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Becoming “Laudito Si” Franciscans of the Rivers and Seas in the Era of Mining Spills

The recent toxic spill of 3 million pounds of mine wastes in the Animas-San Juan watershed is roughly I received my “call” year ago to become a Franciscan after days of solitude and prayer in the wilderness of the Four Corners region. It is also the same watershed where I once caught five catfish for breakfast while co-leading an Outward Bound-style rite of initiation in tributaries to the east of Lake Powell.

So just how does being a Franciscan brother shape my response as an American and global citizen to the many fish (and fishermen) whose lives (and livelihoods) by such spills?

I believe we need to look no further than the beautiful and inspiring “Laudito Si” encyclical of Pope Francis to see the writing on the wall. In section 21, he speaks to the current pervasiveness of such toxic waste:

“Each year hundreds of millions of tons of waste are generated, much of it non-biodegradable, highly toxic and radioactive, from homes and businesses, from construction and demolition sites, from clinical, electronic and industrial sources. The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth. In many parts of the planet, the elderly lament that once beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish. Industrial waste and chemical products utilized in cities and agricultural areas can lead to bioaccumulation in the organisms of the local population, even when levels of toxins in those places are low. Frequently no measures are taken until after people’s health has been irreversibly affected.”

In section 30 of the Pope’s document, he takes up the contamination of our drinking water with toxins from industry as a fundamental issue affecting true environmental justice:

“…the quality of available water is constantly diminishing…yet access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights. Our world has a grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity. This debt can be paid partly by an increase in funding to provide clean water and sanitary services among the poor. But water continues to be wasted, not only in the developed world… This shows that the problem of water is partly an educational and cultural issue, since there is little awareness of the seriousness of such behaviour within a context of great inequality.”

The inhabitants of the rural counties of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona affected by the Animas spill live among the poorest and most politically-disenfranchised communities in North America. They include Diné (Navajo), Southern Paiute, Hopi and Hispanic communities with considerable antiquity in this landscape who have exhibited deep traditions of “caring for creation” in these watersheds. Already the elected leader of the Navajo Nation has expressed concern that his people have had their health, their livelihoods and their sacred sites for ceremonies and plant gathering damaged by the spill. In this desert landscape, access to healthful water is clearly an issue of social justice with spiritual dimensions.

But such concerns are not just “new” post-modern” issues. Has it ever struck you as curious that four out of the twelve of the most prominent disciples of Jesus struggled to make their livings as fishermen? They did so at a time when fish were rapidly being extracted and depleted from the Sea of Galilee, not only by consumer demand in the nearby Roman metropolis of Sepphoris, but also from the demand for salted fish coming from the elite in Rome itself. In a landscape dominated by desert and semi-arid steppe, Jesus was prompted to speak in parables that used imagery familiar to the highly-taxed fishermen of the Gennesaret or Kinneret watershed.

“Follow me,” he said to the fishermen whose nets were still empty after a full night trying to eek a living from the Sea, “and I will make you Fishers of Men.”

That parable, according to the website, suggests to some vegan Christians that Jesus did NOT want us to be fishers of fish, but only of souls. That contention is curious, since he not only ate fish before his death, but Jesus apparently asked for a meal of fish after his resurrection as well. In several occasions, he ritually shared fish in a manner nearly as sacramental as the way he shared bread and wine.

For the record, I don’t condemn the commentary by Frank Hoffman for coming to the conclusion that fish themselves have rights, since the same issue emerges in a story about St. Francis of Assisi. It refers to an event that occurred when Francis was spending time as a hermit on Isola Maggiore in Lago Trasimeno in the year 1211:

“According to legend, St. Francis was given a freshly-caught pike by a local fisherman, but declined to eat it, tossing it back into the lake to live freely. In gratitude, the freed fish swam just off shore whenever he saw St. Francis taking his walks around Lago Trasimeno. Finally,  the Reluctant Saint dispensed a special blessing upon the pike, praising him as Brother Fish. For the last eight hundred years, the friendship between St. Francis and Brother Fish has been commemorated in the church in Isola Maggiore.”

So is there a thread here that should guide us as we stumble through the darkness? Should we befriend fish, or fishermen? Or both?

Five years ago, I had the “opportunity”—if you wish to call it that— to see first hand the effects of that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill had on fishermen, finfish and shellfish along the Gulf Coast. I was hosted by Slow Food activists who drove me and my wife down across the ever-sinking Mississippi River delta, so that we could then boat out to Grand Isle, on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico. That’s one of areas where it appeared that the BP oil spill was already causing the most harm to the shallows around barrier islands typically utilized by shorebirds and aquatic life as refuges. These places were no longer sanctuaries, but killing floors.

Environmental scientists had begun to document the harm to over 120 kinds of fish and shellfish which had already been put at risk by subsidence and the loss of coastal wetlands, the contamination of rivers and bays, and the lingering effects of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Not all of their populations are at risk, mind you; some have been well-managed and even restored with the help of local fishermen, oystermen and shrimpers in collaboration with non-profits and public institutions. More importantly, it is critical to understand that no fishermen we encountered was scavenging oil-contaminated fish to sell ibn the marketplace; they knew that the livelihoods depended upon harvesting healthful food from clean waters in places as yet uncontaminated by BP’s oil.

What we did see was that the fish themselves were facing another long-term challenge: staying free from tar balls and oily patches of water, as well as from chemical dispersants that could also do harm. Some of the places we saw along the coast were successfully sheltered from these impacts by protective measures. But in places closer to the spill, the attempts at protection were not as successful as one might hope, for fish could be found on both sides of the buffers and batting. It was not difficult to encounter sheen of oil within feet of sheepshead and speckled trout. Mind you, those fish would never reach the marketplace; no Louisiana fishermen would risk his or her reputation on bringing in contaminated fish, and so far as I know the fish that were tested upon arrival in the markets were all free of contamination. It’s the ones that did not arrive there—the diminished catches, the fish that dropped to the bottom f the ocean and the estuaries—that were the unseen tragedy.

For sure, Gulf Coast fishermen lost part of their income, as areas are temporarily closed to any commercial fishing, or restaurants in other parts of the country decline to purchase any fish from the Gulf, regardless of them passing the food safety tests. Thousands of fishermen’s livelihoods were affected, just as hundreds of kinds of fish were ultimately be put at risk.

In the Animas and San Juan rivers, it is not just commercial fishermen that are now being affected. It is also boatmen and other river runners; Navajo farmers and sheepherders left without water for their stock and their crops; and elders who must now haul water from distant wells because their drinking water has been declared unsafe.

So who would Jesus and St. Francis choose to help, the fish or the fishermen, the sheep or the sheepherders? My guess is that they compassion would embrace them all. We know that St. Francis protected fish and fowl, but he also praised the family farmers and fishers who wished to join him as monks; he suggested that they not forsake their families and farms merely to walk with him along the path of Jesus. And so began the Secular Franciscan Orders….

Neither Jesus, St. Francis, nor Pope Francis, have thought dualistically about the world, as if you had to choose what is sacred and regard the rest as profane. Perhaps they have seen no reason that we cannot love fish AND fishermen simultaneously. Pope Francis in particular seems to have a special affinity for the aquatic creatures of this ocean planet and the geochemical cycles which sustain them. But it is also clear that he has a deep affinity for poor, hard-luck fishermen. Any functional effort toward social justice must include environmental justice.

So what should be our Franciscan response to helping those humans and other-than-human lives disrupted by these large man-made environmental disasters? I cannot dictate what form your faith-based activism should take, but if I can humbly suggest one thing, it is this: keep both fish and fishermen in your prayers and in self-critical assessments of your own patterns of consumption.

Don’t accept the dualism which pits one against the other at a time when both need help.If you are to be an activist, be one anchored in the deep sea of contemplative ecology: let your actions rise from your time in silence, listening to all of creation. That’s where God is, I guess. As a matter of fact, it may be the only thing I truly know, that I don’t need to guess at: That’s where God is.


Brother Coyote aka Gary Paul Nabhan is a brother in the Order of Ecumenical Franciscans and a conservation biologist who works with fishers and farmers around the world in the restoration of habitats and livelihoods. Read more of his nature and spirit writings and


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