A Preview of The Memory of Fish
by James Hrynyshyn
NOTE: The Memory of Fish will have its North Carolina premiere on Saturday, September 9, as a fundraiser for The Collider’s Thomas R. Karl Internship Program. More info here.
The narrator of The Memory of Fish, a documentary about a campaign to remove a pair of superfluous dams in Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula, sums up the essential problem early on: “The river was broken.”
At first glance, a story that dwells almost exclusively on one man and one river might seem like a bit of stretch as a fundraising attraction for The Collider. But it offers plenty of lessons for those of us who know more than just one river is broken. The timing couldn’t be better, either, coming in the wake of an even more dramatic example of what happens when humans mess with hydrology.
In The Memory of Fish, the Elwha River was broken by concrete barriers and reservoirs that denied once-endemic salmon access to their spawning beds in the upper reaches. Last month, Houston found itself broken when the consequences of paving a floodplain and relying on reservoirs became all too clear.
Epidemiologist-turned-filmmaker Jennifer Galvin didn’t set out to make a modern parable about adapting to climate change. But the best stories are like that. You start out telling one good story and you open up a whole kettle of fish (so to speak.) “I think there’s life lessons in the movie that apply to where we are today,” she told me from her office in Savannah, where she’s now based.
Galvin, who will be attending the North Carolina premiere on Saturday, Sept. 9, at The Collider, said she hopes it helps people embrace “a more nuanced strategy” for how we manage our water resources. That might be a bit ambitious, as the film avoids digging too deeply into aquatic biology, and never strays too far from the personal tale of one remarkable fisherman and his intimate connection with the Elwha and its salmon. The unexplored larger question — how do we balance the ecological needs of keystone species against civilization’s demand for electricity? — is indeed complex. For one thing, while only 3% of the country’s dams generate electricity, there are ambitious plans to add turbines to many of those that don’t as part of the necessary and inevitable switch away from fossil fuels in favor of carbon-free power. One could be forgiven for concluding that dam removal is a step in the wrong direction.
But as any hydroelectric engineer will tell you, each case must be evaluated in situ. Every river is different. The two dams in question were prime candidates for removal. Together they only managed to squeeze 19 megawatts from the Elwha back when the electricity was needed (which it isn’t today). The campaign to get rid of them should have been a slam dunk. The fact that it wasn’t is evidence that Galvin chose her subject, and her narrow focus, wisely. The story she and her co-producers present, one that covers 23 years and took six to record, lays bare just how stubborn the status quo can be. And that is perhaps the most salient lesson of all.
The Memory of Fish has already won deserved praise from the film festival circuit. The cinematography faithfully captures the luscious beauty of Washington’s temperate rainforests; even the decrepit dams are vibrant. At the very least, anyone in the audience who hasn’t had the pleasure of spending time in the forests of the Pacific Northwest will probably reconsider their next vacation destination.
To read more science blogs written by James, click here.