The Paddlefish's Dilemma


By Damon Toney
May/June 2015

Paddlefish (Polyodon spathula) is a rare fish. I've seen two paddlefish in my lifetime. Some have never seen one in the wild. Many have never heard of them. In Alabama they're illegal to have in our posession and can only be harvested via permit for the caviar.

Like many rare species, overfishing caused authorities to ban all harvesting of the fish in 1988. Although paddlefish populations plummeted, the ban helped the species recover. By 2013 the Alabama Department of Conservation, Division of Wildlife Freshwater Fisheries began regulated, provisional harvest seasons as a part of a long-term plan to sustain these fish.

These provisional harvest seasons function much like the bluefin tuna harvest seasons work such as seen on TV shows like “Wicked Tuna.” Paddlefish permits are commercial and only 15 permits were planned to be issued for 2015. These commercial provisional harvests allow the scientists to gather much needed data like growth rates, population densities, distribution and such that they would never have the resources, manpower or time to gather on their own.

It's sad. You know? Such a beautifully weird creature decimated by over harvesting. 

I'm not sure if it's greed or desperation or all the things promised in scripture about famines and such, but one thing is clear: Christ placed us in charge of the planet to keep it and to represent him here.

How do we do that even though the world is fallen? It starts with how God makes things.

God Makes Weird Things

Part sturgeon, part shark, part catfish, part swordfish. Boneless. Strange. Beautiful. God is infinitely creative. He makes birds that swim better than most fish: penguins. He makes breathing mammals that dive deeper than most birds fly. These seem weird to us, but to God these are all glimpses at his beauty, grace and creativity.

Of all the wisdom literature in scripture, the book of Job shows these glimpses. For those of you who don't know, Job was a rich man in the land of Uz. A man who lost everything. From his prospective there was no reason for his suffering. His friends came to console him, but they weren't much help.

After much debate God shows up in a whirlwind. He never answers Job about his suffering. He simply asks a series of questions stemming from creation itself: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge...Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” Heavy stuff.

Why does God makes such strangely beautiful things and allow man to wipe them out? I don't know. I do know this: Death brings life.

How Death Brings Life

I mentioned that I've only seen two paddlefish in my life, both times these fish were dead on the river bank. One had a chunk of its back bitten out, like an alligator bite. The other it seemed a fisherman had caught and left it to rot on the bank. Both sites appalled me, at least the rotting flesh did.

I pondered. It hit me that even though these rare fish died, their deaths would bring life to the river. How? Ecology.

Ecological systems work all around us. Every living thing will die at some point. For instance a 500 year old oak tree, a great treasure felled. That tree will break down and become a dirt-like substance called humus, a very stable form of compost just like that you'd use in your garden at home.

Humus provides nutrients for a new generation of plants thus sustain the forest. The river works similarly. The paddlefish carcasses will attract flies and carrion. Their bodies will break down the decaying flesh faster than the microbes and fungus would on its own.

The fecal matter from the carrion will be broken down even further by other creatures like earthworms, soldier fly larvae and a host of microbes. This will make that rich dirt-like humus that will sustain the woods and trees and the runoff will help fertilize the river itself. Even the maggots will feed baitfish. The baitfish will feed larger fish.

Where have we seen this concept before?

Christ's Death Brought Eternal Life

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.  (1 Peter 3:18)

If the ecological systems of a river or forest can be “sustained” even though things die in these systems, what about death the larger spiritual context.

When Christ died he died as these fish died, a pathetic sight, but after dying on a tree he was raised to new life not in some other form but in the life he had before the world was created. Thus his new life is a far more powerful life because of the one who died and was raised.

Again when Christ died, he died as we all die. When he rose from the dead, it was to and for our benefit, that we might live in and with him forever. Christ's life is the only way to sustain life because he is life. God is not a God of death but a God of life, and this life is in Christ.

The world wasn't always set to the rate of decline you see everyday. It was originally set to a state of perfection, but the human race rebelled against God. The result placed the entirety of Earth on a path of destruction. We see it everyday in the news, even out on the river, even in the death of these two paddlefish.

Yet there is the glimmer of hope because life continues to spring up in every aspect of existence here on Earth despite its ultimate end in destruction. This hope comes every spring when everything is made new. It is sustained through the summer. Even amid winter the there always the hope of the coming spring. In Christ we are preserved through this winter of existence toward a coming eternal spring in Christ.

So conservation becomes a not a way to keep things going, but culminates in Christ: the ultimate death by Christ dying in our place, because he is God, and God raised him from the dead. We are raised with him, ultimately conserved with him forever.

The next time you see a rare fish in the wild, think about these things.

About the Author

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  • Damon_Toney's picture

    Damon is the Chief Pencil Pusher at Black Warrior Lures where he designs, tests and makes custom fishing tackle for catfish anglers along the Black Warrior River. If you'd like to try one of his fishing floats, use the following coupon code: “SHOUT!Floats!” to get one fishing float. See terms and conditions on the page. Check him out on YouTube: Black Warrior Lures

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