• picture
  • picture
PRI's Environmental News Magazine

July 30, 1999

Air Date: July 30, 1999

SEGMENTS

National Parks / Matt Martinez

More and more people are visiting National Parks each year, and the people who manage the popular facilities say the increased numbers are putting a heavy strain on the parks' already eroding infrastructure. Matt Martinez from member station KNAU in Flagstaff, Arizona reports from Grand Canyon National Park. (03:00)

Budget for National Parks

The National Park Service estimates that it will take $3.5 billion simply for the backlog of maintenance and rehabilitation needs in national parks. Congressman Ralph Regula, Republican from Ohio and chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee which funds the parks, speaks with host Steve Curwood about funding for the parks at the same time that tax cuts are being considered. (04:00)

Downgrading Wolf Protections / Robert Braille

Commentator Robert Braille considers the recent controversies over downgrading protections for wolves. (03:00)

The Mann Gulch Tragedy: 50 Years Later

Steve Curwood talks with Laird Robinson, a former Smokejumper and assistant to Norman Maclean on his book Young Men & Fire, about the blow-up wildfire that killed 13 Smokejumpers in Mann Gulch, Montana, fifty years ago this week. (10:00)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about...the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, as documented in John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" and in songs by Woody Guthrie. (04:00)

North Atlantic Cod Stocks

Fishermen in the Gulf of Maine have requested that the Commerce Dept. review the current catch limit for cod. They say fish stocks have recovered. But scientists who manage fish argue that cod stocks remain depleted. Host Steve Curwood speaks with Frank Mirachi , a Massachusetts fisherman, and Steve Murowski, a scientist from the National Marine Fisheries Service, about the discrepancies in the numbers. (07:30)

Gloucester at the Crossroads / Sandy Tolan

Our ongoing series on the nation's oldest fishing port continues with a story of pollock and politics. Producer Sandy Tolan describes what happened when a Russian freighter came to port, and an anonymous tip to customs officials scuttled Gloucester's plans to make fish fillets for McDonald's. (10:00)

Cape Haddock / Jimmy Tingle

Proposed cod-fishing restrictions off Cape Cod this summer are causing concern that tourism will be hurt on the peninsula that bears the fish’s name. But humorist and Massachusetts native Jimmy Tingle says don’t raise the alarm just yet. (03:10)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Matt Martinez, Sandy Tolan
GUESTS: Ralph Regula, Laird Robinson, Frank Mirarchi, Steve Murowski
COMMENTATORS: Robert Braille, Jimmy Tingle

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

There may be a whopping government surplus these days, but advocates say our National Park System is starving for cash. Congressional support has been just about cut in half over the past few decades, and the infrastructure is beginning to decay.

ARNBERGER: The last time Grand Canyon had any major money put into the infrastructure occurred in 1956. Our visitation in 1956 was one million people. We're now bumping five million people.

CURWOOD: Also, 50 years ago 16 smoke jumpers parachuted into Montana to fight a wildfire. Only three came out alive.

ROBINSON: They had about 30 seconds to get from where they were to the top of the ridge, knowing that there was a fire licking at their heels, and they only had one choice.

CURWOOD: Remembering the Mann Gulch disaster this week on Living on Earth, but first this news.

Back to top

(NPR News follows)

(Music up and under)

National Parks

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. It's vacation time, and scores of folks are heading off to the beach or the mountains and increasingly to national parks. About 300 million people are expected to visit 378 national parks and monuments this year. Popular attractions including Yosemite, Yellowstone, Acadia, Great Smoky, and Grand Canyon get the bulk of the tourists, and Park Service managers say they're having a hard time handling the crowds. At Grand Canyon, for example, there are only 2,000 parking spaces for the estimated 6,000 vehicles that arrive each summer day. Matt Martinez of member station KNAU in Flagstaff spent a day at Grand Canyon sizing up the crowds and the national park dilemma.

(Ambient voices)

MARTINEZ: A line of about 100 people wait in the hot Arizona sun to board a bus that will take them to a part of the Grand Canyon that is closed to cars.

MAN: (On speaker) ...the shuttle operates on the West Rim.

(Bus engine revs up)

MARTINEZ: The bus departs and another takes its place to pick up more tourists. The scene is repeated all day long, and this is only a small part of the Grand Canyon. Altogether about five million people visit the park each year. They come from just about everywhere to marvel at the enormity of the canyon, like 14-year-old Steven Rodreiguez, who expresses his awe in simple terms.

(Ambient voices)

RODREIGUEZ: I think it's pretty neat. Big hole in the ground. (Laughs) Well, it's a neat hole in the ground. (Laughs) I had no idea it would be that big. It just went in every direction, almost.

MARTINEZ: Five million visitors a year is testament to the canyon's popularity, and people keep coming here even though entry fees doubled in 1997 to $20 a car load. Grand Canyon management gets to keep 80% of the fee to maintain the park's overstressed infrastructure. It's a lot of money, but still not enough.

ARNBERGER: We are still going to be faced with probably $100 to $150 million backlog, but that's a lot better than $300 to $400 million.

MARTINEZ: Rob Arnberger is the Superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park.

ARNBERGER: Let's face it here. There's an inescapable fact that's probably a truity for all of the National Park System in most cases. The last time Grand Canyon had any major money put into the infrastructure occurred in 1956. Our visitation in 1956 was one million people. We're now bumping five million people, and all we've had is some work around the edges of this infrastructure. You cannot work and manage five million people with an infrastructure that's designed only for one million.

(Thunder)

MARTINEZ: As Ron Arnberger talks to me he gets a worried look on his face. It's because of that thunder you hear in the background. Clouds are building up and lightning begins to strike. It's another monsoon thunderstorm, much like the one that on July 14 washed out two of the canyon's most popular trails and damaged the pipeline supplying water to the South Rim of the park. The damage cost the park $1.5 million to repair. One point five million dollars Mr. Arnberger says he doesn't have.

ARNBERGER: We are frequently very happy to get cost of living increases or pay raise increases, just to keep us at a status quo. And that is not a way to run a National Park System. It's not the way that we need to be taking care of our repositories of American history. Of the American heritage. And yet that's how we're approaching it.

MARTINEZ: Ron Arnberger is hoping the park's general management plan will alleviate a host of other problems plaguing the park. Improvement projects range from basics like fixing plumbing and electrical problems to the complex, such as installing a light rail system to decrease car traffic and pollution, and implementing flight restrictions on planes over the canyon. For Living on Earth, I'm Matt Martinez at Grand Canyon National Park.

Back to top

 

Budget for National Parks

CURWOOD: Grand Canyon isn't the only national park faced with overcrowded and aging facilities. In Yellowstone last year, thousands of gallons of sewage surged into Yellowstone Lake from an overburdened and disintegrating sewer system. A bridge recently collapsed at Glacier National Park. There are broken safety railings at Golden Gate. And at the Delaware Water Gap, there's an unsafe bridge. Repair needs such as these are echoed at parks around the country. Park Service officials say they need about $3.5 billion to take care of the backlog of maintenance and rehabilitation. But Congressman Ralph Regula, Republican from Ohio and Chair of the House Subcommittee on Appropriations, which funds the parks, isn't sure that figure is accurate.

REGULA: I think their estimate's a little bit high. As a matter of fact, I've asked them to document for me the basis on which they have stated that they need a certain sum of money, and as yet we have not received any documentation. But let me say this: part of the reason we have this backlog in maintenance has been a management problem within the Park Service. Internally, I don't think they have focused enough on this over the past several years.

CURWOOD: Now, this is a budget year in which representatives are arguing over a healthy surplus. Tax breaks that have been proposed range from about $300 to almost $800 billion over the next ten years. In comparison to those kind of numbers, even a $3 billion tab to rehab the national parks seems like a small number. And the National Park Service is really considered the crown jewels of the US and a model for park systems around the world. Do you think Congress, with all the extra cash, with all the surpluses that we now have, could commit to protecting something so valuable to so many Americans?

REGULA: Well, we do commit a sizeable chunk of the budget, and we've given them the fee program to provide for extra efforts that they have in visitor enhancement, because the money they collect stays in the park that collects it. And that's been a change. That policy has been put in place during the past three years. And I would like to put more money in if it were available.

CURWOOD: So if Ralph Regula could set the budget amount for the National Park Service, what would it be?

REGULA: (Laughs) Well, it would be substantially more than we received.

CURWOOD: Three billion dollars?

REGULA: Well, I'm not talking in terms of dollars, because you have to keep in mind that our committee has a vast array of responsibilities, and I'm talking in a macro sense about the fact that we were allocated about $13.9 billion. So I have to say we'll do the best we can. Same thing with the parks and the forests and all these responsibilities. You're really trying to focus in only on the parks, but you're forgetting that there are a lot of other functions of government that are very important to people.

CURWOOD: Well, that's why we felt we'd ask these questions, though, because at a time when people are talking about massive tax cuts of huge surpluses, we just wondered --

REGULA: Well, I'd say they're talking about it, but the reality is I don't know how people can predict the economy ten years from now, and to say well, we're going to have this huge surplus over the next ten years.

CURWOOD: But you voted to support the $792 billion reduction, right?

REGULA: Well of course I voted to support it, because if you look carefully at it, some of it involves debt reduction. And it involves over a 10-year period, so that on a per-year, per-capita basis it's not a large amount.

CURWOOD: Overall, Congressman Regula, you feel that park funding is at an appropriate level? Doesn't really need an increase?

REGULA: No, it isn't at an appropriate level. And I think it's vitally important that we commit even greater resources to backlog maintenance, to make sure that when the visitor goes to the park or the forest or the public lands, that their safety is taken care of to the best possible degree, that they have good rest facilities, that they have facilities that address health needs within the public lands, and so that we ensure that the visitor to these marvelous assets, the treasures if you will, of this nation, have a good experience and a worthwhile experience. And we're trying to do that within the constraints of the allocation we received through the budget process, and what's available through the tax revenues of this nation.

CURWOOD: Ralph Regula is a Republican from Ohio, member of the House, and Chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior. Thank you for taking all this time with us today.

REGULA: Thank you.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

Downgrading Wolf Protections

CURWOOD: At Yellowstone National Park, managing a population of wolves is also stirring controversy. The US Court of Appeals is reviewing an order by a district judge to remove wolves that were reintroduce into the park as part of a recovery program back in 1995. At the same time, US Fish and Wildlife officials are considering offering less protection under the Endangered Species Act for wolves at Yellowstone and elsewhere. Commentator Robert Braille says those officials should think again.

BRAILLE: A century ago, hordes of wolves roamed North America, howling in the night. But the Federal government silenced them, underwriting years of bounty hunting to appease settlers worried about their livestock. In 1973 it saw the light and decided to protect the wolves under the Endangered Species Act. But by then it had virtually annihilated them, leaving the night unnaturally still.

Over the past quarter century the wolves have slowly come back. There are about 2,700 now. The Federal government wants more, but it's putting politics ahead of principle in trying to get them. Oddly, to save the wolves, the US Fish and Wildlife Service wants to downgrade their status under the Endangered Species Act from endangered to threatened in most of the country. The reason is that some ranchers, farmers, and other property owners are refusing to cooperate in wolf recovery efforts as long as the wolves are classified as endangered. They fear they'll lose control over their lands to an overbearing Federal law, and the Federal bureaucrats who enforce it. So they're blocking those efforts, even though that's what the law requires.

In response, the Service wants to bend the law rather than enforce it. It wants to ease the wolf's status to threatened and give the property owners more say in what happens. In exchange, it hopes to win some real on-the-ground protection for the wolves. It may be less protection than they deserve or than the law requires. But, the Service says, it's better than no protection at all.

Some might applaud the Service for being so reasonable. If winning over the property owners means compromising the law, maybe it's worth it. But the Endangered Species Act is not a suggestion, malleable in any way its critics desire. It is a law, one Congress enacted to save plants and animals that we ourselves have brought to the brink of extinction. That's why we have it. It's also why we have the Fish and Wildlife Service: to enforce it. But thanks to politics, neither is working for America's wolves right now. And until they do, the night will remain unnaturally still.

CURWOOD: Commentator Robert Braille writes about the environment for the Boston Globe.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Just ahead: they ran up a mountain to save their lives, but most of them lost the race. Remembering the smoke jumpers at the famed Mann Gulch forest fire. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

The Mann Gulch Tragedy: 50 Years Later

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In the summer, when the forest is hot and dry and lightning strikes, wildfires get started. And out west, especially, the call goes out to Smokejumpers to put the fire out. This week, Smokejumpers mark the 50th anniversary of perhaps their profession's most memorable disaster: the fire at Mann Gulch, Montana. On August 5, 1949, a team of 16 firefighters led by foreman Wag Dodge parachuted into Mann Gulch, a two-mile valley just north of Helena. These young men had come to put out a small lightning fire that had started the day before. In less than two hours, all but three would be dead. Laird Robinson is a former Smokejumper who worked with writer Norman Maclean on his book about the Mann Gulch disaster, called Young Men and Fire. Laird Robinson says from the moment they hit the ground, the men made mistakes that would seal their fate.

ROBINSON: They were doomed. Their casual approach to getting down to the river indicated that they were not concerned about this fire. But if you look at it, Mann Gulch is a chimney. With natural winds in August, every day in August that it's 95 degrees in Helena, if you went to Mann Gulch at 5 o'clock in the afternoon the wind is blowing hard up-canyon. It's a topographical, geographical phenomenon that occurs every day when it's hot. It's a blowtorch.

CURWOOD: So what did they see when they jumped out of the airplane?

ROBINSON: They saw a smoldering fire 50 to 60 acres, a sleepy fire, and I can't overemphasize that. One that's smoldering, creeping, and crawling. The fire that Wag Dodge saw at 5:45, only less than an hour and a half later, is now a crown fire coming up out of the bottom, directly at them.

CURWOOD: Crown fire. You mean the flames were leaping from the top of one tree to the next.

ROBINSON: That is correct. And at this point, Dodge turns and begins to retreat. He knew that there were problems ahead. He also had a visual from the air while they were circling and picking a jump spot, and knew his best chance was probably to angle up out of the gulch. Except from the air it was difficult for him to see that for over 10,000 years the talus off a reef that separates Mann Gulch and what later became Rescue Gulch has been peeling off and making little marble-like rocks all the way down on that 76% slope. That's significant.

CURWOOD: So this is almost straight up.

ROBINSON: It's almost straight up. Seventy-six percent with marble-like stones all over the side. They traveled the next 240 yards across this slope with tremendous heat in approximately two minutes. They hit a small opening with grass, and that's when the foreman Wag Dodge decided that he had to save his crew. He knelt down, he had several of the crew members with him, when he took out a book of matches and he lit the grass. The fire now was approximately 50 yards behind him. He lit it immediately. It began to burn up-canyon, up-slope. His intent was to burn out a small grassy area and have the crew get into the grassy area with him. The comment that has been made to me by the two survivors was, the man has gone crazy, he's lost his mind, we have more fire than we know what to do with. And essentially, they had to scramble for their lives. They had about 30 seconds to get from where they were to the top of the ridge.

Dodge was beckoning everyone to get into his fire as they went by. They didn't understand what he was doing and they did not join him. Not one person joined Wag Dodge. Wag lay down in his burnt-out area, put on his jump coat, lay face-down, and during the events that occurred for the next five to seven minutes he was lifted two or three times off the ground, and slammed back down on the ground, from the force of the main fire coming through. But fortunate for him, there was no fuel. So the main fire essentially escaped right over the top of him, and then picked up the fuel and continued burning. There were some jumpers, particularly what is known as the Four Horsemen. There are four individuals that went the furthest distance. They covered all the way to where they were hit by the main fire, a distance of 620 yards. This wasn't a run, but it was probably as fast as a human can traverse that particular area.

CURWOOD: Have people ever tried it in modern times?

ROBINSON: They have tried it. Several individuals, including marathon runners, have gone up there under the circumstances and tried to cover, with similar conditions, that distance, and they're unable to do so. I think the biggest reason there is the lack of adrenaline that these individuals had, knowing that there was a fire licking at their heels and they only had one choice. And that is draw on everything they can to survive. Bill Hellman, the squad leader, had no choice but to take the down-canyon side of Dodge's fire and scramble for his life to the top of the ridge. He arrived at the top of the ridge only to be caught by the main wall of fire. I say wall of fire; we have varying flame lengths estimated between 100 and 150 foot.

CURWOOD: A hundred and fifty feet high?

ROBINSON: That is correct.

CURWOOD: A hundred and fifty feet high. This is a 10-story, 15-story building worth of flame.

ROBINSON: That's correct. And it's laying out with gusts of 40 miles an hour. When Dodge lit his set fire, the fire is covering 100 yards a minute. When it all was done, Wag got up out of the ashes of the fire and walked to a voice, a calling person below him, about 160 feet below. There he found one of his jumpers badly burnt: hands burnt off, completely charred. Completely, at this point, the central nervous system having shut down. His name was Joe Sylvia. He didn't feel any pain but he knew he looked terrible. He was cold. Wag met with him for a little bit, sat him down, and said he'd go for water and come back. From here on, essentially, it was a rescue. It was a rescue operation with Wag Dodge, the foreman, heading for the Missouri River to get a ride to let people know that there's been a disaster in Mann Gulch, at 4 minutes of 6 on August 5th, 1949. Joe Sylvia and Bill Hellman were taken out of Mann Gulch to St. Joseph's Hospital in Helena, and they died that following morning of severe burns. (Sighs) The rescue began. The location, it took almost two days to locate all of the charred remains. The body count, all in all, was 13 individuals. All Smokejumpers, including one individual that was the headquarters guard and a previous Smokejumper, Jim Harrison.

CURWOOD: When Wag Dodge set his escape fire, the men who ran by him had less than 30 seconds to live. What would you have done? Would you have joined him?

ROBINSON: Absolutely not.

CURWOOD: And why not?

ROBINSON: I think that at that time, what he did was unknown, and there was no time for him to explain. He didn't explain, and had he even tried, the group that was standing with him within a foot of his face, he was shouting, and they couldn't hear him because of the tremendous roar. They could see his lips moving, but they didn't know what he was saying and couldn't hear him. But I definitely would not have joined Wag inside his little tiny grassy escape fire, with the kind of fire that was licking at his heels. I would have stayed with the rest of the group and taken the angle that they took.

CURWOOD: And it would have killed you.

ROBINSON: And it would have killed me.

CURWOOD: So were these guys really, essentially, dead the second they jumped out the airplane? Did they have no chance?

ROBINSON: Essentially (sighs) it's almost like a puzzle, in that if you find the piece the puzzle comes together. And they weren't finding pieces. This fire would have blown up and done the same thing that it did if the jumpers hadn't even been there, on the same timetable. So how they fit into that timetable, and where they were at what time was critical. And they didn't realize it until all of a sudden it was too late.

CURWOOD: Laird Robinson is a former Smokejumper and employee of the US Forest Service, and worked with Norman Maclean as Maclean wrote the book Young Men and Fire, the story of the Mann Gulch disaster. He spoke to us from member station KUFM in Missoula, Montana. Thank you, sir, for joining us.

ROBINSON: Thank you.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

(Music up and under)

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; Jennifer and Ted Stanley; the W. Alton Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to sustain human well-being through biological diversity: www.wajones.org; and Church and Dwight, a tradition of environmental responsibility: the makers of Arm and Hammer Baking Soda, the standard of purity.

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: Coming up: scientists and boat captains do battle on the high seas over how many cod remain off the coast of New England. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

SECOND HALF HOUR

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

The Living on Earth Almanac

(Wind)

MAN: Listen. That wind's fixing to do something.

MAN 2: Sure it is. Always is this time of year.

CURWOOD: The year was 1939, and John Steinbeck had just published The Grapes of Wrath. The Depression-era classic which was quickly made into a film tells the story of the Joads', a family of sharecroppers forced to abandon their Oklahoma farm during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

(Wind)

MAN: Who done it?

MAN 2: Listen. That's the who a done it. The dusters. They started it, anyways. Blowin' like this year after year, blowin' the land away, blowin' the crops away! Blowin' us away now.

CURWOOD: You could say the Great Dust Bowl was a disaster waiting to happen. Its seeds were planted during the nation's agricultural expansion in the early 20th century, when farmers plowed up acre after acre of the arid grasslands of the southern Great Plains to sow wheat. When an 8-year-long drought hit in 1931, the wheat plants died, and there was nothing to hold the soil in place. High winds stirred up violent, rainless storms called black blizzards. In his novel Steinbeck describes the inescapable dust: "Men and women huddled in their houses, and they tied handkerchiefs over their noses when they went out, and wore goggles to protect their eyes. When the night came again it was black night, for the stars could not pierce the dust to get down, and the window lights could not even spread beyond their own yards."

(Banjo and harmonica)

CURWOOD: What Steinbeck did in print, Woody Guthrie did in song, chronicling the ecological devastation of the dust storms and the resulting migration of thousands of families chasing the often empty promise of work in California.

GUTHRIE: (Singing) Lots of folks back east they say is leaving home every day, and beating a hot old dusty way to the California line. Cross the desert sands they roll, trying to get out of the old Dust Bowl, they think they're gong to a sugar bowl but here's what they find. The police at the port of entry saying, "You're number 15,000 for today." Oh, if you ain't got the do-re-mi, friend, you ain't got the do-re-mi. You better go back to beautiful Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee. California's a Garden of Eden. A paradise to live in or see. But believe it or not, you won't find it so hot if you ain't got the do-re-mi...

CURWOOD: Soil erosion and shifting climate continue to threaten agricultural land. In the spring of 1996, strong winds eroded soil throughout the Great Plains after a fire destroyed crops in that region. By one estimate, annual soil loss from wind erosion alone in parts of the country can reach two and a half tons per acre. This year, in many areas, a scorching drought is withering crops once again, while modern-day troubadours continue to document hard times on the farm.

(Guitar)

SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Hey there, mister, can you tell me what happened to the seeds I've sown? Can you give me a reason, sir, as to why they've never grown? They just blow around from town to town till they're back out on these fields. And where they fall from my hand back into the dirt of this hard land.

CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Bruce Springsteen and the Living on Earth Almanac.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

North Atlantic Cod Stocks

CURWOOD: US Commerce Secretary William Daley has temporarily upped the amount of cod that boat operators in the Gulf of Maine can catch from 30 to 100 pounds a day. Fisheries scientists say continued restrictions on cod are needed because stocks in the Gulf remain low. On the other hand, some captains say they're catching so much cod they have to throw a lot of it back into the sea. They want the limit raised to 700 pounds. Managing the ocean in a way that is ecologically sound and commercially viable has long proven difficult, and disputes between fishing boat operators and scientists over numbers are not new. We asked a Massachusetts captain, Frank Mirarchi, and a scientist with the National Marine Fisheries Service at Woods Hole, Steve Murowski, to help explain the differences. Mr. Murowski believes that the cod situation is dire enough to warrant the extremely low catch limit.

MUROWSKI: One of the things that we noticed is, for the stock of cod in the Gulf of Maine, that its geographic range has shrunk dramatically from what we saw in the 60s and 70s, to the point where they seem to be concentrated in the area from the tip of Cape Cod up to approximately Gloucester, Massachusetts. And this is very much different from the historic pattern, where we had small spawning groups occupying the area along the Maine Coast and New Hampshire, etc. When you fish in a core area, sometimes the catch rates can even increase as the stock overall is declining.

CURWOOD: Frank, let me turn to you, now. You fish out of Scituate, Massachusetts, right?

MIRARCHI: Yes.

CURWOOD: And how long have you been fishing? I mean, over how many years would you say?

MIRARCHI: I've been fishing for 35 years.

CURWOOD: Okay, so you've got some history here, too. How's the cod fishing compare this year over historical years for you?

MIRARCHI: We saw a great decline in cod catches in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and rather abruptly, about 1997 I would say, the catches began to increase fairly dramatically, to the point where we're catching cod at a rate that I haven't seen in probably 20 years, this year.

CURWOOD: So, are the scientists right about this? Or are they full of it? If you are having trouble avoiding catching that much fish, do you feel that the fish are really out there and the scientists got this wrong?

MIRARCHI: No. I, first of all, from my personal experience, have no ability to refute him, because I fish primarily in the area that we've agreed is the core habitat of the cod. We, however, fish commercially, differently than the scientists do their surveys. We go out to our favorite fishing hole, so to speak, and we target the areas that we know contain fish. And in fact, if that fishing hole happens to be the core range of a contracting stock of cod, indeed we will catch more cod, and that's what we're seeing. But a number of other things appear to be happening. One thing is that the age structure of the fish seems to be rebuilding. In other words, we've gone from catching all very small, very young fish, to catching a mix of young and old fish. Another thing that seems to be happening and is fairly recent vintage is that the range seems to be expanding, and that the high catches last year were accruing in only a very few small, select spots. But now these cod seem to be spreading out to an area that pretty much encompasses the entire area where I fish, not just a point here and a point there, you know, dots on the map.

CURWOOD: Is the answer here to raise the trip limit?

MIRARCHI: There's no easy solution. It would be nice to say let us land more cod, but in all probability the scientific advice is sound. So I'm willing to make some short-term sacrifices, but still I want those sacrifices to be productive. And going out and tossing dead cod back to save the cod, to me, is not productive, so I think we need to look at some other means of protecting the cod than simply setting an extraordinarily low and probably impossible to achieve catch level.

CURWOOD: Let me turn back to you, Steve. I mean, this seems really crazy. If fish are being thrown away that are dying, shouldn't you be trying another approach?

MUROWSKI: Yeah. Nobody likes regulatory discards. In fact, our agency has an explicit policy against it. This is a wasteful practice. But part of the reason that the council went to a low trip limit was basically to see if they could have it so low that there wouldn't be any reason to go out and target cod. The ultimate goal is to reduce fishing mortality rates to sustainable levels. We have to look at how regulations interact with fishermen's behavior.

CURWOOD: In other words, your agency was saying, by putting a 30-pound-a-day limit on this, what, three or four or five fish, don't go out there and fish at all.

MUROWSKI: I think the council's intent of putting a low trip limit on was to discourage or try to end directed fishing on cod, and make it just a bycatch.

CURWOOD: So, why not just shut this fishery down altogether? It sounds like you don't really want people to go looking for cod, so why not say you can't fish for cod?

MUROWSKI: Well, there are low fishing mortality rates that we could have that would allow rebuilding of the stock, and it really is a societal question of whether or not we want to completely shut this fishery down, with the attendant social problems, and wait for it to rebuild, or have some low level of continued fishing on the stock. And that really is a question that the fishery managers, the councils, and politicians are involved with.

CURWOOD: I know that thought probably sends a chill up your spine, Frank, to think of just shutting the fishery down. But what do you think?

MIRARCHI: I think it would be a very, very unfortunately decision to do. A number of things are going on now in the fishery that I find very disturbing. We're basically losing our young people; there are no young people coming into the fishery. In addition, we're losing our support infrastructure. We now have four ice plants servicing the entire state of Massachusetts where there used to be a dozen of them. Fish piers are disappearing. The market for fish is being displaced from New England-caught fish to fish caught somewhere else. We don't want to lose this social and economic underpinning of our fishery, in my opinion, because we'll never get it back again.

CURWOOD: Okay, gentlemen Given this difference between what people who fish see and people who do science see, how can these views be brought together? How can you guys collaborate and get the same understanding? Is it possible? Go ahead, Frank.

MIRARCHI: I believe it is. I really think that we need to reinstitute a program of domestic observers that has kind of fallen into disuse, to more closely monitor and to relay a separate data source of information to the scientists, which may or may not verify what I'm telling you in terms of our catches. But at least it's an objective and unbiased source of information that's independent of the government-sponsored survey.

CURWOOD: Okay. Steve?

MUROWSKI: Well, I agree that there is a substantial role for fishermen to be more heavily involved in the research on a day to day basis. The number of observations that commercial fishermen make is much greater than a broad-based survey like we do. And there's a role for integrating those kinds of information. I agree with Frank. So I think increasingly, you will see a move afoot to integrate commercial fishing into a research plan.

CURWOOD: Frank Mirarchi is a fisherman who fishes out of Scituate, Massachusetts. And Steve Murowski is with the National Marine Fisheries Service. Thank you both for coming.

MUROWSKI: Thank you.

MIRARCHI: Thank you.

Back to top

 

Gloucester at the Crossroads

CURWOOD: In Gloucester, Massachusetts, folks who still go to sea in their ships insist the fish are coming back. They point to increased investment on the waterfront, including a new fish auction that has spurred Gloucester's landings. But for others, maintaining a working port that isn't about gambling boats or whale watches remains a challenge. To keep the city in fish, even some of the more creative ideas face formidable obstacles. This is the story of one such endeavor, a Russian freighter that came to Gloucester, and how grand plans for the ship's cargo ran aground in America's oldest seaport. Sandy Tolan has the latest installment in our ongoing series, Gloucester at the Crossroads.

(Surf and gulls)

TOLAN: A few months ago, a great steel vessel steamed into Gloucester harbor. It dropped an anchor just inside the long stone finger called the Dogbar breakwater. No Gloucester captain stood at the wheel. There was no fresh cod in the hold. And the boat was not returning from the fishing grounds at nearby Georges Bank. It was the Granitny Barig, a 400-foot Russian freighter arriving from the Pacific via the Panama Canal. For two weeks it floated out there, a mile from the waterfront, cold, silent, lights ablaze. Its cargo: seven million pounds of fish. Frozen pollock from half a world away. To longshoreman Jack McKinnon, the sight of the Granitny Barig floating a mile offshore was like an old photograph of better days in Gloucester harbor.

(Humming, a man shouts)

McKINNON: It was all sorts of activity. A couple of 350-foot frozen fish vessels, 400-foot frozen fish vessels being loaded or unloaded, primarily discharged. And you may have anywhere from five to 30 or 40 fresh fish vessels being unloaded at this same day also. That was the real heyday.

TOLAN: Thirty years ago freighters called on Gloucester nearly every day, bringing frozen fish to the processing plants along the waterfront. But that was before fish stocks started to collapse along the New England coast, up in Newfoundland, down in South America. And suddenly, says local stevedore Frank Elliot, Gloucester had to reach much further.

ELLIOT: The factories located here located for one purpose, and that was to be close to the North Atlantic groundfish. We don't have any more of that now, and so they source their product in the North Pacific, where there's an abundance of pollock. Getting that raw product to these factories here in Gloucester in an efficient manner was the goal of bringing that Russian vessel into Gloucester.

TOLAN: Frank Elliot has been trying to hustle new activity on the waterfront. A few years ago he tried to bring in a giant factory trawler to catch herring, but people here rejected that scheme because almost all the profits would have gone to Dutch investors. Last year he let a gambling ship tie up on this pier, and got on the wrong side of the mayor. Then a few months ago, he got a call from a fish dealer in Seattle.

ELLIOT: Saying, can you offload a vessel in Gloucester with Russian pollock? I said sure I can.

TOLAN: It was a good idea, Mr. Elliot thought. Bringing the fish in by boat would reduce shipping costs, lower the price to processors, and inject life into Gloucester's struggling waterfront. But the fish dealer said the boat was a big one, a lot bigger than what Gloucester was used to handling.

ELLIOT: I said, well, it's too deep to get into the harbor. The harbor's 22 feet deep and you've got a 30-foot ship.

TOLAN: So Frank Elliot bought an old Boston fireworks barge, and converted it into a freezer container.

ELLIOT: To offload the ship out in the harbor, where the water was deeper, and then bring the barge ashore to the cold storage and offload the barge into the cold storage.

TOLAN: After the Granitky Barig dropped anchor in Gloucester Harbor, a crew of longshoremen ferried out on the barge to bring pallets of frozen fish back here, to a giant freezer on the waterfront.

(Hums, beeps)

TOLAN: This load was scheduled to go up the street to Gorton's, the frozen fish factory that would saw up the 16-pound blocks of fish, coat them in batter, and ship them as fillets to McDonald's restaurants across the eastern US. For two weeks the old fireworks barge ferried out to the Russian ship and towed the frozen blocks of pollock back to shore. Everything was proceeding on schedule.

TOBY: And then things start to go awry.

TOLAN: That's the Mayor of Gloucester, Bruce Tobey.

TOBEY: Someone, God knows who, drops a dime that lo and behold, this fish ain't what it's been made out to be.

TOLAN: It was an anonymous call to US customs officials, informing them that the fish was not loaded onto the Granitky Barig at a port in Russia, as US law requires, but instead transferred illegally onto the ship on the high seas.

TOBEY: And then, without ever hitting landfall, came to Gloucester. That may seem a distinction that doesn't make a difference. Well, it does.

TOLAN: Turns out the high seas transfer was a violation of the Nicholson Act, a relatively obscure law that is seldom invoked. Customs officials went out to the Russian boat to investigate the tip. A few hours later they gave Frank Elliot and Gloucester the bad news: the fish was illegal. It could not be delivered to the processing plant.

ELLIOT: He said you have a choice: export it out of the country or dump it. They literally said take almost eight million pounds of fish to the dump and dump it. Now, this is ridiculous.

TOLAN: Furious, Frank Elliot called his congressman. He called his senators. A frustrated Mayor Toby got on the phone to the White House and laid out the problem.

TOBEY: So we're looking at however many millions of pounds of pollack that Gorton's is one of these days going to need to produce the product it needs, is sitting in a freezer impounded by the United States Customs Service. What the devil are they going to do with the fish?

TOLAN: A few days after the informer called Customs, the Granitny Barig pulled up anchor and left Gloucester, leaving seven million pounds of fish sitting in cold storage, destination unknown.

TOBEY: The fish is in limbo.

TOLAN: Meantime, Jack McKinnon, the old Gloucester longshoreman, was watching the fiasco unfold, shaking his head.

McKINNON: If the vessel was cleared to handle cargo, why is it two weeks later that suddenly we've got a problem? I don't understand that.

TOLAN: Neither did Massachusetts Senators Edward Kennedy and John Kerry. And they demanded an explanation from US Customs. Customs spokesperson Bill Anthony says when his higher-ups learned of the violation, they had no choice.

ANTHONY: We were forced to enforce the law, which is what a law enforcement agency does. And that's why we stopped the shipment.

TOLAN: The blocks of frozen pollock sat in cold storage for weeks, while Frank Elliot and Mayor Tobey considered the options. One choice was to find another buyer overseas, reload the seven million pounds of pollock onto another boat, and send it away. A second option, to take the fish to the dump, was rejected. Mayor Tobey said that idea was the result of some twisted federal bureaucratic mind. But he didn't like the third option much better.

TOBEY: You know, there's been talk about maybe you take the fish and you put it back on a freighter, bring it to Canada, and then you truck it back down here. Now, that is so fundamentally stupid, that I don't know where to begin.

TOLAN: But that ultimately is what happened. Seven million pounds of fish, pulled out of a freezer, put on trucks and shipped to Canada, imported into the United States again, and sent back to the same freezer in Gloucester. It awaits transportation to the fish factory, where it will finally be cut up into McDonald's Filet O' Fish. Frank Elliot says he's learned his lesson.

ELLIOT: I would never, ever, bring a freighter into Gloucester again, not with this kind of stuff. I think all of us are just absolutely fit to be tied. We did exactly what Customs said, and they screwed everybody.

TOLAN: For some, the whole debacle amounted to kicking Gloucester when it's down, a symbol of how hard it is to get things going on the waterfront. Longshoreman Jack McKinnon.

McKINNON: It just was a glimmer of hope. Once again, the hopes were dashed, just like the fishermen are dealing with. All these closures and all these regulations and these trip limits. It's just such a struggle, and it's a way of life that we just don't want to give up. And it's just hard to let it go.

TOLAN: To keep this in perspective, this little tale of pollock and politics does not spell the end for Gloucester. There is hope that the North Atlantic fish stocks will rebound, and that a working waterfront will be here when they do. This wasn't a crushing blow to Gloucester's economy, either. It might have meant 35 jobs. But Gloucester's modest gain would have come at someone else's expense. Canadian truckers would have stood to lose, and speculation on the anonymous tip to customs centers there. But it could have been any number of people. Customs officials won't reveal the identity of the caller. Like reporters, they're protecting their source.

(Surf and foghorn)

TOLAN: And so, the little story about the frozen blocks of fish from halfway around the world ends, the same way many mornings on Gloucester Harbor begin: cloaked in fog.

(Surf and foghorn)

TOLAN: For Living on Earth, I'm Sandy Tolan in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

Back to top

(Surf, foghorn, shouts)

Cape Haddock

CURWOOD: Gloucester isn't the only place in Massachusetts with fish issues. On Cape Cod, proposed restrictions on ground fishing, especially the taking of cod itself, are set to go into effect on August 15th. Chefs are already planning menus to replace traditional cod dishes. Still, others worry that seafood platters without cod? That could hurt tourism on the peninsula which bears the fish's name. But don't ring the alarm bells yet, says Jimmy Tingle, humorist for CBS's 60 Minutes II.

TINGLE: Listen, I'm not saying cod is not important. It is. And I'm pretty sure I like it. I just cannot ever remember ordering it in a restaurant or even seeing it on a menu. Fish and chips and fish sticks may in fact be cod, but I don't really know because I'm no expert on seafood.

As a matter of fact, as a lifelong resident of Massachusetts, I'm embarrassed to admit that the last time I ordered fish on Cape Cod, it was a Filet O' Fish at McDonald's. I asked the manager what kind of fish McDonald's uses in the Filet O' Fish, hoping he would say cod. But instead he said haddock, which kind of makes perfect sense because we now know that on Cape Cod, there is no cod.

But maybe if the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce were to change the name of Cape Cod to Cape Haddock, they can actually trick the cod into thinking it was safe to come back to the cape. But before anybody takes that idea too seriously, let me just say I don't think the tourism industry has anything to worry about. I mean, come on, the last people to get really excited about the availability of codfish on Cape Cod were probably the pilgrims, and you can't really blame them. When it came to food in the 1620s there were not a lot of other options.

Today, of course, people come from all over the world to Cape Cod, but they come for the sun, the sea, the sand, and the romance, not the cod. Now, if there were a shortage of beer on the cape, that would affect tourism. I mean, when was the last time somebody walked into a bar and said, "It's my first day of vacation. I've been driving for 12 hours straight. Give me a cod!" Another reason we have nothing to worry about is that we have all sorts of other great seafood on the cape: lobster and crab, flounder, bass, bluefish, clams, oysters, and my personal favorite, scrod. That's right, scrod, which I think may be an old Pilgrim acronym, which actually means "some kind of cod."

Now, if none of these choices is attractive to you, you can always try the catch of the day. I have never been disappointed with the catch of the day. Although it is an odd name for an entree. The catch of the day is really another way of saying, "Of all the fish in the sea, this is the only one that didn't get away." Probably not the brightest fish in the school.

Anyway, if you do come to Cape Cod this summer, come for the ocean. Bask on the beaches. Fantasize about moving there and becoming a famous writer. Or at least a waiter. You will be amazed by the hospitality of the people, the beauty of the sunsets, and the price of the real estate. Relax. Have fun. You're on vacation. If you can't find cod on the menu, remember, you're in Massachusetts. You can always order "the chowdah."

CURWOOD: Humorist Jimmy Tingle can also be heard Tuesday nights on CBS's 60 Minutes II. His web site is www.jimmytingle.com.

Back to top

(Music up and under: "If you're fond of sand dunes and salty air, quaint little villages here and there, you're sure to fall in love with old Cape Cod. Old Cape Cod, that old Cape Cod. If you like the taste of a lobster stew, served by a window with an ocean view, you're sure to fall in love with old Cape Cod. Winding roads that seem to beckon you. Miles of green beneath the skies of blue. Church bells chiming on a Sunday morn remind you of the town where you were born. If you spend an evening you'll want to stay, watching the moonlight on Cape Cod Bay. You're sure to fall in love with old Cape Cod. If you spend an evening you'll want to stay, watching the moonlight on old Cape Cod Bay. You're sure to fall in love with old Cape Cod. You're sure to fall in love, you're sure to fall in love with old Cape Cod.")

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. But before we leave you, a personal note. This week marks a big transition for Living on Earth. Our producer George Homsy is heading off to create a gardening program for public radio with Living on Earth's traditional gardener, Michael Weishan. Back in the fall of 1989, when I first got the idea of starting this program, George came by and asked me if I needed a hand. As it turned out, over the years he's done more than offer a hand; he's put his heart and soul into this program. To cover stories he's waded through sewage and sludge, braved rickety airplanes in the backwoods of Canada, fought the heat and dust of India, made countless calls to reluctant environmental officials, found ways to make computers and recorders work when they didn't want to, and helped us find homes for this show, often with little or no sleep and sometimes with no pay. But probably the best thing about George Homsy is his ability to see the beauty in the simple things in life, and the humor in our strivings. I suspect I will always remember George's quirkiest segment, a woman who made sweaters by weaving discarded dog hair. Now that's recycling, said George. So, George, we send you along with our love and our deepest thanks. You will be missed. Sorely missed.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our staff includes Terry FitzPatrick, Liz Lempert, Jesse Wegman, Miriam Landman, Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber, and Stephanie Pindyck, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Bree Horwitz, James Curwood, and Barbara Cone. We had help this week from Alison Dean, Maggie Villiger, and Mahri Lowinger. Michael Aharon composed the theme. Eileen Bolinsky is our technical director. Peter Thomson heads our Western Bureau. Our senior editor is Joyce Hackel, and Chris Ballman is the senior producer. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

(Music up and 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 environment and development issues; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues; the Pew Charitable Trusts for reporting on threats to the world's marine environment: www.pewtrusts.com; and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

 

Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

P.O. Box 990007
Prudential Station
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Telephone: 1-617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Newsletter
Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Major funding for Living on Earth is provided by the National Science Foundation.

Committed to healthy food, healthy people, a healthy planet, and healthy business.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live.

Kendeda Fund, furthering the values that contribute to a healthy planet.

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an autographed copy of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary hummingbird photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.