Wearing fishing waders out in the middle of Medea Creek in Oak Park has allotted me multiple encounters with the locals, and the one thing I’ve learned from all of those interactions is that no one knows exactly what I am doing out there.
Perhaps there needs to be a scene set for this situation….picture a man wearing long sleeves in chest high Orvis waders with multiple items hanging from him with carabiners and string, a bucket under one arm, latex gloves beneath work gloves, all in an environment that is over 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Picture this strange creek man pulling metal baskets out of the water and inspecting them (for what no one is sure), then putting dog food into them and shoving them back into the water. I would imagine that for those walking on this trail every day, such a sight would raise an eyebrow and perhaps warrant an explanation. This is especially true if you are a person with an appreciation for nature and see this creek person as a potential threat to your natural landscapes. You may ask yourself, “Who is this person? What are they doing in the creek? What are those baskets? Why are there so many? Whom does he work with?”
Throughout the almost 3 years that I have worked at Mountains Restoration Trust, I have had the privilege of managing countless crayfish removal volunteer events. In 2017 alone I worked with over 1,500 members of the public to remove crayfish from Medea Creek, and because of that I am no stranger to debunking myths about my work. One memorable encounter with a local resident occurred while one of the biologists in our team was removing crayfish beside a culvert. A man stopped to ask him what purpose he had in the area. Why was he here and why was he tampering with the wildlife? The crayfish where there, he said, and now have a purpose. They had a job. The job in question was to eliminate mosquito larvae and reduce incidence of disease such as West Nile Virus. This is not the case, the biologist explained. The presence of crayfish will almost surely increase the population of mosquitoes. Why and how does such a correlation exist? The answer is that crayfish (who do not eat mosquitos) eat the native tree frogs and dragonfly larvae (who do eat mosquitos).
I had another memorable encounter with an oak park family that reinforced these common misconceptions with my work. The pair stopped us and inquired as to whether or not “the baskets” were ours. We indicated that they were ours and pointed out that these were not “baskets” but traps, and traps for crayfish. The boy responded that he and his dad came down to the creek to open up the traps and free the crayfish. After exchanging shocked glances with my associate, we quickly asked the boy his reason why. Again, it was because they were believed to eat mosquitos. Then he hit us with a more existential reason: crayfish have existed in these creeks for many years, don’t they belong there? Summoning my best young person logic, I told him that even though they have been here for a while, that does not necessarily constitute automatic membership. Native species are critical to the environment because they provide a service – such as the native tree frogs and dragonfly larvae keeping the mosquito population down – but invasive species that exist in our habitats do not provide a service.
Needless to say, I give lessons in stream ecology quite often. And while at times it is difficult to explain what this “creek man” is doing, I take great pleasure in teaching locals about their environment and restoring our Santa Monica mountain habitats. I encourage everybody to come to our volunteer events to experience and learn from the ecology of their backyards and perhaps become a creek person themselves!