SUSTAINABILITY

Happy Fish Journey:

Interview with Rik Bomer

IMAGES: Rik Bomer

Last year, Rik Bomer spent 5 months travelling 5,000km around Europe to visit the professionals making sustainability a reality and see for himself how theories he had studied were being put into practice. Determined to travel ‘green’, he chose to do most of his journey by bike—even though he had never undertaken a long bike trip before and admitted he wasn’t “the biggest fan of cycling.”

 

Volunteering for the World Fish Migration Foundation gave him the chance to undertake his journey under the umbrella of the Foundation, and through this, meet the sustainability professionals he was so keen to learn from.

 

And so, in April 2018, Rik’s Happy Fish Journey began in sunny Spain: the ‘Happy Fish’ symbolises initiatives from all over the globe working to enable free passage for migratory fish between their natural spawning, growth and habitat areas and the ‘big smile’ symbolises happy, thriving fish populations. Along the way, he learned about how our actions can help but also hinder the movement of fish, damaging the ecosystem even while we pursue ‘green’ energy. He also mistakenly cycled to a campsite 350km from the one he had booked…

 

 

 

 

 

First off, we'd just like to say that we love the updates you've been providing on your website and Instagram page. It seems like it's been quite the journey so far... But let's step back for a minute. Can you please begin by telling us a little bit about yourself and how you became interested in river restoration, dam removal, fish passage and water quality issues?

 

Well, I finished my studies, which were based on Integrated Coastal Zone Management. Those studies were all about communications, bringing people together and a real need for area development. I noticed that I lacked in-depth knowledge about certain subjects, so I thought to myself, why don't I meet a lot of people in my work field to find out what it's all about?

 

I noticed by chance that Herman Wanningen had sent out a message that they were needing volunteers for the World Fish Migration Foundation, and so I gave him a ring and asked him: "Hi, can I do some volunteering work?". He asked "What's your passion?" and I said: " Well I want to meet a lot of people..." and he said "Oh! But we have a lot of contacts and you can meet them all!"

 

So we set up a meeting and everything took off from there. So that's basically how I came into sustainable water management, water quality issues and dam removal; that's how it came about.

 

Excellent. Well, the World Fish Migration Foundation's mandate is to protect and conserve migratory fish, whilst creating global attention and inspiring people on the topic of fish migration—much like the purpose of your journey, so it was great that you could come together. What role have they played in your travels across Europe?

 

WFMF’s role was to give me contacts for the journey and they were also kind enough to give me a few supplies, like a good mobile phone for taking pictures. In Wales and England, Peter Gough, Senior Technical Specialist at Natural Resources Wales and team member of the WFMF, aided me. He provided a schedule and got me in contact with fish experts.

 

Barrage de Verzins and Barrage de la Roche Qui Boit in Normandy, which are known to block the migrations of essential Atlantic salmon and eels, are set to become the biggest dam removal projects in Europe. You managed to visit the infrastructure as part of your journey.

What can you tell us about how the removal project is coming along?

 

From 2012-2018, they were doing preliminary assessments and evaluation of reservoir draining, and the following 10 years will be about the ecological restoration. When I visited the dam, they had just drained the lake. I don't know if this is still the case, but when I visited the removal was scheduled for May 2019.

 

Here is a written article by me about the topic:

 

 

Under my story, there's an update on how they're moving along.

 

How much work do you think still needs to be done for the dam removal project to gain mainstream acceptance?

 

Lots more, in terms of communication and awareness. People still don't know that dams are such a destructive way of producing ‘green’ energy. It destroys complete ecosystems. When people know the consequences, the general view of the public will change to favour other alternative energy sources.

 

What has the reception been like from people you've met along your journey?

 

Mostly, people were surprised. Not by the fact that I was cycling a few thousand miles, but by the reason why. Most of the people did not know that rivers and migrating fish are such an important part of the ecosystem. I suppose because they are underwater and not a lot of people see them!

 

What have you learned from the professionals specialising in the fields of river restoration and dam removal or any associated sectors?

 

I think the biggest lesson for me, besides how fish behave in the water and how a fish passage is built and designed, is that water quality is of equal importance, and especially how agriculture is effecting the rivers. And how, with a few simple tricks, farmers could manage the land, get rivers cleaner and make more profit.

 

Here is the article:

 

 

Let's look at the logistics of your journey for a minute. How did you find the arduous task of riding 5000km across Europe and what were some of your biggest challenges?

 

The 5000km I did was not as big of a deal as I expected, because I had all the time in the world to travel the distance. This was the feeling I had from the start. Maybe it is in my nature not to worry about the challenges I throw myself in. If I can't go this way, I will take another. For example, the mountains in Spain were a bit brutal for my recumbent with Dutch gears, but I managed. When I got to the French border near the Pyrenees, I was determined to go across them. However, I made some friends along the way: a German and an Irish man, with a bit more experience of travelling by bike than me. The Irish man was 70 years old and spending his retirement cycling 9 months of the year. He did not feel like crossing the mountains, so the three of us just found a restaurant for a rest and went by train afterwards. This was after the first 1000km, so I think it is okay!

 

The UK's roads have been described as the ‘speed hump’ capital of the world. How did your recumbent tricycle cope with the bumps over here?

 

It did not cope very well. When I finally got some rest in Cardiff, I found a nice bike shop and changed my gear ratio; not an expense I had budgeted for, but I had to do it. After that, the bike did not go faster but it was easier. Before the gear change, I could do 60 km a day and after, something like 80km. Because in the UK people see a hill and think I can build a road on that, without considering the slope of the road like they do in Spain!

 

What do you see as some of the greatest obstacles facing river restoration efforts at the moment?

 

Once again, communication and awareness. Rivers and fish are an unknown world for most. I often found myself talking about the very basics of fish and river restoration and preservation, explaining that we need rivers. For now, I cannot explain the importance in a few sentences, but I did came across a quote that is the next best thing: ''everything is connected and a river flows right through'' the same can be said for fish. Fish are a vital part of the global ecosystem but if you look at it on a more localized level that same fish will be important in so many different ecosystems because fish can travel so far! Certainly a lot more than the 5,000km I did....

 

What do you think is the best approach for environmentalists wanting to address the concerns of those who oppose dam removal?

 

Well, the problem is that people ‘only’ live for 80 years if they are lucky. So on the time scale of a dam, people have a very narrow view. For example, the grandpa did see the building of the dam and was against it. The son only lived when the dam was built and learned to swim in the dam reservoir. His child also learned to swim in that same reservoir. However, in his lifetime, the dam is going to be removed and he thinks, “That is the dam my father grew up with and so did I. I want my child to learn to swim in it as well.”

So the emotional bonding with dams is something I was surprised by and it’s one of the reasons dams are so difficult to remove. Because many dams have for one reason or another an emotional bonding. Besides this emotional bond people have with a dam, there is the issue of safety. People think that when the dam is removed, the chance of flooding will increase. But these people only look at this big body of water: the reservoir. When the dam is removed, there is only a tiny river that will be returned to its original path.

 

Any final words you would like to add?

 

I would like to thank everyone that was involved in this journey, especially Dam Removal Europe, the World Fish Migration Foundation, AMBER and Patagonia.

 

 

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Happy Fish Journey in pictures

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