Image Aquaculture is as close as mankind comes to being one with nature while still trying to exert his intellect for the betterment of the species. With the advent of GMO’s, it might be argued that the betterment of the cultivated species in agriculture as a whole has come into question. But aquaculture with its symbiotic relationship among feed, water and air quality remains closer to having to remain concerned for the holistics of the growth environment than traditional ranching or row crop farming. Aquaculture is an outdoor activity, except those aspects performed within a building, performed in what government likes to call agriculturally designated areas.  These areas can be but are not often pristine wild.  More often the agricultural areas have been drained of swampland or cleared of brushland or manipulated in some way to make the land amenable to whatever farming is to be employed.  Nevertheless, wide open areas of land tend to grow back and repopulate themselves with flora and fauna of nature’s choice almost as fast as the farm can be built.  Therefore, the aquaculturist must be aware that there is competition out there for the aquatic crop and the feed stored in the shed.

Rats and field mice, as well as squirrels, opossums and raccoons, love fish food.  They will do anything to get to it.  Fortunately a well sealed container ends most quests, especially a container whose seal eliminates the release of the scent of food.  However, the contained must be gnaw-proof, as rats and mice thrive on, in fact they cannot live without, gnawing their teeth against objects that will help whittle back the ever growing protuberances.  What better place for these rodents to gnaw than on a feed container? To the extent that an aquafarmer can employ natural food methods such as algae or kelp growth and multiculture of feeder fish the dependence on external feed may be lessened.

How does a farmer control such intrusive pests?  In a word, snakes.  Around here the black racer is the most rodent-limiting animal available.  Cats may be a close second though cats tend to bring victims to the door step in their occult gift-giving ceremony and that is quite an eye-opener when one steps out on a fresh spring morning.  Black racers are non-poisonous but very aggressive.  They kill not by constriction but by stunning their victims with a vicious blow of the head somewhat like a rubber bullet’s impact (I’ve had them for pets and watched the brutal attack close up).  The stunned rodent is then devoured whole, as is the way with snakes, through the disjointing of the lower jaw to accommodate the swallowing of the bulky food.  The racer’s teeth angle backward toward the throat, so once a grip is established, no victim escapes. In winter, when the racers are dormant with lack of ambient heat, poison is a regrettable alternative. I carry the heavy spiritual weight of trapping rats and drowning them, standing by as the last gasp bubbles rise to the top and pop sometimes with a death shriek contained within then released with the bursting bubble of mortality. I can no longer drown any animal. So limited poison it is in the colder weather.

The python constrictor has become another hunter in our area, though its presence is far from natural or wanted.  People bought them as pets for their children, an admirable hobby of trying to get closer to and appreciating nature.  Yet the python grows rapidly larger than most domestic households are prepared for and the ignorant or unscrupulous owners simply release this exotic species into the nearest canal or waterway.  The species, with no natural enemies in the habitat, thrives. This snake can gain lengths of twenty or more feet and can consume farm chickens, baby goats and horses, and has found itself an even match only in the largest alligators.  Full grown gators and pythons have been known to fight a death match of strangulation and thrashing for more than twenty four hours only to release one another and slither/crawl away uneaten.  One gigantic python which did manage to defeat and swallow an alligator was found literally exploded from the ill-effects of trying to digest its prehistoric meal.  Rodent predators on this scale are unwelcome to say the least, but this is simply one more example of mankind perhaps misusing God’s gift of free will and the eco-system suffering as a result.

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The birds of the sky are also tied to the fish of the waters.  Wading birds are among the most graceful and beautiful birds in the world.  They are called waders because they wade, on long legs, along the shoreline, hunting fish with their spear-like beaks.  Some species of waders can show up on the farm in the hundreds.  They are a sight to behold, worthy of worship as one of God’s beautiful sculpture works, and they are also competition. For pond farmers a steep embankment usually keeps the waders from doing much damage as they cannot step too far down the slope. Other pond farmers report a simple trick;  Stringing line about a foot off the ground prevents many waders from being able to step forward into the water. For raceway farmers like us, waders are not such a problem, though it is almost heartbreaking to see the occasional egret posted on a raceway wall, head cocked to one side, eyeing the schools it cannot reach.

Some birds swim, like penguins, and fly, not like penguins.  These birds have had an ancient relationship with fishermen of the Asian continent.  They come in, as Amy Tan once wrote in a different context, two kinds, the anhinga and the cormorant.  Both fish have webbed feet with raptor claws, long necks and sharp, strong beaks.  They both swim very well and can turn as quickly as a fish under water, thus giving them every opportunity to catch fish that surface hunters like pelicans and osprey do not possess.  Asian fishermen found a unique method for domesticating the bird to man’s use.  The fishermen would tie a rope loosely about the long, supple neck, only looping the noose tightly enough that, while it could slide along the neck, it could not slip over the larger head of the bird.  Releasing a hungry bird into the water attached to a long line, the fishermen could then sit back and let the bird catch fish for them.  The neck noose would ensure that the larger of the caught fish could not be swallowed. With an adept squeeze of the bird’s gullet, the fishermen could retrieve the caught fish live and release the bird to fish again unharmed.

For the aquaculturist, swimming birds are clearly a problem, and they are protected by law from being killed as pests. The anhinga, the larger of the two hunters, is generally a solitary bird, appearing and hunting alone.  It presents a formidable competition for the fish crop and must be dealt with.  But the cormorant is a flock bird.  When a cormorant shows up, often the following day there is a plague of twenty to thirty birds swimming like sharks through the fish schools. A competition with cormorants is an exhausting, expensive activity and should be avoided at all costs. Our raceways are under netting in hoop houses and maintained to secure any holes the unforgiving wind and burning sun may forge.

One major difference between wading birds and swimming birds is that the swimmers have no oils in their feathers.  So, while this allows them to press all energy into chasing fish and none into fighting the upward force of buoyancy, when they rise to the top they cannot fly. Struggling to a nearby perch, they open their wings to the sun and wind and drip dry until their feathers are flight-worthy once again. They are vulnerable to predation themselves at this time.

After one of many particularly vicious tropical cyclones, all of which deserve telling but just not here, we splashed out into the farm to inspect the damage. We discovered a large anhinga waddling about the mangrove ponds, soaking with rain water, apparently somewhat disoriented from wind and perhaps a tumble it may have taken or some hit by a flying object, wary and ill-tempered as evidenced by its pulling its snakelike neck back as if for a strike with its hooked bill up and threatening, wings wide out like some gray brown dragon of old.

We didn’t want to kill it, just move it far from the farm.  But catching big birds is problematic as they can defend themselves but their bones, hollow for flight, make them fragile as glass if snatched too forcefully. I thought to throw the fish cast net but it would have been hell to untangle a frantic bird from the netting.  We decided upon a large plastic garbage barrel.  If we could get the big can over the anhinga we could slide the lid under and have it sealed in. We circled around.  The bird struck out and drew blood from my knuckles. Carmen jumped at it to protect me and the beak darted down at her foot.  Adolfo, the family animal whisperer, would have been done with the catch by now, but he was dead a year back. My youngest daughter and my nephew waved their arms and shouted, distracting the bird long enough for me to close in with the can and drop it down over the flailing wings.  It was caught, tapping against the inside of the barrel.  Carmen slid the lid in place and I slowly righted the plastic barrel.  The rest is tragic irony.

We set the trapped bird in the bed of the red pick-up. My big, red-headed nephew, Adolfo’s son, Rigo, smart and a good soul crippled emotionally now from the experience of trying to revive his father cold dead on the bathroom floor from stroke using CPR on a mouth already turning rigid in mortis, banging on his father’s chest to restart a long-gone heart until the corpse’s ribs broke, screaming for help and screaming in fear and already angry with the world for what was happening, this young man I sent to release the bird far away. My nephew drove through the storm-strewn pastures and huge lakes of rain to a 200-acre farm miles off. No crops were in because summers are too hot for most edibles here. There was only a green four wheel ATV tearing up the fallow mud fields like an angry hornet in the distance. Rigo let the bird out, probably with that rough demeanor he tends toward, but letting the bird out safely and unharmed nonetheless. He lumbered back into the pick-up and drove slowly off, not wanting to deal with the ATV coming his way now a little too quickly even for an off-road zombie. The anhinga stood its ground in the path, a gray brown bird in the gray brown mud, perhaps assessing its situation and perhaps already knowing it would be a long waddle to a dry perch even when the rain stopped. Rigo tells me he watched in the rear view as the ATV came on, muddy water spraying high from the wheels, and the bird stayed.  Perhaps it grew mesmerized by the high whining buzz of the oncoming machine. That industrial music screaming from the internal combustion fires and hot metal was the last the bird would hear from mankind as the ATV steamrolled it into the mud without pause, turning only to crank some hard circles in a large puddle before wailing off into the distance. My nephew waited for a few minutes to see if the bird would rise from its grave but it didn’t.

I do not know what was passing through Rigo’s mind but it was probably sadness. Ultimately, he pressed the pedal to the truck floor and left this new death in his past. We did not mean to harm the bird. Man never does mean harm in the wild. But we share a sorrow that evokes other sorrows and other deaths and the meaninglessness of so much of what is supposed to have meaning. My nephew never helped on the farm again.  He parked the truck at my gate, left the keys inside and went home. There are no words to assuage his wounds.

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