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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Ocean Canaries

Air Date: Week of

A commentary by Peter Montague, director of the Environmental Research Foundation on how there are signs about the future of the planet in the oceans.


CURWOOD: Trying to foretell the future is perhaps humanity's oldest hobby. Ancients used to study the entrails of sheep, tealeaves, and the positions of bones dropped on the ground for a key to tomorrow. But today, as commentator Peter Montague tells us, we need look no further than our own oceans.

MONTAGUE: The oceans of the world are vast, but residents of the global village, all of us, have been dumping our wastes into the oceans relentlessly. In Puget Sound in the far Northwest, the Pacific salmon and steelhead are gone. Last year for the first time, there was no Pacific salmon fishing. Off the coast of Massachusetts, in the oldest US fishing grounds, the 3 main commercial fish, cod, haddock, and flounder, have all but disappeared. In the Chesapeake Bay, where oysters were once abundant beyond imagining, they are now scarce and stunted by disease. Researchers at University of Maryland say the oysters' immune systems have been weakened by pollution. Worldwide 13 of 17 principal fishing zones are depleted or in steep decline. Experts agree that the causes are pollution and over-fishing.

If the fish are being harmed by contamination, what about other marine species? The sea turtles, the walruses, the sea lions, and the seals? Between 1986 and 1991, green sea turtles began appearing with massive tumors called fibro papillomas. Up to half of all turtles of this species now have these huge growths, which can kill them by impeding their ability to swim and eat. In 1987 seals in Siberia's Lake Baikal died in large numbers from a distemper virus, one later recognized as quite similar to the distemper that kills dogs. In recent years epidemics have killed dolphins off the coast of Maine, in the Gulf of Mexico, and in the Mediterranean sea.

Now researchers in the Netherlands have discovered a common thread among all these epidemics: industrial chemicals that harm the immune systems of ocean mammals.

Coal miners used to keep canaries in cages in the mines to warn of a buildup of toxic gases. When the canaries died, it served as a warning that conditions in the mine were deteriorating dangerously. Now our canaries are in the oceans.

CURWOOD: Peter Montague is director of the Environmental Research Foundation in Annapolis, Maryland.



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