 

The landscape of Devon has helped shape my work as a musician and a writer. Playing in my duo Edgelarks (with Phillip Henry), we have been constantly inspired by living next to the water. Phil is a keen kayaker and fisherman, while I swim, or walk, or simply sit and watch the waves. These interactions provide the mental space to create, as well often providing a more direct influence, in songs such as What We Save From The Tide (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m2CKFSfD52c), Landlocked (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ye61iNAN4mc), or Phil’s solo instrumental The River Exe. 

www.edgelarks.co.uk

Hannah Martin and Philip Henry

 

20th October 2020

On The Other Side. A Poem by Jenny Johnson

ON THE OTHER SIDE

On the other side of the track,
you pass through a second kissing gate.

Canopied by a beech, you negotiate the rising of steps –
the unevenness of five.

A six o’clock breeze punctuates your heat:
the moon turns half diaphanous.

On the other side,
old wildness comes in purples and golds; soft whites.

The crickets are in their grasses:
branches embrace, safe within their archways.

A white bird glides over the water, moving west:
a black crab hastens towards an estuarial stone.

In your own good time, you will accompany this river, Isca,
as it falls into the sea.

“Not now,” you say aloud.

Later on, turning round in a homeward field – turning west –
you notice those roses, those vermilion heads above the hedgerow.

From the other side of the railway track, they are calling you back….
You are warned.

“Not now,” you repeat. “Not now.”

 

JENNY JOHNSON

20th October 2020

HAVE YOU SEEN ONE OF THESE?

Early Sunday we came across the sou’westered fisherman bringing in a small catch at Belsher’s Slipway from his day boat. I spied a Ballen Wrasse in the crate, a beautiful creature which looks more like something you would see in a tropical aquarium. This fish has a row of tiny, sharp teeth, thick lips, with scales coloured through acid yellow to vivid orange and dark brown with all-over spots ranging in tone from almost turquoise to a grey/blue. Drawing a fish over several hours feels like an honour and a gift and it got me curious about this creature:

Wrasse species live in rocky areas often close the shore. They like kelp and seaweed cover and feed on shellfish such as mussels, cockles, limpets and winkles also all sorts of crustaceans (eg crab, crayfish, prawn) and occasionally small fish.

Wrasse have a very unusual life cycle. All wrasse are born female and remain female for the first part of their lives. At around six years old around half of the wrasse will transform into males and will breed with the wrasse which have remained female. A male may mate with a whole group of females and if the male dies the largest female will change sex and take over.  Spawning takes place in late spring and summer with wrasse building a nest of seaweed wedged between rocks which contains the eggs which they then defend aggressively. After a few weeks the eggs will have hatched and the larvae float away from the nest, where they will eventually grow into female little wrasse and repeat the cycle.

Ballan Wrasse are not very popular for food in the UK. The fisherman tells me that there is no market for the females who are duller in colour and people only go for the more colourful males. Wrasse do have value as a ‘cleaner fish’ which pick parasites, particularly sea lice, off high value farmed fish such as salmon.  See this story about Wrasse being removed from Devon shores and taken in large numbers to Scottish fish farms. Definitely a fish to keep an eye on,  especially if you are out with a snorkel.

15th July 2020

Animated Discussion about The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson

 

Here is a timelapse of an animated discussion about Rachel Carson’s epic book about the sea called The Sea Around Us. Over 100 people read the book over the summer as ebook, audiobook or hard copy supplied by the libraries around the Exe estuary organised by Tidelines. 3 group discussions have now taken place, 2 as groups of 6 socially-distanced participants and in lovely estuaryside locations and the third being online. Discussions included scientists from the Marine Biological Association based in Plymouth and The Global Systems Institute from Exeter University along with other readers of the book from the wider estuary community. This timelapse was in a boatshed in the Gut at Camperdown in Exmouth as the tide came in. In fact we had to leave via someone’s garden as the beach completely disappeared. Very appropriate both to Tidelines and the Sea Around Us! You can see it coming behind us as well as the hyperactive sea scouts shooting back and forwards!

15th July 2020

Citizan Seminar and a little boat story

We used this little boat as a reference image in a mini film for the Citizan seminar on Facebook and Instagram and all that. The boat has been with me for a long time now. It was found on a beach on the island of North Uist in the Western Isles. It was probably made locally as there are plenty of people who understand and often make full-sized boat. The design is very good and shows an understanding of boat balance and has a vertical prow which is a particular type of boat I think like a Brixham trawler or a Fifie, a type of boat made on the islands by a family called Stewarts (Grimsay) as well as others although the name suggests they have an origin on the East coast of Scotland in Fife. We did not get good weather from this outing from the East coast of the estuary!

A recording was made of the Citizan seminar and it can be found here: https://youtu.be/UWPO8zQPDYQ
Many thanks to Citizan for inviting us.

15th July 2020

Richard Hayley Lever and the raging Exe

 

I came across this painting by Richard Hayley Lever (Australian American 1875 – 1958) who painted in Exmouth in the early part of the 20th century. He has a lovely way with paint and his work would have been on trend at the time as he is quite a wild impressionist leaning towards expressionist at times. 

But what caught my eye in this picture was the raging currents tossing the boats on their moorings I think opposite Shelley beach (Shelly to some!). I think this is one of the Exe’s most awesome sites: The tide in full flow racing towards and across Bull Hill as the tide reaches it’s height possibly in a contrasting Westerley wind. You can experience the raw power of the sea from the quayside or Marina where Hayley Lever did the same many years ago.

He paints Exmouth quite a lot so must have lived in the town for a while. And his pictures are also a time-capsule showing a busy fishing town and lots more besides.

26th June 2020

Tidal carpet

Meditating on different perceptions of the estuary: sand and mud, east and west, upstream and downstream. It is true that a lot of the upper estuary is inaccessible unless you are a wading bird. It’s inaccessibility gives rise to caution and so is less popular, less visited and less well-known. I would have this picture as my screensaver but a Caribbean beach will be more popular and common. With it’s reflections and textures the muddier estuary is at least as stunning. That would be mud versus sand.

Then there is East/West: Would you rather have the sunset or the sunrise? Do those living in the west get up earlier than the East?

Then there is the railway which has the best view from the West side, one of the best train routes in the country, but the pay off is that the walker, cyclist or driver simply cannot see the estuary with all its reflections because of the enormous barrier that runs along from Dawlish Warren to Exminster: the railway itself. The railway may well be the major factor that has reduced housing on the West side. But there are other factors. Sun, land management (protection) and the railway. Things would certainly have been very different if Brunel’s bridge from Exmouth to Dawlish Warren had been built.

Send in your ruminationsobservations and questions! How do we feel about the vast estuary? Wasteland? Gloomy? Unique? Paradise?

26th May 2020

Tide Speed Caught!

On a very still dry day I recorded the speed of the tide. It looks like 5mm a minute from this clip. 

The surface tension for split seconds holds back the tide, bending the water. Resisting.

There is a book about this called: How to Read Water by Tristan Gooley. Fascinating, subtle, detailed. Good read while the fish aren’t biting!

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