July 21, 2000
Air Date: July 21, 2000
White House Says Dams Will Stay
Host Diane Toomey talks with Seattle Post Intelligence reporter Robert McClure about the Clinton administration’s decision to oppose, at least for now, the removal of four dams on the Lower Snake River in the Pacific Northwest. (03:30)
Desalinization Plant Proposed in Florida/ Tanya Ott
The area around Tampa, Florida is running out of water. So authorities are turning to an unconventional solution: they want to build a seawater desalination plant on the edge of Tampa Bay. As Tanya Ott reports, critics of the plan say it substitutes one environmental problem for another. (08:10)
Health Update/ Anna Solomon-Greenbaum
Living On Earth’s Anna Solomon-Greenbaum reports that a panel of experts say chemicals in medical equipment may harm the infant males reproductive organs. (00:59)
Permaculture in Macedonia/ Cindy Shiner
Cindy Shiner reports on the Rudina Rehabilitation and Permaculture Project in Macedonia. The demonstration site is the first of its kind in Eastern Europe, and currently, the largest in the world. The project aims to rehabilitate a tract of land, recently used to house more than 45,000 Albanian refugees, using the principles of permaculture. (08:30)
The Living on Earth Almanac
This week, facts about the U.S. mail. In 1775, the United States Postal Service was born. Despite the increase in computer-based communication, the post office still delivers 600 million pieces of mail every day. (01:30)
Proposed Ban on Hawaii Fishery
A federal judge in Hawaii is threatening a massive fishing ban to save the leatherback turtle from extinction. Host Diane Toomey talks with Chicago Tribune reporter Judith Graham about the judge's order and reaction to it. (06:00)
Technology Update/ Cynthia Graber
Cynthia Graber reports on new technology that can help ships avoid crashing into whales. (00:59)
Sea Otter Revival/ Guy Hand
The sea otter population off California's coast is coming back, and eating up the region's lucrative sea urchin fishery. Producer Guy Hand reports on the dispute between California's sea urchin fishermen and sea otter conservationists. (10:10)
Demons in the Midst
Host Diane Toomey talks with Carol Mack, author of “A Field Guide to Demons, Fairies, Fallen Angels, and Other Subversive Spirits,” about some other-worldly varieties of wildlife. (06:45)
HOST: Diane Toomey
REPORTERS: Tanya Ott, Cindy Shiner , Guy Hand
UPDATES: Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber
GUESTS: Robert McClure, Judith Graham, Carol Mack
FIRST HALF HOUR
(Theme music intro)
TOOMEY: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.
(Music up and under)
TOOMEY: I'm Diane Toomey.
The Clinton administration says the Snake River dams won't be coming down, at least for now. Salmon restoration proponents say that's a big mistake. Also, Tampa Bay prepares to siphon the sea to meet the region's growing demand for water.
G. GILLAM: People who have moved in there feel that it is their right, given by God, to water their lawns 24 hours a day if they so choose. To wash their car every day of the week. And they are using potable water to do this.
TOOMEY: And in the Balkans an international experiment in alternative agriculture to stop soil erosion.
CLARK: For every ton of white sugar that goes on our tables, we'd lose 53 tons of soil. Forever, into the sea. This is obviously not sustainable.
TOOMEY: Those stories, this week on Living on Earth. First, news.
(NPR News follows)
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TOOMEY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Diane Toomey, sitting in for Steve Curwood. Breaching dams has long been the Holy Grail for many people working to restore and maintain salmon runs in the rivers of the Pacific Northwest. Most say the fish won't survive if the dams remain. The Clinton administration was looking at the prospect of tearing down four dams on the Lower Snake River in Washington State. But now it says it will hold off on making a decision for at least another five years. Joining me is Robert McClure, environmental reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Robert, now that removing the dams is off the table, what's the administration's plan to help restore the salmon runs?
McCLURE: One of the most important, and what will probably prove to be one of the most controversial, is the idea of keeping more water in the tributaries and in the main rivers, to help young fish get to sea faster. And by keeping the flow higher, you'll find that the water temperatures will stay cooler. And then there are ancillary measures that are bound to be proposed, such as fencing tributary streams so the cows don't get in and ruin the spawning beds. Measures will be proposed to control pollution and control runoff, and those are not easy things to do and also will probably be enormously expensive.
TOOMEY: The dam issue has bled into presidential election politics. George W. Bush supports keeping the dams in place. Al Gore has maintained a rather deafening silence on the issue. What's behind the Clinton administration's timing of this decision?
McCLURE: Well, they had to issue a decision now, and, in fact, were supposed to have issued one six months ago. And yet, Gore clearly doesn't want to come down strongly in favor of breaching the dams or strongly in favor of not breaching the dams. He's trying to have it both ways. I think that the Clinton administration saw that trying to breach the dams and do all the other things that everyone acknowledges are going to be necessary was just too much for them to take on, politically. And they thought that it would be a better strategy to continue with some of the engineering plans, but shift the public focus away from this "to breach or not to breach" question. And I think that's what lies behind their strategy, getting away from the idea that there's one way to save the salmon.
TOOMEY: Robert, what has the reaction been to this announcement in the Northwest?
McCLURE: Well, environmentalists are really angry. They feel like they've gotten hosed. The Indians are similarly very angry, and the big question there is whether the Indian tribes, which are entitled to a certain amount of the salmon catch under treaty rights, whether they'll go to court to sue over this. Also, the people who use the Snake River, which would be irrigators as well as farmers who move their goods to market on barges on that river and others, they're angry as well because they wanted this option taken completely off the table. And the Clinton administration has said that they will continue with engineering plans in case this does eventually need to be done.
TOOMEY: Do the environmentalists say that five or eight years down the road for breaching these dams, if they decide that's what's necessary, is that going to be too late for these salmon runs?
McCLURE: That's exactly what the environmentalists say, and the scientists for the National Marine Fisheries Service will tell you that predicting extinction is a pretty tricky thing. But they have done some analyses that they believe, at least, give them more time than eight to ten years.
TOOMEY: Robert McClure is the environmental reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Robert, thanks for joining us today.
McCLURE: It's been a pleasure.
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TOOMEY: Florida may be surrounded by water, but the Sunshine State is in the midst of a serious drought. In the Tampa Bay region, massive development is turning the need for water into a full-blown crisis. So authorities there are turning to the ocean for a solution. Two other U.S. cities, Key West in Florida and Santa Barbara in California, once turned to the sea for drinking water. But the high cost of operating desalination plants quickly mothballed both facilities. But as Tanya Ott reports, plans for the Tampa Bay desalination plant are moving ahead despite the objections of some residents and scientists.
S. CLARK: It's there. You see the moving over there.
OTT: Pull up to Silbourne and Gilliame Clarke's sprawling Polynesian-style home near Florida's Central Gulf Coast, and you might feel like you've stepped into a Disney movie. A herd of deer grazes at the edge of the front yard. Further back, a red-shouldered hawk waits patiently in a tree for his turn to feast on the chicken livers the Clarkes set out each night.
G. CLARKE: Hawk, hawk, hawk! Come, birdie.
OTT: The couple envisioned retirement paradise when they bought this house a decade ago. But for the past five years it's been nothing but heartache.
S. CLARKE: You see all of these exposed roots? That is where the soil was originally, before this subsidence began.
OTT: You losing tree limbs or anything?
S. CLARKE: Tree limbs? Lose whole trees.
S. CLARKE: Come and I'll show you. It looks like pickup sticks over yonder.
OTT: The Clarke’s neighborhood borders one of the main underground aquifers that supplies drinking water to the Tampa Bay area 30 miles to the south. Every day, more than 27 million gallons of water are pumped out of these aquifers. After years of this, an area that was once covered with wetlands and lakes has become an arboreal graveyard. Useless, dry dirt drops away from the tree trunks here. Eventually, the trees tumble over, littering the landscape. Aside from the obvious environmental devastation, the situation has made houses in this neighborhood unsellable, and turned the Clarkes into water crusaders. Gilliame’s wrath is directed at her neighbors to the south in Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Clearwater.
G. CLARKE: People who have moved in there feel that it is their right, given by God, to water their lawns 24 hours a day if they so choose. To wash their car every day of the week. And they are using potable water to do this.
OTT: For years the Clarkes and fellow activists have pushed water managers to do something. Those efforts finally paid off last year when regulators announced a new water plan that would cut back on aquifer pumping. The linchpin of the proposal is a seawater desalination plant to be built on the edge of Tampa Bay. If constructed, it would be the largest such facility in the western hemisphere. Sonny Vergara is Executive Director of the Southwest Florida Water Management District. He says the process used to desalinate seawater is usually prohibitively expensive. But this proposed location would drastically reduce that cost. An existing power plant there already pulls in bay water to cool its borders. The desalination plant would siphon off some of this water for its own purpose.
VERGARA: What will be done for the seawater desalination facility that's being proposed is to extract from that 1.2 billion gallons about 45 million gallons per day. And sending that through a water treatment process.
OTT: The water would be pumped through a series of membranes that strip off the salt. The end result would satisfy ten percent of the region's freshwater needs. That amounts to 25 million gallons a day.
VERGARA: And from that 25 million, take the bad things that we don't want to consume, keep it in the 20 million remaining, and then put that 20 million back in the 1.2 billion gallon cooling stream.
OTT: Then that stream containing the 20 million gallons of salt-laden wastewater -- in fact, it's twice as salty as the sea -- would be discharged here --
OTT: -- into this small bay inlet neighboring several residential communities. J.B. Canterberry is a homeowner here who objects to the plant. He says it's a classic example of solving one environmental problem by creating another.
CANTERBERRY: Most of the fish that are hatched in Tampa Bay are hatched on the eastern shore because of the mangrove swamps. And what we're going to see is a build-up of salt, along this eastern shore and the areas where most of these fish are hatched.
OTT: Canterberry worries the increased salinity will cause sea life, including endangered manatees and turtles, to die off. There are other neighbors who worry that yet another industrial plant in their neighborhood will decrease property values. Home prices here soar into the million-dollar range. Regardless of their motivation, these residents have founded an organization called Save Our Bays and Canals, or SOBAC. The citizens group seems to know a bit about marketing its message.
(Music and a milling crowd)
MARZELLI: We were at Tropical Heat Wave, we were at Star Fest, we were at the Tomato Ruskin Festival, we're at the Good Community Fair.
OTT: SOBAC member Joe Marzelli is at a local seafood restaurant tonight hawking raffle tickets.
MARZELLI: The Florida Guides Association donated three six-hour guided fishing trips for four people on Tampa Bay, and Rooms to Go donated three mattress and box spring sets. So, it was kind of a tough combination, mattress and box spring sets and fishing trips. So I came up with the idea called "Sleeping With the Fishes."
(Restaurant music continues in the background)
OTT: So what do the scientists say about the potential problems from increased salinity? Aquatic ecologist Tony Janicki has been hired by the local water regulators as a consultant on the project. He says the amount of salt in the water entering the bay will be just a drop in the bucket, since it will be diluted with the power plant's discharge water.
JANICKI: Given the volumes of water that we're talking about, the dilution of that concentrate with its elevated salinity ends up with a net change in salinity of about point one parts per thousand at the end of the discharge canal. As a result, we are predicting that there will be no change in salinity in Tampa Bay as a result of the operations of this plant.
OTT: But other scientists question that conclusion. Researchers at the state-funded Tampa Bay Estuary Program have called for more study. Dr. Nick Ehringer agrees. He's a biologist at an area community college and has made a career out of studying the ecology of Tampa Bay. Using a small-scale model in his lab, Dr. Ehringer studied the path of the saltwater discharge. He suspects that the brine will collect at the bottom of the bay, threatening many species of young life there. Blue crab, red fish, and snook all use the sea grasses in the bay as a hideout from predators. Dr. Ehringer says the increased salinity would leach water from the tissues of these young creatures.
EHRINGER: It's going to be an increased salinity above normal. In fact, in some places it's going to be way above normal. And that increase in salinity is simply too much for those organisms. They're too fragile at that young age to survive.
OTT: While both sides in the salinity debate argue over things like dilution levels and tidal flush rates, all predictions both dire and benign are hypothetical. That's because there's never been a seawater desalination plant of this size discharging into bay water. Driven by its desperate need for new water sources, the Tampa region has plans for other nonconventional projects. They call for capturing surface water and diverting treated sewage water. Scientists say diverting this fresh water from the bay might compound the effect of the brine, a kind of one-two punch for the bay and its creatures. Water regulators have funded a study to look at this very issue. Florida's Department of Environmental Protection will take those findings into account as it decides whether to permit the desalination plant. That ruling is expected later this year. For Living on Earth, I'm Tanya Ott in Tampa, Florida.
TOOMEY: Just ahead: A run-down refugee camp from the war in Kosovo gets an environmentally-friendly facelift. Keep listening to Living on Earth.
Now this environmental health update with Anna Solomon-Greenbaum.
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SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The blood bags and IV tubes used to treat sick infants may be doing them long-term harm. A panel of experts appointed by the federal government has been reviewing the toxicity of DEHP, a chemical used to soften plastics in medical equipment. And they say it may pose a significant risk to the reproductive systems of male infants. Laboratory studies in animals have shown that the chemical can induce organ deformities and reduced fertility. DEHP doesn't bond to plastic, and can leach from medical devices during procedures like blood transfusions and respiratory therapy. Premature and ill newborns are at higher risk because they often require multiple treatments using devices softened with DEHP. There are alternatives to products containing DEHP, but they are not yet widely available in the United States. That's this week's health update. I'm Anna Solomon-Greenbaum.
TOOMEY: And you're listening to Living on Earth.
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TOOMEY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Diane Toomey. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians fled the war in the former Yugoslav republic of Kosovo last year. Nearly 50,000 of them camped near the northern villages of Cegrane and Forino in neighboring Macedonia. After the refugees returned to Kosovo their camp was left in shambles, but international aid workers and local residents decided to rehabilitate the site and give it a new mission. It will soon be a facility to teach the principles of something called permaculture, a design for living that makes sustainable use of the land and its waste. Cindy Shiner reports from Cegrane, Macedonia.
SHINER: Workers at the Rudina mountain site are laboring feverishly in the dry midday heat. Some are assembling the frame of the new library and teaching facility.
(A chainsaw revs up)
SHINER: Others are perched on top of the building's skeleton, cutting wooden beams down to size. They're rushing to finish before an upcoming party to celebrate the end of phase two of the Rudina permaculture project. When Albanian refugees left the 125-acre emergency camp last year to return to their homeland, tent poles, wire, and scrap metal remained as monuments, both to the refugees and to the money spent to house them. Now, with donations from CARE International and other organizations, a plan is underway with a few goals in mind: to rework the land, establish a permaculture demonstration and teaching center, and foster local economic development.
SHINER: Standing next to a man watering one of thousands of fruit trees planted on Rudina , National Manager Patjim Saiti is inspecting the mountainside through dark rectangular sunglasses. Trees are growing, grass is sprouting, vegetables are flourishing….
SHINER: …all in an area whose name means "dry mountain."
SAITI: This might have been dry for centuries, I can say, and no products have been produced here. With our working less than eight months, now we have our products, and we have changed the history. We are proud of that.
SHINER: Permaculture is a concept derived from the words "permanent" and "agriculture." Ecology is used as the basis for designing integrated systems of food production, housing, technology, and community, that can continue without degrading the environment. Since the idea was developed in Australia in the 1970s, hundreds of permaculture sites have sprung up around the globe, including the United States. Environmentalist Dave Clark wants to spread the word about permaculture. He says it's necessary to help offset damage caused by conventional agriculture, or monoculture, whereby the soil is depleted of its nutrients.
CLARK: We're losing our soil at an incredible rate. It takes nature, in a good situation, maybe 100 years to build up a couple of inches of topsoil. And the wheat fields of west Australia and other parts of the world are losing soil at the rate of an inch a year. That's 1,000 tons to the acre per crop. The production of sugar, for every ton of white sugar that goes on our tables, we lose 53 tons of soil forever, into the sea. This is obviously not sustainable.
SHINER: Permaculture, he says, can help. Through mulching and planting a diversity of vegetation, a couple inches of soil per year can be saved.
IZAIRI: Behind you.
SHINER: Xhemile Izairi is a leader of one of the women's on-site teams. Here, she plucks weeds from around frilly heads of lettuce in a flourishing garden that makes use of the permaculture techniques of companion planting and curved garden beds. In companion planting, different types of plants growing together help one another, sort of an agricultural democracy. The strong scent of marigolds wards off some pests, and the roots of one plant harvest the nutrients another needs. Few women had ever held jobs in the Muslim community around Rudina before this project began. Many of them were already good gardeners, and the high pay was something their husbands couldn't ignore. Improving gender relations was an unexpected social benefit of the permaculture program.
SHINER: Recycling is another key component of permaculture. Straw, for example, is a waste product of agricultural production. Here at Rudina, it's baled and used for building, because it's big and easy to handle. This makes for thick walls, which help with energy efficiency. Something important in a poor area like Macedonia, which has bitter winters and scorching summers.
SHINER: The bales are secured with cement and chickenwire. Architect Samantha Smith says all of the buildings on the site were built with recycled material, including some of the thousands of blankets donated during the war.
SMITH: One of the big parts of this project was to find a use for this junk. For the roofs, for example, in those roundhouses is old fencing wire that's not good for fencing any more, and refugee blankets dipped in concrete and strung out over the frame. And then we cover them in thatch to make them look pretty, because while using the refugee blankets was a good idea, though it wasn't very pretty.
SHINER: But it was economical. Each year hundreds of millions of dollars go toward relief efforts around the world. Emergency refugee camps are often built on poor-quality land. And grading it for temporary housing damages the ground further. Reversing that costs money. Some international donors see Rudina as a model for how to respond to future refugee crises. Patty Culpepper is with the U.S. Bureau of Population Refugees and Migration, a key funder of the Rudina endeavor.
CULPEPPER: This project is, basically it's a benchmark of how you can use what's available in a former refugee camp. Used in a positive way to build something lasting for a community that used to be a host community. I think the important thing that I've seen in this particular project is how the project leaders have sought to ensure that the local communities feel that they are participants in the project, and that they understand what's going on, and they are part of the decision-making. And that sort of grassroots decision-making, grassroots democratization is really, I think, something that sometimes is overlooked.
SHINER: And in a politically volatile area such as the Balkans, that makes the potential benefits of permaculture that much more striking. Rudina Project Coordinator Brooke Watson says permaculture is about working together and improving lives.
WATSON: We've got recycling and we've got harvest reduction and education courses, and all of these things are ways in which the community can make money on an ongoing basis. So our idea is to try and empower the community, not only to deal with their own issues but to help other communities deal with their issues.
(Milling voices, laughter, shouting)
SHINER: Hundreds of people from the communities surrounding Rudina pass through the site's gates to celebrate the permaculture project, and remember the refugees. The guests dip their hands in blue, white, and green paint, and leave their hand prints on two entrance walls: a symbol of working together and the refugee plight.
(Music plays amidst the voices)
SHINER: The crowd files past the gardens, fruit trees, and straw bale buildings, and settles back at the site's amphitheater. Among the guests are two mayors from rival political parties. All here to enjoy the progress of this permaculture community.
SHINER: For Living on Earth, I'm Cindy Shiner in Cegrane, Macedonia.
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TOOMEY: You can hear our program any time on our Web site. The address is www.loe.org That's www.loe.org. And while you're online, send your comments to us as firstname.lastname@example.org. Once again, email@example.com. Our postal address is 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. And you can reach our listener line at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988.
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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; The Town Creek Foundation; the David and Lucille Packard Foundation for reporting on marine issues and the environment; the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, supporting efforts to better understand environmental change.
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TOOMEY: You're listening to Living on Earth. I'm Diane Toomey. And this is NPR, National Public Radio. A federal judge gets tough with Hawaii fishermen to help protect the leatherback turtle. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.
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SECOND HALF HOUR
TOOMEY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Diane Toomey
(Music up and under: "Mister Postman")
TOOMEY: Two hundred twenty five years ago, and long before the Marvelettes implored their letter carrier to "wait a minute," Benjamin Franklin was appointed the first head of the Postal Service with the famous motto, "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds." Letter carriers have a hefty load to bear: 600 million pieces of mail are delivered each working day, and each citizen receives a tree and a half worth of junk mail over the course of a year. Often those catalogues and credit card offers use dyes and glues tat make them impossible to recycle. But the Post Office has developed new environmentally benign adhesives that will eventually prevent much of that mail from ending up in the landfill. Meanwhile, successful experiments have converted spent junk mail into compost, pencils, even ethanol for fuel. Of course, you could avoid the Postal Service altogether by sending that note to grandma via e-mail. A spokesman for the Postal Service says e-mail has slowed the rate of increase in the volume of snail mail. If current rates of e-mail use continue to rise, the Post Office, he says, may lose about $17 billion in revenue by the end of this decade. And the postman's bag may be a bit lighter, too. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.
(Music up and under: "Deliver the letter, the sooner the better. Wait a minute, wait a minute. Wait a minute please, Mr. Postman. Wait a minute, wait a minute...")
TOOMEY: Hawaii's fishing industry is up in arms after a federal judge says he's closing six-and-a-half million square miles of Pacific waters to the state's long-line fishing fleet. Judge David Ezra's ruling came after environmental groups sued the National Marine Fisheries Service for failing to manage the fleet to protect leatherback turtles on the brink of extinction. Reporter Judith Graham was in Hawaii recently, covering the story for the Chicago Tribune. I asked her to explain why long-line fishing endangers turtles.
GRAHAM: Well, this is deep sea fishing, so the boats go out pretty far from shore, typically more than 75 miles. They cast an extraordinarily long line, at least 20 miles, sometimes as long as 40 miles. And there are branches of line off of this line. Every couple hundred feet or so, they bait hooks, and then they wait to catch whatever comes along. The primary targets in the Hawaiian waters are tuna and swordfish, but they also end up catching, because it's indiscriminate, whatever happens to come up and bite the hook or be injured by the hook. They catch albatross, shark, and turtles.
TOOMEY: Twenty miles of line. It's hard for me to even envision that, I think.
GRAHAM: Try this on for size. The number of baited hooks in the Hawaiian fleet -- we're talking about 115 vessels -- on a yearly basis is more than 16 million hooks a year. That's a lot of hooks catching a lot of stuff going by.
TOOMEY: So, does the judge's order allow for any kind of long-line fishing, or are we talking a out a total shutdown of this industry?
GRAHAM: The judge's ruling, and I should make this clear from the start, is in effect until the federal government can come up with a new environmental statement showing what's going on with the turtles. So, this is not a permanent ruling. Until that happens, and that analysis is due April of 2001, the entire fleet of 115 vessels can only fish 636 set days, and that's the equivalent of a fishing day, on a yearly basis. That's an extraordinarily -- I mean, it works out to about six days a vessel. And you have to compare it to the traditional level of about 12,000 set days a year for the fleet. It's a 95 percent reduction. So he's really put extraordinary limits on the fleet, but allowed them to continue to do some fishing in the southern portion.
TOOMEY: What kind of economic impact would this closure have on Hawaii?
GRAHAM: You have to think of the impact on the fishing fleet first, and there the estimates are they catch about $50 million worth of fish a year. Then beyond that there are all of the jobs that depend on the industry: the wholesalers, the retailers. And the estimates there are about $150 million worth of lost business. I think what grabs consumers more, though, is the argument that if this fleet is not fishing, there won't be as much fresh fish in Hawaii. The fish that will be there will have to be brought in from other places, sometimes frozen, and that its price will go up. So, for the average family which relies on fish as a source of food -- they eat twice as much fish there as they do on the mainland -- that can be a somewhat frightening prospect.
TOOMEY: If this ban holds, does this mean that all is well for the leatherback turtles?
GRAHAM: No. Hawaii's long-line fleet is much smaller than others in the Pacific. For instance, both Japan and Taiwan have fleets in excess of 1,500 vessels, compared to Hawaii's 115-vessel fleet. And they are free to come into the waters and fish, and many of these fisheries don't have the same concern for endangered species that Hawaii's fishermen do. So, the Hawaiian long-line fleet argue that because they are regulated by the United States and sensitive to the plight of the turtles, if they are not allowed to fish and other boats take their place, the situation will actually be worse for the turtles than it would be if they were fishing the waters. But the environmentalists on the other side say that, given the nature of the threat to these turtles which are 100 million years old, extraordinary creatures, we can't sit by and say, well, the situation appears hopeless, so nobody should do anything. Instead, the United States has to get out front, take a leadership position, say no, this will no longer be tolerated, and work actively for international agreements with other fleets and other nations to save these turtles.
TOOMEY: Judith Graham is a national correspondent with the Chicago Tribune. Judith, thanks for joining us today.
GRAHAM: Thank you.
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TOOMEY: Once near extinction, sea otters are making a comeback along the California coast. But not everyone is celebrating their return. The story is just ahead on Living on Earth.
Now, this environmental technology update with Cynthia Graber.
GRABER: The busy shipping channels of the Atlantic are also home to the endangered northern right whale. And ship collisions present the biggest threat to the 300 or so remaining members of this species. So scientists at the University of Rhode Island have developed a new tool to help ship captains avoid hitting the creatures. (Sonar beep) Most surface vessels now use a single-beam sonar that shoots straight down from a ship. It can tell captains how deep the water is, but it doesn't warn them about objects in the water just ahead. The URI scientists have taken sophisticated and expensive sonar developed to help submarine robots see underwater, and modified and simplified it for use on commercial vessels on top of the seas. It's not as detailed as its military counterpart, but by shooting sonar beams to the left and right and up and down, the device can spot a whale a mile off, in plenty of time for the ship to change course. And that's this week's technology update. I'm Cynthia Graber.
TOOMEY: And you're listening to Living on Earth. You can hear our program any time on our Web site. The address is www.loe.org That's www.loe.org. And while you're online, send your comments to us as firstname.lastname@example.org. Once again, email@example.com. Our postal address is 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. And you can reach our listener line at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988.
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TOOMEY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Diane Toomey. Coming up: Dealing with the demons of our better nature. But first, sea otters. For five million years sea otters made the coastal waters from Japan to Baja their home. And there were hundreds of thousands of sea otters before hunters began killing them for their luxurious fur. International law ended sea otter hunting in 1911, but the population had been decimated. The California subspecies was especially hard hit. Only in one remote spot, off the coast of Big Sur, did a small group survive. The offspring of those surviving sea otters are now moving south, reclaiming ancient territory. But, as producer Guy Hand explains, not everyone is cheering the return of the animal some call the poster child of endangered species.
(Music and milling voices, laughter)
HAND: It's hard to imagine that my favorite local sushi bar has a direct influence, however small, on the future of sea otters. But it does. The well-heeled patrons of this restaurant have something in common with those furry marine mammals: a taste for uni, sea urchin roe.
WOMAN: Yes, a lot of people like sea urchin here. Ah, one couple. Every time they come, before they come in they call and make sure we've got the uni. Plenty of uni. And then, they eat them all.
HAND: Otters are even more devoted to sea urchin. They can devour a third of their body weight in shellfish a day. And that puts them in serious competition with the California sea urchin industry, which grew up and boomed during the otter's absence. Terry Hawkins has been diving for sea urchins for 17 years.
HAWKINS: California, Channel Islands, produce the best sea urchins in the world, and it's a major export from California. It was one of the leading exports for many years.
HAND: But in March of 1998, 100-some sea otters quietly paddled their way south, through the rough seas off central California's Point Conception, into the placid waters of Coho Bay. This seemingly innocuous event was actually a homecoming of profound significance. Although otters had wandered into the area in small numbers before, they were now returning en masse to waters they hadn't occupied in over 100 years. While the environmental community cheered, their return sent a shock wave through the urchin industry.
MAN: Can I get your attention for a moment? I'll just give you a quick preview on the boat...
HAND: Fifteen of us board the 48-foot research vessel Spirit of Santa Barbara, hoping to catch a glimpse of those returning sea otters.
HAND: In addition to a motley crew of reporters, on board are members of The Otter Project, an otter advocacy group, and a single urchin diver. They've come to argue their causes to the press. Although it's not a subject suitable for compromise. Both sides agree that if otters return to these waters in large numbers, they will destroy the commercial urchin fishery. In anticipation of just such an event, and under pressure from the shellfish industry, the federal Marine Mammal Commission in the Fish and Wildlife Service created a no-otter zone in these waters back in 1986. Fish and Wildlife promised to capture any otters that crossed into that zone and move them back to northern waters. We motor through that otter-free zone today.
WOMAN: Right there. Went back down. (Laughs) No, he's right there!
MAN: Oh, yeah, it is an otter.
HAND: Only a few minutes out to sea, we spot our first otter floating on its back like a vacationer in some kind of kelpy hammock.
MAN: (On PA system) Watch the sea gull, there's an otter right beside it.
SHIMIK: All the otters that were seen and that we'll see today are within the exclusion zone, which is also called the otter-free zone.
HAND: Steve Shimik , Executive Director of The Otter Project.
SHIMIK: So these are, you know, I guess you would call them illegal otters. But there's a line that was drawn on a map from Point Conception due west, and any otters south of that line are in an area where they are not supposed to be. Now, how the otter knows that or how people expect the otter to know that, I have no idea. But that's what the law says.
HAND: The otter-free zone put the Fish and Wildlife service in the untenable position of protecting both the federally-threatened sea otter and the sea urchin industry. The agency struggled with the program into the 90s, capturing errant otters here and there, even flying them back to Monterey by plane. But otters kept returning, and Fish and Wildlife began having second thoughts. Carl Benz is Division Chief for Endangered Species for the Federal Fish and Wildlife Service.
BENZ: In 1993 we stopped what we were doing because we noticed that there were some animals that, after we moved them back to the parent range, were dying in a very short time period. We were concerned that our actions weren't non-lethal as required by law. We realized there were other steps that we probably could have taken to reduce the chance that these otters would die. But in order to do these things, it was going to cost the Fish and Wildlife Service a significantly greater amount of money.
HAND: For most of us it's hard not to smile when we catch a glimpse of a sea otter. Otters look like the essence of cuddly contentment. But not for sea urchin divers. They were infuriated when the government quit capturing otters. Diver Terry Hawkins.
HAWKINS: Otters first will eat abalone. The next thing they eat is urchins. They'll eat lobster, crabs, whelks, any kind of snails. They've been seen to rip the legs off starfish to eat their legs. They've been recorded to pull shore birds right from the surface down. They eat anything. They are the biggest weasels in the world. They are in the weasel family.
HAND: But according to otter advocates, urchins over-graze the kelp forest. Otters, by eating urchins, restore balance, allowing that kelp forest, one of the most productive ecosystems on Earth, to flourish. Ed Keller is Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
KELLER: Certainly the ecosystem without the sea otter, as well as without other top predators, such as some of the sharks that are also endangered, is a fragmented ecosystem. And we know from studying ecosystems that such fragmentation of an ecosystem is not healthy. My guess is the presence of sea otters affects the diversity of the entire kelp forest.
HAND: Diver Terry Hawkins says there's nothing ecologically balancing about otters.
HAWKINS: How can you say with a straight face that otters increase biodiversity and the balance of the ecosystem? They blast it all to hell. Totally and completely. And they destroy the fishing fleet, and they violate a public law.
HAND: Fishermen have finally lost patience with government inaction. In May of this year, three commercial fishing groups filed a lawsuit against the Fish and Wildlife Service, demanding that they remove otters from the no-otter zone. It promises to be a long, angry battle.
(Boat cuts through water)
HAND: As our boat nears Coho Bay, the area where large groups of otters have been sighted in their move south of Point Conception , that anger infuses a conversation between The Otter Project's Steve Shemik and urchin diver Eric Schulenberg. Steve Shemik.
SHEMIK: We're not feeding the masses here. You know, we're talking about going out and getting sushi topping for Japan. Let's not portray this as an essential commodity here.
SCHULENBERG: Wow. Once again, your ego impresses me, Steve, to be able to decide what is essential. It was well over a million pounds a year of food, and yeah, it's a highline food, to be sure. But nonetheless, it is tons and tons and tons of a product that goes to Japan, that brings Japanese money to America and feeds hundreds of thousands of Japanese people.
HAND: Finally, after several hours, running west along the Gaviota coast, we're inside of Point Conception and lots of otters.
MAN: Just cut the engines and drift.
HAND: This is a beautiful spot, teeming with life. And yet, it's also a battleground, a hard line drawn across moving water, where visions of just where otters and urchins and humans rightfully fit in the world clash. Environmentalists come to these fights because they love nature. Yet fishermen often come to fishing for the same reason. Diver Bruce Steele.
STEELE: For most of us there is something besides money. It gives you a platform and an opportunity to really know the ocean in a way that most people are never going to, in good weather, bad weather, every season of the year. And once you've watched it enough, can see when it comes alive, and all of that kind of sums up what it is to be a fisherman. We're a creature of the ocean, and (laughs) it's worth all the hassle.
HAND: The sad irony of this hassle is that otter advocates and urchin divers love and depend on the same thing: a healthy ocean. Yet otters and urchins are declining in numbers and neither group knows why. All agree that something is wrong with the sea, whether it be pollution, global warming, or factors yet unknown. Environmentalists and fishermen place their emphasis on different areas, on different animals. But without the health of that vast world of water, both would have little to fight far.
MAN: Okay, what we've got is -- I don't know how many but probably 15 to 18 otters. Maybe a little bit less than that.
HAND: For Living on Earth, I'm Guy Hand.
MAN: Now we are, this is Canada Coho area...
TOOMEY: The height of the summer travel season is upon us, and vacationers and day trippers alike are busy consulting the maps and guidebooks that highlight the new places they're exploring. Joining me is Carol Mack. She's the author of an unusual book that might deserve a place in your backpack, along with the usual guides to flora and fauna. It's called A Field Guide to Demons, Fairies, Fallen Angels, and Other Subversive Spirits. And it begins with a description of the kinds of creatures you might encounter on a summer trip to the beach.
MACK: Most of the creatures, sea fairies and demons that you might approach on the beach, would come out of the water, usually at night. And they're all amphibians. There's one in South America called the Munuane , and he is very, very large and toothless. He travels on a raft and carries a bow and one arrow, which never misses.
TOOMEY: And he's also a bit of a dimwit, isn't he, Carol?
MACK: Well, yes, a lot of the large ones are. Of course, what you have to know about him is that his vulnerability, his flaw, really, is that he has eyes in his knees.
TOOMEY: Now, I think it's safe to say that the Munuane is -- I don't know, the environmentalist of the demonic world, Carol? Have I got that right?
MACK: Well, the Munuane is one of the guardian demons, and you find that in all of the demons of the water and forest. All the habitats, actually. That many of them are considered guardians. Whenever there are fish out in the water, the Munuane will appear to make sure that no fisherman takes too many. That there isn't greed about fish. Once that happens, then he will attack. And you have to remember that all of these demons and fairies consider the turf that they live in to be theirs, and they consider the human trespassing.
TOOMEY: Turning to another type of terrain, I think a lot of us might have had the experience of walking through the woods and feeling like we're being watched by a pair of unseen eyes. Carol, to whom might those eyes belong?
MACK: Well, if you were in Brazil, they might belong to the Kuru-pira . He stands upright like a human being, but has all animal features and fangs. He has no knee joints. This is fortunate for the traveler in the forest, because he cannot really get up easily if he falls. And therefore you have a lot of time for escape.
TOOMEY: This creature kills in a particularly disgusting way.
MACK: He does. His urine is lethal, so he can urinate on a person and the person will die. Or he may hold them very tightly and crush them.
TOOMEY: What a way to go.
MACK: Very bad, very bad. But he won't always do this. He again is a guardian species of the Desana people in Brazil, and he is guarding the woods, the creatures of the woods, against people who may take too much game.
TOOMEY: You also write about a creature called the Leshi, and this one seems like a really mischievous type. Tell me about the Leshi.
MACK: A Leshi, I think, comes from the word "forest" in Russian. And he is the spirit of the forest. And he's very ancient, and he shape-shifts a lot. And he can look like a wolf or a bird. He can become a mushroom. He can look like a neighbor. All he does is just endlessly mysterious tricks. So a lot of the cowherds in Russia would make a deal with a Leshi to protect their cows. So he could be very helpful. On the other hand, you had to recognize that he was in charge there. Otherwise, he might indeed do you in.
TOOMEY: In what manner would he do that?
MACK: Well, one thing he has been noted for is tickling his victim to death.
TOOMEY: I don't know what I'd prefer, the urination or the tickling.
MACK: Yeah, yeah, I know. I think maybe the tickling.
TOOMEY: If one had to choose.
MACK: If you had to choose.
TOOMEY: Now, the way to disarm a Leshi is?
MACK: Well, if you wanted to disarm him, and some people really like them, you would take your clothing off and put it back on inside-out, and put your shoes, your left shoe on your right foot and your right shoe on your left foot. Because this will outsmart him. Or if you want, you could give him an offering, which many people do. Porridge, he likes porridge. And he also likes a good joke, which is very unusual for the demons. He's the only one I encountered that will laugh.
TOOMEY: Carol, I'm going to hazard a guess that some of our listeners haven't had a first-hand experience with these creatures in the great outdoors. And for those of us who don't often get out of the range of a Starbucks, nature is still a pretty scary place, isn't it?
MACK: Yes. I mean, I'm an urban dweller. And you forget the power of nature when you live in a suburb or a city. And so, when we go out, we're stunned by it, and of course, we forget that the people from whom all of these stories and creatures have come live this way all the time.
TOOMEY: Carol, you've spent a lot of time researching these creatures, and maybe a night or two dreaming about them. In your opinion, are they evil?
MACK: No. Actually, I would have to say that they get very close to the edge of those big philosophical questions, but most of these demons and fairies, they were originally pagan deities. They were nature spirits. They were creatures who imbued all the habitats, all the forest, every stone, every mountain was animated by the presence of these spirits.
TOOMEY: So, they were a bearer of a message to us that we were about to enter into a special place.
MACK: Yes. They were saying to the traveler: Here are the things that you have to pay attention to. This isn't your terrain.
TOOMEY: I guess the take-home message here is, be careful out there.
MACK: Yes. And have some sense of wonder. (Laughs) I think that wonderful sense of oh! about the territory you're visiting, and think about this wonderful strata of creatures and stories that have been out there before us.
TOOMEY: Carol Mack is a playwright who, with her daughter Dinah, has written "A Field Guide to Demons, Fairies, Fallen Angels, and Other Subversive Spirits". Carol, thanks for joining me today.
MACK: Thank you so much, Diane. It was fun.
(Music up and under: theme from "The Exorcist")
TOOMEY: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Next week: In the shadow of Mount Katahdin, Maine's biggest mountain, host Steve Curwood takes a hike with Bill Silliker, a man who knows more than you might want to know about Maine's biggest land animal, the moose.
SILLIKER: If you're ever here in September, unless you have a good tree to climb, do not make this call. (Makes moose call) You'll more than likely have a very big friend if he's within earshot.
TOOMEY: It's men, moose, mating, and Maine, next time on Living on Earth. We're produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production staff includes Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber, Stephanie Pindyck, and Maggie Villiger, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, and Bree Horwitz. We had help this week from Jennifer Chu, Jenna Perry, Nicole Kalb, and James Curwood. Alison Dean composed the theme. Our Technical Director is Dennis Foley. Liz Lempert is our Western Editor. And Eileen Bolinsky is our Senior Editor. Chris Ballman is the Senior Producer, and Steve Curwood is the Executive Producer of Living on Earth. I'm Diane Toomey. Thanks for listening.
(Music up an under)
ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Ford Foundation for reporting on sustainable development and environmental issues; the W. Alton Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to sustain human well-being through biological diversity; www.wajones.org; and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues.
NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
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