The Hand of Man

by Ginger Strand


On a recent Tuesday morning, around 36 8-year-olds and I were watching a bright yellow longhorn cowfish bob around its tank at the Oklahoma Aquarium when the manus deus descended from above. Actually it looked less like the hand of God than the hand of man: it had neatly trimmed nails and came down from the heavens of the tank clutching a long glass tube. The cowfish fluttered its fins, snail-horns alert, its mouth an O of surprise. The hand directed the glass tube into the tank’s pebbly substrate, rooting around until it raptured up some long stringy things. Fish poop. The cowfish turned modestly away. It didn’t look at all like a cow. But we humans are incorrigible when it comes to naming sea critters after things we know on land.

This was one of those moments, not uncommon in aquariums, where the immense effort involved in faking nature is revealed. Somebody has to deal with the fish poop, the mechanics of colossal tanks of water, the optics of super-thick glass, the chemistry of piped-in water. Not to mention the economics of paying for it. Like many of the newer public aquariums, the Oklahoma Aquarium has made much of this process transparent. Exhibits explain the technology behind them, wall copy frequently notes how fish were acquired, and placards on the tanks denote financial sponsors. The aquarium’s director of science and mechanics Kenny Alexopoulos has even given the Journal Record his recipe for imitation coral (press rock salt into wet concrete spread over plastic mesh; rinse away when concrete dries for realistic pock marks). In fact, strolling the nearly ten-year-old facility, you might find yourself thinking the complexities of manmade systems are just as cool as the ecosystems the aquarium honors. And that would be appropriate. Because it’s not really nature that’s being celebrated here—it’s something trickier and more complicated: the evolving connection nature and man have been working out, nowhere more than right here in eastern Oklahoma.

Hear Scientific American Journalist Katherine Harmon Courage talk about the noble and tasty octopus:

Take, for instance, the exhibits marked “Aquatic Oklahoma!” They include some of the region’s most characteristic megafauna: alligator gars, blue catfish, and, of course, paddlefish, who have been freaking out area anglers since before Thomas Nuttall, a Harvard botanist, arrived in 1818 and heard tell of “a singular fish . . . destitute of scales, and with the upper jaw extended in front a foot in length, in the form of a peel or spatula.” That spatula-shaped rostrum gives the paddlefish its Jurassic appeal, but it also holds electroreceptors for finding plankton in murky plains rivers. Though if you walk out onto the aquarium’s patio and look at the early summer Arkansas River—a generous name for what looks like a gravelly collection of mud puddles—murk doesn’t seem to be the main problem: lack of water does. It’s hard to imagine any of the aquarium’s megafauna could survive in large segments of the river; they must be living in the reservoirs made by dams. They may be native Oklahomans, but their aquatic habitat is manmade. Then things in Aquatic Oklahoma get weirder: tanks hold largemouth bass and sauger, which are not native to Oklahoma, saugeye, which is not native to anywhere since it’s a biologist-produced hybrid, and striped bass, which is not even naturally a freshwater fish, but an Atlantic Ocean anadromous fish—a saltie who migrates up rivers to spawn in freshwater.

The story goes that a group of stripers got trapped behind a South Carolina dam, and when they thrived there, Fish and Game departments nationwide thought “Hey, let’s stock those bad boys here!” Stripers are a popular sportfish, bringing added revenue to the state.

Like most of the fish in the Oklahoma section, the striper exhibit includes a sign touting the state angling record for the species. In fact, fishing is so much the point of the Oklahoma section, I began to wonder what I was really looking at in Aquatic Oklahoma: a celebration of ecosystems or a celebration of state agency omnipotence. In addition to the stocked sportfish, there’s a whole wall in the Ozark Stream section touting the stream “restoration” at Evening Hole, a spot on the Lower Mountain Fork River near Broken Bow. There, the wall tells us, a boring, sluggish stream was whipped into trout-friendly shape using “big imagination, heavy equipment, and the latest in the science of streams.”

While they were at it, state wildlife officials excavated an old dry ditch and made a new stream called Lost Creek. A better name might have been “Found Creek.” Clearly, the hand of man has been hard at work—and not just inside the aquarium.

Then again, what’s wrong with that? After all, Tulsa’s predominant water feature is a human-nature hybrid itself. The Arkansas River has been undergoing improvements since the nation’s first River Act funded the clearing of debris from its mouth to its confluence with the Neosho River. In the 1880s, Colorado started diverting water from the Arkansas for irrigation, and ten years later, Kansas got in on the act. That changed river dynamics again: by the early 1900s, so much water was being diverted, the river went dry by July.

But it was fear of floods that led Congress in 1946 to authorize the Army Corps of Engineers to begin re- engineering the river for real. Today the Arkansas is impounded by two power-generating flood-control dams upstream of Tulsa, creating Kaw and Keystone Lakes. And from Muskogee down to the Mississippi, it’s not really a river at all, but a series of stepped reservoirs linked by eighteen dams and locks known as the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System. The first cargo arrived in Catoosa, 448 miles inland from the Mississippi, in January, 1971: 650 tons of newsprint for the Tulsa World.

Faced with this level of transformation, it’s hard not to wonder: what does Aquatic Oklahoma even mean? Which fish can we really consider Oklahomans? Which can we even consider wild? Fortunately, the Department of Wildlife Conservation is housed right next door in the aquarium complex.

“When you take a river and put a series of dams on it and create lakes out of it, you are going to change the species dynamic,” Mike McAllister told me. Mike is an information and education specialist at the DWC. In Mike’s eye, the changes to the species dynamic were all good. In fact, Oklahoma’s Arkansas River was improved when the Corps of Engineers took it in hand. “A plains river in its natural state really ain’t anything pretty to look at,” Mike told me. “It’s just there.” Mike is not alone in this opinion. A mile wide and an inch deep; too thick to drink, too thin to plow: there’s no shortage of insults designed for rivers like the Arkansas. Plains rivers tend to be shallow, slow, brackish and turbid—downright boring in fact. That is, until April, when they bloat with spring rains and snowmelt and start swallowing houses and cattle. The Arkansas did plenty of that before being transformed by one of the most expensive projects in the history of the Corps. Many of the huge federal water projects in the West and Midwest we now know were pricey and often pointless boondoggles—irrigation projects that benefit a handful of corporate agribusinesses, dams that can never recover their operating expenses, aqueducts that burn coal to pump water uphill. But the Arkansas River projects are widely viewed as successful. They were, as U.S. News and World Report declared in 1979, pork that paid off: “Dams and levees have turned the formerly turgid river into an azure ribbon offering fishing, water skiing and boating,” the magazine enthused.

Of course, there are effects beyond better recreation. Dams disrupt the river’s natural sequence of bubbling riffles and deeper, slower pools. The flowing parts of the river become faster and colder. Cottonwoods downstream of dams die off, leaving fewer shady spots for fish to hide in. In the reservoirs, sediment builds up instead of flowing downstream, and the colder, clearer deep water creates a new kind of habitat, less friendly to bottom-feeders and electro-sensory fish like the paddlefish and more friendly to sight-feeders like striped bass. Chubs and prairie minnows, long adapted to grope around for prey in slow, muddy water are replaced by largemouth bass and carp.

The hand of man has thus transformed the region’s rivers into a kind of hybrid, neither river nor lake but both. Tulsa visitors can be flummoxed by the way locals call bodies of water by both names. Grand River is the same as Grand Lake. Part of the Arkansas River in Tulsa is called Zink Lake. The Corps of Engineers has it both ways: they refer to Kaw Lake, for instance, as “a lake on the Arkansas River.” But this elides their part in the story. They’re not calling it “a lake we made out of part of the Arkansas River.”

It all reflects the interesting place we have come to in humanity’s relationship to the planet. Control of nature—the mastery celebrated in structures like the Hoover Dam—is no longer uncritically admired. That’s partly because we’ve lost confidence in it. Hurricanes, twisters, droughts—nature keeps offering up proof that we’ll never really get the upper hand. And then there’s blowback: the mounting evidence of the damage our own hands have wrought. Search a scholarly database for “Arkansas River” for instance, and you reap a harvest of scary sounding research papers: “Flow Regulation and Fragmentation Imperil Pelagic-Spawning Riverine Fishes,” “Delayed Effects of Flood Control on a Flood-Dependent Riparian Forest,” and my favorite, a paper on the speckled chub from the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists: “Declining Status of Two Species of the Macrhybopsis Aestivalis Complex in the Arkansas River Basin and Related Effects of Reservoirs as Barriers to Dispersal.” Translation: You don’t get a flood-control omelet without breaking some (fish) eggs.

Faced with this dual problem—we are too powerful; we are not powerful enough—we have dropped the language of mastery in favor of the language of management. But management-speak can downplay the amount of meddling we do. We aren’t really managing nature; we’re altering it to suit our needs. Why shouldn’t we be as up-front about our recipe for reservoir as the aquarium is about its fake coral? Mike McAllister seemed downright reluctant to talk about the state’s stocking programs. But an Outdoor Oklahoma magazine I picked up in his office provided the stats: last year, Oklahoma wildlife officials stocked around 16 and half million fish in the state’s waters: 895,017 largemouth bass, 996,002 hybrid striped bass, 19,039 paddlefish, well over 12 million walleye.

“We don’t stock the Arkansas River,” Mike told me. But then he did note that the DWC had stocked stripers in Keystone Lake. If I really wanted to know more about it, he concluded, I should drive up to Miami and talk to agency biologists. They were all at something called the paddlefish event. He gave me a map.

“One of the unfortunate things we have to live with is that we’ve taken species we like to catch and put them places they don’t belong,” Brent Gordon told me. Brent is Northeast Regional Fisheries Supervisor for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. It was a slow day at the paddlefish event, which is a research and processing station the DWC sets up near Spring River during paddlefish season. Anglers get their paddlefish cleaned and processed for free. In return, the DWC collects research data from the fish, as well as any eggs. The eggs are sold for caviar, which funds the program.

Brent readily admitted that many of the most popular game fish are not native to the region. As we stood at the cleaning table, he laid out how state biologists work to balance the desires of sports anglers with an eye to preserving existing ecosystems. They pay attention to balance: striped bass, Brent pointed out, were first brought here to control crappies. Hybrid fish were created to lower reproductive rates, making populations easier to control. Still, sometimes introducing non-native fish creates problems. Asian carp, a notoriously invasive species, were introduced to manage aquatic vegetation. They ate the plants and then they started eating everything else. Now there are electric barriers in Illinois to try to keep them from wreaking havoc in the Great Lakes.

“A pond or a lake is going to hold so much biomass,” Brent says. “You can tie it up with a whole bunch of little fish or a few big fish.”

Listening to Brent talk gave me a sense of how much research and science and good old trial and error is involved in managing aquatic Oklahoma. He made it clear that there were pros and cons: things are lost, others are gained.

“The Arkansas River was a perfect example of a big prairie river,” he said. “It had minnows and darters and things that aren’t on everybody’s radar, but you hate to see them disappear.” Then again, everybody loves stripers. The sport fishery contributes a lot to the state economy, and fishing is a way of passing conservation from one generation to the next.

“We have a trophy striped bass fishery right in the middle of Tulsa!” he said. In fact, the DWC collects its brood stock right below Zink Lake’s low-head dam. But today, he noted, the fish weren’t running, because two of the Corps’ upstream generators were down.

“If the Corps is generating, they’ll run,” he said. “If not, they won’t.” I blinked, thinking for a moment I had misunderstood him. I hadn’t. The Corps of Engineers dammed the river so it wouldn’t flood, installing turbines to fund the project. That made good striper habitat so the DWC stocked them. Now the Corps must run the turbines so the dammed river will flow so the DWC can harvest spawning striped bass so the hatcheries can raise new fish so biologists can restock the state’s reservoirs so anglers can go out and bask in the wonder of nature.

“Anglers are part of the process now,” Brent summarized, which seemed almost like an understatement. It might be more appropriate to say that the Oklahoma Aquarium ends at the state line. Or, looked at another way, that insects and fish and anglers and power generators and biologists and water-skiing boaters—whose fees help pay for the stocking programs— are all wound up in one chain of interconnectedness that looks a lot—if you think about it—like an ecosystem.

After talking to Brent, I drove back down to the Oklahoma Aquarium, which is open late on Tuesdays. There was a mellow vibe there as evening fell on the strip malls outside. Inside, a mother moved from tank to tank with her shark-mad son. The Ozark Stream beavers canoodled in their den, visible on beaver- cam. A big-lipped blue catfish hunkered down at the bottom of its tank. The paddlefish cruised back and forth, shoving their spatula-noses into the pancake-flat water. The striped bass floated serenely beside a backlit sign: “Catch a lifetime of memories: go fishing!” They looked like immigrants, hybrids, wild things partly domesticated by the constant human need to remake the world. In short, they looked a lot like us.