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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

May 2, 1997

Air Date: May 2, 1997

SEGMENTS

JAPANESE DIOXIN ON THE RISE

In Japan, a new study shows infant mortality rates up by as much as 70 percent in areas downwind from dioxin-emitting incinerators. For the first time, the government of Japan says it will set limits on dioxin emissions from incinerators. Peter Hadfield, a writer for the New Scientist Magazine, spoke to Steve Curwood from Tokyo and said that fear about dioxin has been growing steadily in Japan. (06:30)

Of Prairie Dogs / Kelly Griffin

To many people in the west, Prairie dogs are abundant pests which ranchers, developers and public land managers try to kill off. The pudgy short-tailed cousin of the squirrel lives in networks of burrows called prairie dog towns, and alongside highways. But, the perception of the prairie dog is increasingly at odds with reality. As Kelly Griffin reports from Denver, biologists are trying to convince skeptical westerners that the prairie dog, and with it the plains eco-system, are in trouble. (07:40)

Desertscapes / Andy Wasowski

In his famous dictionary, Noah Webster defined desert as “a desolate and forbidding area”. Too bad he never had a chance to visit the American Southwest. Commentator Andy Wasowski says, if he had, he might have defined it as a place of color, vitality and exciting landscaping possibilities: Andy Wasowski is a garden writer based in northern New Mexico. He is co-author of Native Gardens for Dry Climates. (02:55)

Animal Letters

Audience reaction from recent segments on modern zoos and the return of New England black bears. (03:00)

The Living On Earth Almanac

Facts about... the Clean Water Act, which turns 25 this year. (01:15)

Salmon Parasite

Norway's Laerdal river has just been deliberately poisoned with rotonone in order to control a deadly parasite, Gyrodactylus salaris. The tiny worm was infecting scores of Atlantic salmon, but while rotonone destroys the parasite, it also kills most fish and many other acquatic species. The treatment has been controversial since its introduction more than 20 years ago and its use in the river has brought opposition to a head. Vera Frankel has our report. (07:10)

GLOUCESTER AT THE CROSSROADS: PART ONE / Vera Frankel

Norway's Laerdal river has just been deliberately poisoned with rotonone in order to control a deadly parasite, Gyrodactylus salaris. The tiny worm was infecting scores of Atlantic salmon, but while rotonone destroys the parasite, it also kills most fish and many other acquatic species. The treatment has been controversial since its introduction more than 20 years ago and its use in the river has brought opposition to a head. Vera Frankel has our report. (17:15)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
NEWSCASTER: Lisa Mullins
REPORTERS: Naseem Rakha, Alexis Milner, Michael Lawton, Kelly Griffin,
Vera Frankel, Sandy Tolan
GUEST: Peter Hadfield
COMMENTATOR: Andy Wasowski

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CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

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CURWOOD: It's NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
In Japan, a new study shows infant mortality rates up by as much as 70% downwind from incinerators that emit dioxin. The study has broad implications for the island nation.

HADFIELD: There are nearly 2,000 municipal incinerators in Japan and several thousand more industrial ones. And therefore, the sheer quantity of incinerators means that you've got a lot of dioxin in the air.

CURWOOD: And in the American West, the prairie dogs may be at risk of extinction, even though laws treat them as pests.

SHANKS: In South Dakota, Nebraska, they even have a state law that says if a prairie dog comes up in the springtime, you are required to kill it. And if you don't, the county can come in and kill it and send you the bill.

CURWOOD: We'll have those stories and more this week on Living on Earth, but first this news.

Environmental News

MULLINS: From Living on Earth, I'm Lisa Mullins. The National Marine Fisheries Service will forego an endangered species listing for Oregon's central and northern coast Coho salmon in favor of a voluntary measure to save the fish. Naseem Rakha reports from Salem.

RAKHA: The Oregon salmon plan relies on the voluntary restoration efforts of landowners throughout most of western Oregon. It will be closely monitored by a team of scientists and could include changes to timber cutting practices. Government officials say the no list decision is in line with the Clinton Administration's goal to cooperate with landowners and communities to save endangered species. Environmental groups say Oregon's voluntary plan will not save the Coho. Just 80,000 Coho salmon remain from an estimated population of over a million in the 1800s. For Living on Earth, this is Naseem Rakha reporting.

MULLINS: France and Britain have deployed warships to the Antarctic to stop poachers of tooth fish, a valuable whitefish. New Zealand has sent up surveillance planes to aid in the effort. An international treaty signed by 23 countries last year imposed strict controls on fishing in the Antarctic. Environmentalists say they're pleased the treaty's being enforced, but some worry the show of force could lead to violence in an area where nations have historically settled differences peacefully.

Six months ago Florida voters turned down a penny per pound tax that would have added millions to sugar growers' costs to help clean up the Everglades. Now, environmentalists have filed a $900 million lawsuit claiming the sugar growers duped voters. Alexis Muellner reports from Miami.

MUELLNER: The suit filed by the environmental group Save Our Everglades says US Sugar, one of the nation's largest sugar producers, intentionally deceived voters in its political ads. The ads allege that the sugar tax would lead to job loss and higher property taxes if passed. An Orlando, state attorney later ordered US Sugar to stop the advertising after finding no merit in the ad's claims. While voters turned down the penny per pound tax, they did approve a separate amendment making polluters, quote, "primarily responsible for the cost of the Everglades clean-up." US Sugar called the environmentalists' suit a desperate ploy to deflect attention from an election fraud lawsuit that it filed against Save Our Everglades in February. For Living on Earth in Miami, I'm Alexis Muellner.

MULLINS: Polluted runoff from sugar plantations isn't the only environmental threat facing the Everglades. Melaleuca trees, an import from Australia, are growing uncontrollably in the swamp and crowding out native trees. Now the Agricultural Department has allowed scientists to release 300 snout beetles into the swamp in an effort to control the melaleucas. The government says it's tested the beetle for 8 years to ensure that it won't become another ecological menace. But some environmental activists worry the beetle program could have unintended consequences.

Protected portions of California's Mojave Desert, home to the endangered desert tortoise, have been contaminated by a series of radioactive toxic waste spills. About 300,000 gallons of radioactive waste spilled from a buried pipeline owned by Molycorp. The pipe line carries wastewater from a mine to the dry lake bed. Bureau of Land Management officials say the spilled waste poses no immediate threat to humans, but they fear tortoises that burrow in the area may be exposed to the toxins.

A commission has recommended that the German Trans-Rapid Magnetic Levitation Train be used to link Los Angeles and Las Vegas. If the transportation secretaries of California and Nevada approve the plan, it would be the first time anyone outside Germany has chosen the system. In Germany, plans to introduce a high-speed trans-rapid service between Berlin and Hamburg remain controversial, as Michael Lawton reports from Cologne.

LAWTON: The 3 construction companies in the trans-rapid consortium caused a crisis when they all backed out in one day. Shares in the 3 companies skyrocketed, but the German government had to call a sudden news conference to announce a rescue plan. The consortium now only consists of 3 equipment manufacturers and the German railroads, and the government has put the railroads in charge of building the route from Hamburg to Berlin. It's also said it'll subsidize the building of the track with around $4 billion and provide a loan of $2 billion, which will only have to be repaid when the route begins to turn a profit. Many analysts have their doubts about when that will be. New forecasts confirm expectations that the number of passengers will be lower and the costs higher than originally projected. Environmentalists, such as German Friends of the Earth, say it's a waste of money anyway, since the trans-rapid is incompatible with what they see as the mass transit of the future, the high-speed train. This is Michael Lawton in Cologne for Living on Earth.

MULLINS: People aren't the only ones who need a good night's sleep. A Sonoma County dairy farmer wanted to make sure his cows were getting their z's, so he bought them $25,000 worth of rubber mattresses. He says the cows have produced more milk and have had fewer health problems since they've sacked out on the new beds. He says he's thinking of trying pillows next.

That's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Lisa Mullins.

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JAPANESE DIOXIN ON THE RISE

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
For the first time, the government of Japan says it will set limits on dioxin emissions from incinerators. Dioxins are highly toxic chemicals found in incinerator smoke. They have been linked to a whole range of health problems including cancers, reproductive disorders, heart disease, and diabetes. The announcement came after a study found abnormally high infant mortality rates, 40 to 70% higher than normal, in a Tokyo suburb downwind from several industrial waste incinerators. Peter Hadfield writes for the New Scientist Magazine from Tokyo. He told me that fear about dioxin has been growing steadily in Japan.

HADFIELD: There's a lot of anecdotal evidence to suggest that people who live near garbage incinerators, which are very common in this country, are being affected by dioxin. Now, citizens' groups and non-government organizations have been very concerned about this, and in fact they have produced figures which show that dioxin is very common in the air, in the sea water, and in fish.

CURWOOD: Now, this study shows a link between infant mortality rates and the smoke from these incinerators. Has dioxin been tied to other health problems with people living close to these incinerators?

HADFIELD: Yes. A lot of people are complaining about all kinds of problems: numbness, skin rashes, breathing difficulties. Of course, there's an awful lot of toxic material given out in these incinerators. They're allowed to burn quite freely even in very well built-up areas.

CURWOOD: Is there anything about the way Japan burns trash in its incinerators that may be contributing to this problem?

HADFIELD: Well, firstly, the fact that there are so many incinerators. There are nearly 2,000 municipal incinerators in Japan and several thousand more industrial ones. And therefore, the sheer quantity of incinerators means that you've got a lot of dioxin in the air. This is then working its way down into the water supply, running off to sea, and causing a build-up of dioxin in fish. The other thing is that the Japanese, some of the Japanese incinerators are very old, and they're burning the garbage at a much lower temperature than would be proper for burning off dioxin. You can get proper incinerators which do the job, and in fact can almost eliminate dioxin from the list of pollutants. But it's expensive to replace all of these incinerators that way.

CURWOOD: What sort of political pressures are there, Peter, to keep these incinerators, these old, dirty incinerators open?

HADFIELD: Well, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, which regulates the incinerators, is a very powerful ministry, much more so than the environment agency. And in Japan there's this pecking order among ministries, which means it's very, very difficult for the environment agency, which is concerned about the dioxin problem, to regulate it. The other thing is, if you do regulate dioxin to the extent that you stop burning some of the plastics which are causing it, because dioxin is caused by burning plastics which contain chlorine and chlorides, then you have to figure out what to do with the waste. At the moment they're running out of landfill, and trying to cut down on the waste in Japan is a very difficult thing to do. There's a new law coming in, which is now forcing companies to recycle plastic materials. But it's a very slow process. This law doesn't really come into effect fully for another 5 years.

CURWOOD: People who are speaking up about this, I understand, are having a pretty hard time. We read about a politician who was severely beaten up because he had opposed a proposed industrial waste dump. Have you heard these studies.

HADFIELD: Yeah, oh yes, indeed. That was a very famous case. And there's been no definite link between this assault on the mayor and the waste dump. But I think that there's no doubt most people believe that obviously the 2 were connected. One of the problems is, and I must say from personal experience I know this, the people that are often involved in burning the dioxin-laden plastics are linked to the Japanese Mafia, the Yakuza. It's often a Yakuza business because there's an awful lot of money in it, and if a company wants to get rid of its waste, one way to do this is to get a Yakuza gang to arrange to have it burned illegally. And of course, because they're Yakuza, very few people stand up against them.

CURWOOD: By the way, you mentioned a personal experience. What were you referring to?

HADFIELD: Oh -- there's a dump site just actually started up 2 blocks from where I live, and some of the local people here have got very annoyed about it. There's someone who, his business is tearing down old houses, And houses here get burnt, torn down quite regularly. They don't last more than about 20 years. And when you tear them down, the house and the entire contents is usually burned, and he's just opened a space for himself and he's burning it in a piece of wasteland. And of course, the amount of toxic chemicals coming out of there and toxic smoke is quite staggering. So the citizens here are opposed to it. But on the other hand, they're very afraid of actually running up against this character because he's got Yakuza connections, and the local council won't do anything about it even though what he's doing is quite illegal.

CURWOOD: People burn up their houses every 20 years?

HADFIELD: Oh yes, it's very common. Houses are sort of rather like cars. Once you've finished with a house, you tear it down and build another one. And the consequence of that is that you normally burn the house and if it's a house that's being sold off, then the contents will go with it. And an awful lot of plastic goes up with that. You can imagine the amount of waste that comes out of that, something like 300 million tons of the waste in Japan a year is this kind of industrial waste.

CURWOOD: Peter Hadfield writes for the New Scientist Magazine. He spoke to us from Tokyo. Thank you, sir.

HADFIELD: Thank you.

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CURWOOD: They kiss and they're cute, but some people hate them so much they may be headed for extinction. The prairie dog dilemma is just ahead on Living on Earth.

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Of Prairie Dogs

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
To many people in the west, prairie dogs are an abundant nuisance. The pudgy, short-tailed cousin of the squirrel lives in a warren of burrows called prairie dog towns. They're common out on the range, and these days along major highways. Ranchers, developers, and many managers of public lands tend to speak of prairie dogs as pests to be eradicated. Gun groups even hold recreational prairie dog shoots. But the perception of the prairie dog is increasingly at odds with what biologists say is reality.
As Kelly Griffin reports from Denver, the prairie dogs and the plains ecosystem they support are in trouble.

(Traffic sounds)

GRIFFIN: At this busy intersection in south Denver, a 6-acre lot is covered with a prairie dog town. About 60 prairie dogs live here. But they're in the way of a planned office building, so the developers are paying to have them removed. That's where the 2-man operation known as Doggone comes in. Founder Gay Balfour spots a prairie dog at one hole and maneuvers a big yellow truck fitted with a vacuum hose into position.

(Loud vacuuming sounds)

GRIFFIN: Balfour and his partner Dave Honaker quickly place the 4-inch hose down the burrow opening. With a thump, a prairie dog is sucked up the hose and shoots into the back of the truck. Gay Balfour.

BALFOUR: What we're going to do now is, we've got one prairie dog, we're going to go ahead and lift the door, and then we'll catch him and put him in the cage with the others. There he comes.

(Loud mechanical sounds)

BALFOUR: Back into the cage. That's a little male, there. Okay, there you go.

(Squeaking prairie dog)

BALFOUR: Oh, he's a little unhappy, did you hear him squalling? He'll be all right, though.

GRIFFIN: Balfour insists his vacuum method, which came to him in a dream, does no harm to prairie dogs, though one or two of the animals he's caught this morning are bleeding slightly around the nose. And this batch of prairie dogs will have a second chance. They're being relocated to a Federal wildlife preserve in Denver. These prairie dogs might have been killed instead if so many city dwellers didn't find them so cute. Developers of high-profile projects are increasingly wary of bad publicity if they simply poison prairie dogs, so they opt for humane removal. Even so, ranchers, public land managers, and many developers still routinely poison prairie dogs. That approach, wildlife biologists say, is why the prairie dog and the ecosystem it supports are in trouble. At the turn of the century, prairie dogs occupied 100 million acres in the western plains states, says Larry Shanks of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

SHANKS: Due to major government programs of poisoning control, et cetera, plowing up, changing the habitat, those large complexes of the prairie dog ecosystem are down to less than 2 million acres in the west. So it's like 98% gone right now.

GRIFFIN: Shanks can't think of another example where a species that has so seriously declined continues to be killed off as a nuisance. On the other hand, many in the west can't believe prairie dogs are considered anything but a nuisance. Reeves Brown heads the Colorado Cattleman's Association.

BROWN: The average farming ranch out there has got acres and acres and acres of prairie dogs right out their window. It is very difficult for them to even perceive this as a viable issue. Their response is: come and take as many as you want. The prairie dog has got to be the most numerous species of anything out there.

GRIFFIN: All those prairie dogs, Brown says, eat the grass cattle need. The Fish and Wildlife Service disputes that, saying prairie dogs actually replenish grasslands by stimulating new growth. But ranchers don't believe it. Brown says ranchers need to control prairie dog populations like they do on his family's Montana ranch.

BROWN: If there's a prairie dog town that is growing pretty rapidly, we will poison some around the fringe of that just to keep them from spreading. And so our goal, and I think most landowners' goals is not to eradicate any species. It's to keep that species in check and balance with other, you know, with other activities on the land.

GRIFFIN: Not surprisingly, conservation biologists don't want to leave it to the ranchers to keep the species in balance. Groups like the Biodiversity Legal Foundation in Boulder and the Predator Project in Montana are pushing the Fish and Wildlife Service to give the prairie dog protected status. Larry Shanks of the Fish and Wildlife Service agrees protecting the prairie dog ecosystem is critical. He says a healthy prairie dog town supports nearly 140 other species, including the feruginous hawk, the swift fox, and the mountain plover. As the prairie dog loses ground, the other species are threatened, too. For example, the black-footed ferret, which relies almost solely on the prairie dog for food, nearly has become extinct. A decade ago there were just 18 left. And while they're rebounding slowly in captive breeding programs, they need large prairie dog towns to thrive. Shanks says prairie dogs are still too numerous to qualify for the Endangered Species list, but, he cautions...

SHANKS: If something isn't done in the next few years, you know, it could end up being listed.

GRIFFIN: He says much will depend on whether public lands are managed to protect large prairie dog ecosystems.

SHANKS: The regional director has written to each state game and fish director, land management agencies, the BLM, the Forest Service, encouraging them to, hey, get serious about this critter, this ecosystem. Because it's in trouble.

GRIFFIN: But not all agencies are on board. Old habits, it seems, die hard.

SHANKS: I wouldn't say that we've made great stride. There are still public lands in the west that are being chemically treated to either reduce or eliminate prairie dogs from the public lands. In certain states like South Dakota, Nebraska, they even have a state law that says if a prairie dog comes up in the spring time you are required to kill it on your private land. And if you don't, the county can come in and kill it and send you the bill.

(Flowing water. Woman: "There's one or more over there.")

GRIFFIN: In the meantime, a small band of Denver area residents is doing what it can to save prairie dog towns. At a massive housing development south of Denver, volunteers for the Prairie Ecosystem Conservation Alliance flush prairie dogs from their burrows with soap and water and take them to a preserve.

(Flowing water. Child: "Here it comes. I saw it's nose!" Woman: "Here comes a prairie dog. Everybody has eyedrops? Whohas eyedrops? Eyedrops please."
A squealing prairie dog. Woman: "He's not happy.")

GRIFFIN: Paula Martin reaches her bare hand into the burrow to pull out this prairie dog. After rinsing its eyes and telling it off, she puts it in the hay-filled crate. It's a slow process but Martin, one of the leaders of the conservation group, says it's the only humane, effective way to remove the prairie dogs. She's worked nearly every weekend for the past 4 years to relocate prairie dogs. Even so, she estimates her group has saved fewer than 5% of the prairie dog towns in the Denver metro area. Still, she's hopeful.

MARTIN: I think it's all about education and allowing the public to understand what happens. What happens when they're bulldozed. What happens when they're gassed. A slow, torturous painful death that eats out their mucous membranes. And all of a sudden people realize when the prairie dogs aren't there they don't see the hawks any more. They don't see anything else that they enjoyed.

GRIFFIN: For Living on Earth, I'm Kelly Griffin in Denver.

MARTIN: There you go, guys. I'm not so scared.

(Flowing water. A latch clicks)

MARTIN: Okay, where's the next burrow? (Laughs)

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Desertscapes

CURWOOD: In his famous dictionary, Noah Webster defined desert as "a desolate and forbidding area." Too bad he never had a chance to visit the American Southwest. Commentator Andy Wasowski says if he had, he might have defined it as a place of color, vitality, and exciting landscaping possibilities.

WASOWSKI: Now, say desert landscaping and most folks think cactus and colored gravel. But that's really a caricature of the true desert. I'm talking about a softer, gentler look. Admittedly, our deserts are dry, with rainfall ranging from a mere 4 to 16 inches annually. But it's still a place of great beauty with vibrant wildflowers, blooming shrubs and trees, and startlingly attractive grasses, especially when you catch them with the sun setting or riding behind them. When you explore our deserts, the Chihuahuan, the Sonoran, the Mojave, what you find is a vast palate of native flora that rivals, and to my way of thinking, exceeds anything found in your neighborhood nursery. The true desert look isn't just brown and tan, it's also golden yellow, vibrant red, elegant pink, dramatic blue, and lush green. These plants should be used in home and commercial landscapes throughout the Southwest. But all too often, they're ignored.

Take turpentine bush. Okay, the name may not sound sexy. But when this golden knee-high shrub is in bloom, it's nothing short of a knockout. Then there's pink fairy duster. The name itself gives you an idea what it looks like: delicate and fluffy, with the coloring of a sunrise over the mesas. You've also got Apache plume, globe mallow, desert marigold, cat claw catia and -- the list is way too long to cover here. But what I don't understand is this. With this wealth of beautiful and drought-tolerant natives available, why do so many homeowners in desert communities like El Paso, Phoenix, and Las Vegas, insist on surrounding their homes with tropical plants better suited to a rainforest, and water guzzling lawns? Drive through these neighborhoods in the summer and you'll see sprinklers going full blast at noon, with most of the water running off into the streets or evaporating into the air. Wake up, Southwest, and smell the fragrant evening primroses. Start appreciating the native plants that have been growing in your area for millennia. Understand where you live and love it for what it is, and quit trying to transplant Connecticut, North Carolina, and Minnesota to the desert. That makes as much sense as wearing a bikini in the Arctic.

CURWOOD: Andy Wasowski is a garden writer based in northern New Mexico. He's coauthor of Native Gardens for Dry Climates.

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Animal Letters

CURWOOD: And now it's time to hear from you, our listeners. Brian Kerr Jung, who listens to WUWM in Milwaukee, complimented us on last week's interview with Vicki Croke. She's the author of The Modern Ark: A Book on Zoos. "You did a real service by asking the question, are zoos really necessary?" Writes Mr. Kerr-Jung. "Time would be better spent restoring the natural habitats of native animals. That way, we could all experience nature and more importantly, nature could go on experiencing itself."

On the other hand, William Maxwell, a listener to West Virginia Public Radio, says we should have spent more time talking about zoos that work. "After all," he writes, "some zoos provide good environments for the animals' health as well as for viewing."

And while we're on the subject of viewing animals, our recent report by Sy Montgomery on bear researchers prompted some listeners to recall their encounters. When James Jennings of Brooklyn, Pennsylvania, was in the National Guard, he ran into a bear who frequented the base dump.

JENNINGS: I must have gotten a little too close while trying to take a picture, and he ran right at me. While he was running at me I thought of a lot of things: climb a tree, jump to another one, don't run. And then I remembered reading an article at the dentist's office about -- a woman wrote it about bears. Make yourself big and holler at him. I stood up on my toes, waved my arms above my head, and hollered something at him, and it stopped him dead in his tracks. He stood there looking at me. Kept my arms up, kept looking right at him, maybe 20 feet away, no further. And I growled at him. And he turned around and walked away. (Sighs) It was a scary thing.

CURWOOD: South Carolina resident Michelle Grusing-Chamberlain originally hails from Canada where her Aunt Fay still lives. Recently, Aunt Fay was opening a neighbor's back door when she smacked a bear square in the snout. Ms. Grusing-Chamberlain writes that her aunt broke all Canadian athletic records for the 100-yard dash back to her house. We presume the bear did the same all the way to his den.

Finally, storyteller John McDonald, a listener to Maine Public Broadcasting, called in this tale.

McDONALD: And they tell a story in northern Maine about a fellow from the city who came up to do some hunting in Maine. And the Maine guide took him out to the woods. And because he was so nervous they said, "Look, why don't you take a bucket and go down to the spring and get some water?" So this city fellow went out, and 5 minutes later the poor city fellow's back with the bucket in his hand and he's rattling and the fellow's white as a ghost and he's scared to death. And the Maine guide said, "What's the matter with you?" He said, "I went down to the spring like you asked me, and standing right in the middle of the spring was a 300-pound black bear." And the Maine guide said, "Eh -- don't worry about that." He said, "Why that bear is just as scared of you as you are of him." And the fellow from the city said, "Is that right?" And the Maine guide said, "Yes, it's right." He said, "Well in that case, the water ain't fit to drink now anyway."

CURWOOD: (Clears his throat) Send your comments and questions to Living on Earth, 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02138. That's Living on Earth, 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts,02138. If you're on the Internet, LOE@NPR.ORG is the address. And check out our web page at www.loe.org. For e-mail, LOE@NPR.ORG. For the web page, www.loe.org. Or pick up the phone. You can call our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. It's NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the W. Alton Jones Foundation for reporting on environmental economics; the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for coverage of sustainable agriculture; the Great Lakes Protection Fund; and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

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NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: Gloucester, Massachusetts, has almost 400 years of history as a fishing town. Traditional fish stocks are now just about gone, and the town is debating if it should catch the little fish that is left. That story is ahead on Living on Earth.

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SECOND HALF HOUR

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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood

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The Living On Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: Spring's here. Summer's coming. Ready for a swim? Thanks to the Clean Water Act, which turns 25 this year, you have more places to choose from here in the US. Congressional action to clean up our water dates back to 1899. The Refuse Act was the first attempt to control the level of pollutants in public waters. Then came the Water Pollution Control Act of 1948, radically amended in 1972 to give us the law we have today. The Clean Water Act's main objective remains to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of our nation's waters. Congress has tried to accomplish this by setting standards for industries and cities discharging pollutants, and by providing funds to build wastewater treatment plants. But this isn't all water under the bridge just yet. A bill which would ease the Act's pollution standards is facing opposition from both the Clinton Administration and environmental groups, who believe it will be a step back for a quarter century of water quality control. They note that still, only 66% of our surface waters meet the Act's goal of being swimmable and fishable. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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Salmon Parasite

CURWOOD: In the face of the worldwide collapse of natural fisheries, fish farming has been held out as a partial solution. But the crowding of fish together in pens can increase the spread of disease. In Norway, a massive outbreak of the parasite Gyrodactylus salaris among Atlantic salmon is being blamed by some scientists on aquaculture. Whatever the cause of the outbreak, Norwegian authorities are taking drastic action. To control the parasite, one of Norway's mightiest fishing rivers has just been poisoned with about 100 gallons of rotonone, a naturally occurring alkaloid familiar to gardeners as one of the more environmentally friendly pesticides. While rotonone destroys the parasite, it also kills virtually all fish and many other species of aquatic life as well. The treatment has been controversial since its introduction with the advent of fish farming more than 20 years ago, and its use on this river, the Laerdal, has brought opposition to a head. Vera Frankel has our report.

(Running water)

FRANKEL: The Laerdal River rushes through the magnificent fjord country of western Norway. It's a favorite of Norwegian royalty and, as it happens, of British aristocracy, who've been fishing the Laerdal since the 19th century. A few weeks ago a crew of 70 men poured about 100 gallons of poisoning rotonone into a 15-mile stretch of the river teeming with salmon and trout. Another group stood by along the banks to remove the fish as they rose gasping and convulsing to the surface. The treatment will be repeated in August, and the river, the 25th to be treated with rotonone, will remain closed to fishing for 5 years. Only then will the Laerdal be restocked with salmon and trout. Antonio Pileo, a research biologist at the University of Oslo, is one of many scientists and conservationists galvanized by the fate of this very special river, who oppose controlling the Gyrodactylus parasite with rotonone.

PILEO: You have to realize that a river is not only a place for salmon to live. The river is much more. It's a whole ecosystem. There is a lot of other fish species there, there's a lot of invertebrates living there. And I think when you use the rotonone you wipe out most of that.

FRANKEL: The anti-rotonone camp faces formidable obstacles. Changing long-established practice on the one hand, and on the other the importance of salmon to the Norwegian economy. Sport fishing alone is worth perhaps $16 million a year to local communities, and Norway accounts for about two thirds of the world's farmed salmon, about 300,000 tons annually. The official line is that wholesale poisoning of infested rivers is far preferable to risking the spread of the parasite, which grazes on the skin of the salmon and leaves it open to infection. But even those who favor this describe it as the lesser of 2 evils. Or, as the Norwegian expression has it, a choice between plague and cholera. Tor Atleymo of the State Veterinary Institute.

ATLEYMO: Rotonone itself is of course a bad thing. But the program itself, yes, I support it. Because this parasite is so harmful to the Norwegian salmon populations, and it's still spreading to new rivers every year. So we have to stop it some way. And today we only know about that method: to kill all the fish and wipe out the parasite.

(Flowing water)

FRANKEL: In Antonio Pileo's dank subterranean laboratory at the University of Oslo, fish of different species suffer in the cause of his research. Dr. Pileo and his colleagues are studying the biological consequences of acid rain, and in the process they think they might have found a less destructive and wasteful treatment for the salmon parasite. Having noticed that salmon in even mildly acidified rivers were free of the parasite, Dr. Pileo suspected that aluminum leaching into the water, one of the toxic side effects of long-term acidification, might be the reason. He exposed fish to a short, sharp dose of the metal, and in the lab at least it looked good.

PILEO: What we found was very interesting. Firstly, we found that we could eliminate the parasite within a few days. And even more interesting, we didn't kill any salmon. And our comparative studies have shown that the Atlantic salmon is the most vulnerable species for aluminum. So if we can save salmon we can save all other fishes. And therefore, we propose that we have a good idea for an alternative method, because rotonone is, you know, is killing more or less all the life in the river.

FRANKEL: But this approach seems to have aroused little if any official interest, and even antipathy in some quarters. Tor Atleymo of the State Veterinary Institute is positively scathing in his dismissal of the aluminum option. Lab conditions he insists are one thing, but a river is something else.

ATLEYMO: In some areas of a river, the water is running away within a few seconds, and other parts the water can be in the same position for hours. So how sure can he be that they have the needed concentration everywhere at any time during treatment? That's extremely difficult.

FRANKEL: There is of course another strategy: to do nothing at all, in the hope that the salmon might develop immunity to the parasite given time. That's the option favored by Sigrun Ringwald of the Norwegian Society for the Conservation of Nature.

RINGWALD: In other countries the salmon are resistant against this parasite. And in Norway they haven't really given the salmon the time to get this resistance, because you treat the river with poison before you see if the fish get resistant against it. It would do better to leave the salmon entirely alone than to use rotonone to kill all the fishes in the river.

FRANKEL: But the government maintains that rotonone does not kill all life in the rivers, only fish in the lower reaches of the river frequented by the Atlantic salmon, and that other forms of life recover relatively quickly. Critics of the government can't rely on the experience of other countries because the salmon parasite is not a problem elsewhere. Steinar Hermanson of the Ministry of Environment acknowledges that theirs is a uniquely Norwegian solution to a Norwegian problem, and he's clearly used to dealing with critics of the program.

HERMANSON: This argument has been our headaches for several years when we are doing this treatment, because of course to use rotonone in rivers like this, it's really a very difficult environmental political question, and a difficult ethical question, too. So it's really a dilemma how we should handle this parasite, all this has been.

(Rushing water)

FRANKEL: Norway's salmon rivers are far more than an economic resource. Like any powerful force of nature, they also play an important part in shaping a sense of national identity. In Norway, even those who support the use of rotonone are uneasy about dumping poison into waterways. Even they are in no doubt that however successful the treatment, the days when a rich Englishman could catch 22 salmon in one epic afternoon on the Laerdal River -- Edward Portman was his name, and his record still stands -- are gone forever. For Living on Earth, I'm Vera Frankel.

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CURWOOD: Our report on the salmon parasite was produced by Tony Samstag.

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CURWOOD: Gloucester, Massachusetts, one of the first colonial fishing ports in North America, faces its future with far fewer fish, next on Living on Earth.

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GLOUCESTER AT THE CROSSROADS: PART ONE

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
On May first, the New England fishing industry hit a new low. People who hunt for lucrative ground fish, including cod and haddock, are now restricted to only 88 days a year at sea. It's the latest in a series of government measures aimed at helping the devastated North Atlantic fisheries recover. For generations, ground fish were the backbone of Gloucester, Massachusetts, and the new cuts threaten the very life of this port. Today, many fishing captains are selling their boats, while others look for some answer to help the town's fishing industry and its heritage survive. Gloucester resident and Living on Earth producer Sandy Tolan brings us the first in an occasional series of reports: Gloucester at the Crossroads.

(Surf, a buoy sounds)

TOLAN: The British came here first, back in 1623, to this place where I am standing on smooth granite boulders looking east to sea. They called it Fisherman's Field. Long before the Revolutionary War, schooners sailed from these waters. Fishermen dropped their nets beyond the horizon, and came back heavy with cod and haddock. For Gloucester's fish came fruit and wine from Europe, sugar, rum, and coffee from the West Indies, beans and bacon from the Carolinas.

(Surf continues)

TOLAN: For 300 years fishing has made Gloucester. For the English colonists, then the Irish, the Portuguese, and now the generations of Italian immigrant families. It's been an endless supply, enough for Gloucester and the world. The ocean too vast, too profound, to ever stop yielding its bounty. So it seemed.

(Surf continues. Fade to a man speaking on a boat; an alarm goes off; metal clanks)

TOLAN: The trawler St. Mary lands at Gloucester's Fisherman's Wharf. A scruffy looking 64-footer, its crew is weary from a day of dragging the sea bottom for cod.

SPINOLA: I'll get on the hatch in a minute.

(Gulls call)

SPINOLA Just trying to get a day's pay. It's not very good right now. We're starving right now.

MAN: Starving to death.

SPINOLA: There's nothing, yeah. It's horrible.

(Pulleys sound)

TOLAN: Captain Emilio Spinola has been working the St. Mary for 50 years and he's never seen it so bad. It takes a grand total of 5 minutes to unload the day's catch. Half a dozen boxes of cod plus some yellowtail and black bass.

SPINOLA: On really good days you work a half a day and come in with probably 100 of these, 150 of these, mixed fish, you know? But now of course we worked all day of this, for 10 boxes of fish. You know, it's really gone downhill.

(Seagulls)

TOLAN: The problem: there really wasn't an endless supply. The first warning came in the late 60s when floor and factory trawlers began to suck fish out of the sea faster than they could spawn. The catches dropped sharply, and in '76 Congress banned foreign vessels from fishing inside the 200-mile limit. The fish stocks recovered as Gloucester boats rocked in the waves or George's Bank. Men in their yellow slickers were up to their hips again in haddock and cod. And so, more boats came, backed with Federally guaranteed loans and decked out with high tech radar fish finders and global satellite mapping. Some guys even hunted down schools of fish from their private planes for their partners down below. It was too much, and the stocks crashed again. Finally, Congress imposed new restrictions. George's Bank is now closed to haddock and cod and other ground fish. Many fishermen are now selling their boats in a Federal buy back program. And new laws that went into effect May first now restrict ground fishermen to 88 days at sea per year.

CALOMO: And how can you make a living on 88 days of work, fishing work, and have 365 days of expense? The average fisherman pays for insurance on his vessel, about on the big boats somewhere between $35,000 and $50,000 a year...

TOLAN: Vito Calomo wears a fish hook tieclip. The gold schooners printed on his tie are from the days of Captains Courageous. He's director of the Fisheries Commission for the city of Gloucester.

CALOMO: I say it's very bad and getting worse. You have a late 40, early 50 year old person coming out, and some have been, migrated from Italy and Portugal and stuff like that. Talks broken English. How do you retrain that -- what is he going to be, a carpenter? They're going to be a lawyer? No. Very few are going to make anything.

TOLAN: On Vito's desk, wedged between stacks of papers, there's a bottle with a ship inside. His old ship, the Italian Gold. The ship he sold back in '82, when he says he saw the writing on the wall.

CALOMO: And it was sad, very sad. Maybe because of the 65 years my family's been in it that I understand it more than others. The camaraderie that goes into a fishing crew, the families tied to it, the kids that come down the boat and help the father hold the net to mend the nets. The painting of the vessel, putting the flags up at fiesta time. You become a real part of it. A fishing port is a society in a society. So, I really took it personal that I would try to figure out something to try to save part of Gloucester's fleet.

TOLAN: Like the fishermen, Vito Calomo and the town of Gloucester face a plight. Will fishing just die, leaving only souvenir shops, whale watches and fishing museums in its wake? Or can the city sustain a working port while the fishing families await the recovery of George's Bank? Vito and others saw an answer in a small oily fish called herring. He started checking the biologists' data.

COLOMO: The United States Department of Commerce, National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, National Marine Fisheries Service, says the overall biomass level if high, spawning biomass level is at record highs. Unexploited.

TOLAN: Ten billion pounds of herring in New England waters by some estimates, 97% of it just swimming away, Vido says, dying of old age. So the city invested $400,000 from a Federal grant for a herring development plan. Local wharf businesses made their own modest investments. Meanwhile, Vito approached Frank Elliot Junior, President of Eliot Shipping in Gloucester. Elliot had done business with the Europeans in the past, and he convinced a Dutch company to build a $10 million herring plant on the state fish pier. It would create maybe 150 permanent jobs. Another $3 million would ggo in low interest loans to retrofit Gloucester boats to fish for herring. Everything seemed to be going well, until some of the fishermen spoke their minds.

DORR: My name's Austin Dorr, and I haven't lived 69 years for nothing to listen to about return on investments. You build this plant here, and the return on investment will be with the investors. We don't have herring here. They're not here. Where is the biomass?

TOLAN: In a public meeting organized by a citizen's group called Gloucester Initiatives, fishermen after fishermen spoke out against the plant. They challenged the biologists' numbers. If there are so many herring in the sea, they ask, how come lobstermen, who use herring as bait, couldn't find any?

ROMEO: I was devastated. What do you mean they couldn't get herring? I thought there's so much they couldn't get beat. Well let's think of them first...

TOLAN: By the time a second meeting was called, community support for the project was eroding. So far only one Gloucester fisherman has volunteered to join the herring fleet. The Fishermen's Wives Association, a powerful political force in town, voted to oppose the plan. Vice President Sefatia Romeo demanded that local fishermen who rely on herring be given preference before the resource is shipped off to new markets in the former Soviet Union.

ROMEO: Make sure they get a contract, or they get something saying before Russia gets theirs, our Gloucester, all local gets theirs first. (Applause from the audience)

TOLAN: Some of the backers of the projects, Vito Calomo, the Commission chairman, the mayor, and a tense Frank Elliot, found themselves on the defensive.

ELLIOT: This wasn't a rush job run in secretly while nobody was looking...

TOLAN: Elliot said the numbers show there's plenty of herring, enough to let Russian ships come into Gloucester harbor now, every summer, and buy herring from local boats.

ELLIOT: There's a biomass, okay?

(Audience interruptions. A man shouts, "Whoa, whoa -- please, gentlemen, you'll get your chance, wait a minute!")

ELLIOT: There's so much fish, we the Americans are giving it away because we don't have processing and harvesting capacity here in the United States. As the amount of domestic annual harvest comes up, the amount of allowable catch for the foreign joint ventures, including Russians working in the port of Gloucester, taking away American jobs, that's going to come down. So what you're really doing here is Americanizing the fishing.

TOLAN: Herring is cheap, about a nickel a pound. So Elliot says you have to catch a lot of it to make real money. The plan includes a 450-foot warehouse on the state fish pier to pack and freeze the fish, and a factory freezer trawler longer than a football fish to ship the frozen herring to the European markets. But no need for local fish cutters, ice companies, or truckers. Ninety-eight percent of the profits will go to the Dutch company Parlevliet and Van Der Plas.

(Gulls)

MAN: We were shocked when we saw this plan. We had never heard of this plan. It came in completely unexpected...

TOLAN: The next morning, members of Gloucester Initiative stand in a stiff breeze at the state fish pier, squinting from the sun-dappled water. Gloucester's clapboard houses crowd up Portuguese Hill behind us. It's a diverse group: a former Naval engineer, an economist, an ex-city councillor, a Unitarian minister, fishermen, and a Greenpeace activist. A curious alliance, some say, but united in opposition to the plan. This is Damon Cummings.

CUMMINGS: We're repeating history here completely. This has happened in fishery after fishery. The biologists told us that there was a huge stock of whiting out there. The whiting are gone. The biologists said there was a huge stock of redfish out there. The redfish are gone. The biologists said that we ought to go fish dogfish; everyone rigged up, the dogfish are gone. The biologists said to go fish the sea urchins; the sea urchins are gone. Now the biologists are telling us to go fish hagfish and the hagfish are almost gone. It happens again and again and again.

TOLAN: For Gloucester Initiatives, the common enemy is the Atlantic Star, a giant Dutch trawler now being retrofitted in Norway. Although the Atlantic Star will be flagged as a US ship, it recalls for some the days when foreign trawlers vacuumed George's Bank of its bountiful cod and haddock. Steve Parks is a fresh fish wholesaler for a gourmet grocery chain.

PARKS: I'm so angry about it. I'm so angry that they want to bring factory trawlers into a fishery that maybe is a little healthy, sure. So let's bring a factory trawler and wipe it out. It's as simple as that.

TOLAN: It's an irony. Gloucester boats have fished out their valuable dollar fish, and now the town must consider whether to invite a foreign company to harvest thousands of tons of the penny fish that remain. Meanwhile, the European Union recently implemented strict herring quotas, and some super-trawler owners there say they're looking to fish in distant waters. Niaz Dorry of Greenpeace says Gloucester fits into a global corporate strategy.

DORRY: This company is basically the equivalent of the 900-pound gorilla who's looking for somewhere to eat. And all these guys have just allowed a shell organization to be put forth so that this company can come in and do their business and just like they've done in the North Sea, they're going to go to the next place where the fishery is healthy. It's a highly mobile, highly capitalized company that's going to be looking for places to roam around the globe. And Gloucester is one of their stops.

ELLIOT: Is Parlevliet and Van Der Plas coming over here with the intent of fishing out the fishery? It doesn't make sense.

TOLAN: At his office a block from the harbor, Frank Elliot says his Dutch partners are not stupid.

ELIOT: They're putting on the state fish pier of Gloucester a $10 million state of the art fish plant. They're making available $3.2 million so far in low interest rate loans to the fishermen to convert their vessels. They're taking a big risk. Why in God's name would they then turn around and try to destroy the resource that is going to eventually help pay back all these moneys that they're putting out here in the community of Gloucester?

TOLAN: For such a tiny, oily fish it's a pretty bitter fight. Both sides have been down to Washington in recent weeks to lobby Congress. Gloucester Initiatives wants Congress to ban all herring factory trawlers until the government implements a strict management plan. Meanwhile, the group has an alternate plan for the state fish pier. It includes herring but not Dutch investors. Instead of selling whole herring to Europe for five cents a pound, they say, let Gloucester entrepreneurs process the fish themselves and market a finished product that brings a high price. Damon Cummings says that's what the Europeans plan to do with the herring anyway.

CUMMINGS: We've realized it for years. The money is an added value, not in being a Third World supplier of raw material.

CALOMO: My heart and soul's in this. If I thought it was wrong, I would stop it immediately. I don't see where it's wrong.

TOLAN: Back in his city office in a trailer a mile from shore, Elliot's compatriot Vito Calomo is just about tearing his hair out. All these opposition claims and proposals. First of all, he says, you can't put public money into projects that would directly compete with local businesses. And anyway, why are all these people suddenly coming out of the woodwork, questioning the scientists' numbers, just when his plan was nearing completion?

CALOMO: Now, when everybody all of a sudden did everyone become a professor in herring? They all know about the herring business. Where did they come from all their lives? I'm fishing herring all my life,I built 2 big million-dollar trawlers to go fishing. But the abundance...

TOLAN: This plan he so carefully, so passionately put together, Vito says, would put people back to work. It would help preserve what Gloucester has meant for over 300 years, he says. It would mean saving many of Gloucester's bigger boats, at a time when so much of the fleet is going under.

CALOMO: Who are we saving the fish for? Tell me. Here's an opportunity to save half of the large boat fleet, which is probably 15 or so large boats left in Gloucester, 12 to 15. That's all those large boats, what I call large boats. We have a chance to save half of them, if they want to be saved.

(National Weather Service on radio: "Seas 4 to 8 feet, Tuesday night and Wednesday...")

TOLAN: Two a.m., black and moonless in Gloucester Harbor. Tom Brancclione stands in the pilot house with Paul and Dominic, getting ready for a week at sea. The 6-man crew is down to 2. His catch is a fraction of the good old days. He's not making any money. But he has no plans to retrofit his boat. He wants nothing to do with the tiny herring, or the gargantuan Atlantic Star.

BRANCCLIONE: That factory ship is going to manufacture everything aboard, so when the boat comes down here and the product's already finished it's going to be shipped by other ships, freezer trawlers in and bring them to other part of the world. When you can you have your own vessel, you know, have 10-15 boats work down here and maintain this fleet right here, and maintain the energy of Gloucester, what it's been and what it was and what it should be.

TOLAN: Tom Brancclione says he's fed up with it all: the bad fishing, the tight restrictions, the stress and headaches of trying to keep the whole thing alive. He says he's selling his boat to the government in the Federal buy-back program.

BRANCCLIONE: I don't have all this time to wait up this long. I'm 55 years old; if I'm going to wait another 10 years for things to become better I'm 65, what the hell have I been waiting for?

(National Weather Service radio: "For the waters south of New England, from Great South Channel to Hudson Canyon...")

BRANCCLIONE: They're spewing the hot air, it is, you know, especially when you get good weather and everything goes smooth, you know, you're in a happy mood about it. I remember many times up at New Year's Day fishing, would never come home for New Year's. The only time we used to be home on the holiday was Christmas, lucky you get there in the morning. Today, you know, I don't look at it that way. Holiday comes, I want to be home before anybody else. Because, you know, life is too short to think about it.

(A motor runs)

TOLAN: I step off the boat and Captain Tom Brancclione slowly moves his trawler away from the pier, making ripples in the black water of the harbor. Heading out into the uncertain waters of the Atlantic. For Living on Earth, this is Sandy Tolan reporting.

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(A motor runs; fade to music up and under)

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Our production team includes Susan Shepherd, Liz Lempert, Peter Shaw, Jesse Wegman, George Homsy, Kim Motylewski, Julia Madeson, and Peter Christianson. Our senior producer is Chris Ballman. Peter Thomson heads our western bureau. Our program is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with WBUR, Boston, and Harvard University. Our engineers are Mark Navin at WBUR and Jeff Martini at Harvard. Michael Aharon composed our theme. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

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