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

September 18, 1992

Air Date: September 18, 1992


Bering Sea Ecosystem in Trouble / Steve Heimel

Steve Heimel of the Alaska Public Radio Network reports on the decline in an array of wildlife species in the Bering Sea. Some in the area say the trouble is due to overfishing of pollock by the region's factory trawler fleet. A possible downgrading of the northern sea lion from threatened to endangered status could force a sharp cut in pollock harvests and a new battle over the Endangered Species Act. (07:30)

Endangered Species Act Reauthorization Flight Preview

Steve talks with Michael Bean, of the Environmental Defense Fund's wildlife program, about the looming battle over the reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act. Opponents of the current act, including President Bush, say it needs to be overhauled to balance species protection against economic concerns. Environmentalists want it strengthened to protect entire ecosystems rather that single animal populations. (05:15)

Paul Winter, Environmental Musician

Steve talks with and listens to the music of Paul Winter, known for his melding of jazz, classical music and sounds from the natural world. Winter has just released a CD retrospective of music from the past decade. (08:00)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Laura Knoy, Bruce Gellerman, Steve Heimel
GUESTS: Michael Bean, Paul Winter

(Music intro)

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

(theme up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

The Bering Sea, between Alaska and Siberia, is said to be one of the last great fisheries. Now, some are saying heavy factory- fishing of pollock there is threatening the survival of the northern sea lion and other species.

MERCULIEF: There is not enough food for the animals on the higher level of the food chain. So in effect overfishing is occurring now.

Also, environmental musician Paul Winter, on philosophy, music . . . and his encounter with a seal.

WINTER: She went to sleep with her nose about six inches from mine, and I could hear these wonderful little kind of miniature whale breaths where they grab and inhale, it sounds like p-hah-hah, p-hah-hah.

CURWOOD: Those stories and more this week on Living on Earth. First, this news roundup.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: I'm Jan Nunley with this week's environmental news.

The US Environmental Protection Agency responds more slowly and less forcefully to toxic waste problems in minority communities. That's according to an analysis of EPA records by the National Law Journal. Laura Knoy reports from Washington.

KNOY: The journal reviewed all twelve hundred Superfund sites, and sixteen hundred recent EPA court cases. Researchers found that hazardous waste polluters in white areas paid fines five times higher than in minority communities, and penalties for violating clean air and water laws were 46% higher in white neighborhoods. Marian LaVelle is the main author of the study.

LAVELLE: It really stems from historical racism in society, how these communities are not represented adequately at every level of government.

KNOY: The journal found even high income minority neighborhoods had a harder time getting goverment action against polluters. The researchers also visited five minority communities, including one in Chicago which LaVelle says has fifty toxic waste sites within a few blocks.

LAVELLE: One of the toxic waste dumps there was so bad that Illinois inspectors couldn't even study it because their boat began to corrode beneath them.

KNOY: The EPA did not respond directly to the journal study. But the agency says it takes the issue of equality very seriously. Administrator William Reilly has set up a new Office of Environmental Equity, though its agenda is not yet clear. For Living on Earth, I'm Laura Knoy in Washington.

NUNLEY: Children on Medicaid will have to be screened for lead in their blood, under a new Federal policy. But states will be allowed to do the screening using a test whose accuracy is in question. The new policy was prompted by recent evidence that lead can cause serious health problems in young children, even in concentrations once thought to be safe. But new, more sensitive tests to detect the lower levels cost more than older tests. . . and Washington won't force states to spend the money. The Federal Government says lead poisoning affects one out of every 6 children under the age of six.

The Pentagon says it can't find a link between health problems reported by Gulf War veterans and exposure to Kuwait's oil fires. Over 300 vets have reported breathing problems, hair loss, rashes and other ailments since the war. Some health experts believe there is a link to the fires, but an Army spokesman recently told a House committee that the Army hasn't diagnosed any service member with "chronic petrochemical-associated illness." Legislation to fund health studies of all Gulf War vets is pending in Congress.

China and India may grow by a total of a billion-and-a-half people before their populations stabilize in the next century. That's the conclusion of new studies by the Washington-based Population Crisis Committee, which says that family-planning efforts in both countries are beset by serious problems. The group lists poorly-trained family-planning personnel, limited contraceptive choices, and continued discrimination against women among the problems.

This is Living on Earth.

Twenty-five major US corporations, including McDonald's, Sears and American Airlines, have begun an effort to increase the use of recycled materials. Bruce Gellerman of WBUR reports.

GELLERMAN: The Buy Recycled Business Alliance, as the new organization calls itself, is a voluntary educational effort by the businesses to increase demand for recycled materials. The Alliance will provide companies with a way to exchange technical information on how to use recyclables. While the group will not set production goals, it estimates member companies recycle about three billion dollars of material annually. The Alliance was started with $100,000 from the Environmental Protection Agency, and comes as many states and the Federal Government consider laws that would require the use of recycled materials in products. But Truett DeGere of the EPA says the legislation isn't needed.

DEGERE: We don't have any evidence that really, that's necessary. We see a lot of voluntary movements on the part of industry and government to do things without mandates.

GELLERMAN: The Business Alliance organizers deny they're trying to undermine pending mandatory laws. It hopes five thousand companies will join their recycling effort over the next two years. For Living on Earth, this is Bruce Gellerman.

NUNLEY: Tests at a nuclear dump site in Northwest Alaska show no immediate risks to humans or wildlife. But Alaska Senator Frank Murkowski wants further studies. Residents only recently found out about the site, 30 years after waste was dumped there by the Atomic Energy Commission. Army engineers found no unusual radioactivity in the topsoil near Cape Thompson, but four feet down, radiation levels jumped significantly. The site was part of an aborted plan to use nuclear bombs to carve out a harbor in the Arctic Ocean.

Hurricane Andrew nearly destroyed the last known colony of a highly endangered species of giant snail. But zoologists at the University of Florida say four hundred and fifty Stock Island tree snails, rescued from the storm's rubble, have been mating so vigorously since the storm that the species is now likely to survive. The researchers hope to re-introduce the amorous snails into the wild soon.

That's this week's environmental news, I'm Jan Nunley.

Back to top


Bering Sea Ecosystem in Trouble

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

The Bering Sea. . . the icy waters that lie between Alaska and Siberia. . . have in recent years become home to a huge factory fishing industry. Their target is pollock, a relative of the cod. But the Bering's pollock are also a principal prey for the threatened northern sea lion, fur seal and a number of other mammals and birds. With a recent decline in the numbers of pollock, and a corresponding drop in the counts of sea lions and other species, some are saying commercial fishing should be restricted to protect the Bering's ecosystem. From Saint Paul Island in Alaska, Steve Heimel has our story.

(Ocean sound under)

HEIMEL: When you stand at a seabird rookery on the coast of St. Paul Island, in the middle of the triangle of ocean formed by Siberia, Alaska and the Aleutian Islands, the abundance of the wildlife is overwhelming. Thousands of seabirds are nesting on the cliffs, and in the green of each wave that breaks offshore, you can see the grey forms of fur seals. It takes the eye of a scientist to spot the signs of biological decline.

GOLOVKIN: Look at the nest of the kittiwakes. This one, this, and this -- three nests and this -- fourth -- and this fifth -- and in only one nest you can see a chick, here one.

HEIMEL: Dr. Alexander Golovkin heads a group of Russian and American scientists examining the bird population on St. Paul to see what it can tell them about the overall health of the Bering Sea ecosystem. A decrease in the bird population can forecast the effects of overfishing. In Peru, for instance, the seabird population crashed from lack of food in the mid-Sixties. It was 1970 before the anchovy fishery went the same way. Now Dr. Golovkin says the birds in many areas of the Arctic are showing those symptoms.

GOLOVKIN: In many seas around the Pole the colony of seabirds declined so steeply and so abruptly that many scientists decided that it is a result of lackage of the food for seabirds.

HEIMEL: Here on St. Paul, not all bird species are declining. Studies show that those that eat plankton, like the least auklet, are doing fine. But birds like the black-legged kittiwake, which needs pollock to feed its young, are reproducing at the depressed rate of about ten percent this year.

(Sound of fish processing plant)

People see pollock in the form of surimi, imitation crab meat. It's made in plants onshore, and right aboard large factory ships, which send most of it to Japan. Originally developed by the Japanese, Bering Sea factory trawlers are now owned in the US. Wonders of efficiency, they have fish-finding sonar, and even television cameras inside their huge trawl nets. Below decks are as many as five production lines, each running as much as 250 tons of pollock a day. Charlie Jacobsen is captain of the Arctic Trawler, at 296 feet far from the largest factory ship in the fleet.

JACOBSEN: We've got fish-finding equipment, we've got navigation equipment up here. We have the latest trawl surveillance equipment and navigational equipment here for the safety of the boat and catching fish, and a lot of it is standard on the big trawlers and we have all of that. We do catch our share of fish, fortunately.

HEIMEL: If you count the entire Bering Sea, the factory trawler's share has been as much as four million metric tons of pollock a year. It's lower this year, but there are some who believe the pollock catch is still so large that it's depriving other creatures of food. Larry Merculief, the city manager at St. Paul, says they're seeing population numbers falling for more than a dozen species depending on pollock: from birds to mammals, from murres to fur seals to sea lions.

MERCULIEF: Major catastrophic declines of multiple species , to the point now that there's not enough food for the animals in the higher levels of the food chain. So, in effect, overfishing is occurring now.

HEIMEL: According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, the population of northern sea lions in the Bering Sea area has dropped by more than 80%. The Greenpeace Foundation says it's clear that overfishing is to blame. But other scientists contacted for this report were unwilling to say for sure that that's the problem. The Bering Sea is so large and the data so skimpy that most want more study and won't hazard a guess. Biologist Vidar Wespestad at the National Marine Fisheries Service doesn't have any choice about guessing. Sitting at his computer in Seattle, he's the person who decides how much pollock fishermen can catch each year in US waters. While he's quick to agree that there's not enough data, he also points out that the quota he sets for pollock is very conservative, about a quarter of the adult fish he estimates are in the area.

WESPESTAD: I think we're fairly safe, I mean, what's happening isn't because of the fishery, it's because of factors beyond our control, primarily environmental factors.

HEIMEL: A recently discovered 18 year temperature cycle is the latest suspect in the pollock mystery. The whole Bering Sea apparently warms and cools to match a moon cycle. Some scientists think pollock abundance follows this curve of temperatures up and down. The temperature is headed down for another three years or so. But whatever the cause, all agree that the pollock population is down, and this is especially true of the juvenile fish that are used as prey by birds and mammals. Natives on St. Paul and in other communities along the Bering Sea coast have begun to press for conservation measures. They're calling for a broader ecosystem approach to the way the pollock fishery is managed -- an approach that would take other species into account. St. Paul city manager Larry Merculief says the Bering Sea's pollock stock should be budgeted for all species, not just the fishing industry.

MERCULIEF : Instead of just determining how much humans can take, we have to set up a budget for all the primary constituents in the Bering Sea. So, for example, fur seals take so much metric tons, 100 million metric tons of pollock, sea lions take so much of pollock, birds take so much of pollock -- they need a budget to make sure that we set aside enough for them to survive while we're trying to do our thing economically. And that's not being done now.

HEIMEL: Of all the animals threatened by pollock decline, it's the northern sea lion which may push the issue to a decision. Already listed under the Endangered Species Act as threatened, its population numbers are continuing to decline in spite of some actions taken to protect them. If new population counts taken this fall trigger an endangered listing for the sea lion, the government may be forced to severely restrict the pollock harvest. That could virtually end a $200 million dollar fishery. The Alaska Factory Trawler Association says five thousand jobs hang in the balance. The sea lions could become the spotted owl of the fishing industry. On St. Paul Island in the Bering Sea, I'm Steve Heimel for Living on Earth.

Back to top

(Sea lion sound up and under)

Endangered Species Act Reauthorization Flight Preview

CURWOOD: If a decline in the northern sea lion population leads to it being declared an endangered species, sharp restrictions in pollock fishing would likely follow, and with it considerable controversy over the fish processing jobs that would be lost. Such controversies have marked the history of the Endangered Species Act, which is now up for renewal by the Congress. It's unlikely the matter will come to a vote before this fall's elections, but it has become part of the campaign. President Bush recenly spoke out about the Act in the Pacific Northwest, where the designation of the spotted owl as an endangered species has played a key role in sharply restricting the logging of old growth trees.

BUSH: I will not sign it without a specific plan in place to harvest enough timber to keep timber families working in 1993 and beyond. It is time to make people more important than owls.

CURWOOD: Michael Bean is chairman of the Environmental Defense Fund's wildlife program, and a key lobbyist on Capitol Hill in favor of strengthening the Endangered Species Act. Speaking with us from Washington, Bean says much of the spotted owl controversy has been widely misrepresented as a question of jobs versus the environment.

BEAN: It's a jobs-versus-jobs conflict, it's a conflict between timber jobs and fishermens' jobs. What really is at stake is the remainder, probably the last ten to fifteen percent, of the ancient forests of the Northwest. The future of those old-growth forests is also linked to the future of the salmon resource, and the salmon have been greatly diminished as a result of poor timber management practices and other practices. And if that degradation of the salmon resource continues, there are literally thousands of commercial salmon fishermen whose lives and jobs will be adversely affected.

CURWOOD: Your coalition would like to see a stronger version of the Endangered Species Act, I assume. Briefly, what improvements would you like to see?

BEAN: We'd like to find a way to trigger the commitment of conservation resources to species before they reach the precipice. Unfortunately, because the Act has been funded so sparsely, it is the case that most species are not being listed as endangered and not being protected until they have reached extremely low numbers. We also believe that the process of planning for the recovery of species and improving on the implementation of the recovery of species is an area where the Act could use some improvement. We're also frankly open to the suggestion that there ought to be created positive incentives to encourage people to carry out activities on their private lands that would benefit endangered species there. So we're exploring all of these things and others.

CURWOOD: I understand there's a move afoot to change how you would designate an endangered species, to the full species rather than subspecies, and this would mean that one need only protect eagles, and if there are enough golden eagles you don't have to worry about the bald eagle. Is there such a move afoot and is my interpretation correct?

BEAN: Well, it's basically correct. To give you a few examples, among the species that are now protected as endangered species the bald eagle is protected in the lower 48 states only -- it is not protected in Alaska. The Florida panther is a subspecies of mountain lion that's endangered in Florida and protected there, but it is not protected elsewhere, particularly in the West where it occurs. The proposal that has been put forth by some people would limit the Act to those things that are only full species, and thus the protection that the Act now gives subspecies and in certain cases geographic populations of vertebrate animals would be taken away.

CURWOOD: The US Supreme Court said that you can apply the Endangered Species Act to species overseas, but they did it for a very technical reason. Should the law be amended to say that, and why, if so?

BEAN: Well, yes, I think it's probably desirable to amend the law to make clear that it does apply to the actions of Federal agencies outside the United States. And to give you an example of how perverse a situation this leads to, one need only look to Austin, Texas. The citizens of Austin are endeavoring to put together a very innovative and frankly expensive plan to conserve a migratory bird called the golden-cheeked warbler, that happens to spend the spring and summer in Texas. In the winter, however, that bird migrates to Central America, and in Guatemala an agency of the Federal Government, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, is helping carry out a very aggressive pesticide spraying program that almost certainly is adversely affecting that same bird there.

CURWOOD: Thank you. Michael Bean is chairman of the Environmental Defense Fund's wildlife program. Thanks for joining us.

BEAN: Thank you.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

Paul Winter, Environmental Musician

CURWOOD: The voice of an Alaskan tundra wolf, joining the music of the Paul Winter Consort in concert at the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York City. Paul Winter is a jazz saxophonist whose work with wolves, whales and seals has earned him the label of "environmental musician." He's as much at home in canyon as he is in a cathedral or concert hall:

(Music up)

CURWOOD: Paul Winter, why do you invite your audiences to howl at the end of your concerts?

WINTER: Years ago, when I was first starting the Consort in the late sixties, I went to visit Pete Seeger one time, and talked to him about the vision I had for a kind of music and ensemble that would weave together what I felt were the best elements of both classical music and folk music in the larger sense, embracing jazz within that. And Pete was very supportive and encouraging, and he said, but the real key is participation -- getting people to participate. And I stumbled on the first audience-participation thing that the Consort did in 1973, when we were playing for an Earth Weekend, and Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog was there. And in one of the concerts we did that weekend, we played the wolf piece that I was working on in it and we in the Consort howled. And after the concert Steward said, well, why don't you ask the audience to howl? And the next night we did, and had a couple of thousand people howling together -- it was the greatest sound I'd ever heard. And it just felt so right and people seemed to be so exhilarated by doing it, that we've done it in our concerts ever since for the last nineteen years.

CURWOOD: All right, let's try it together here. (With Winter) Ah-roooo. . .
I wonder if wolves do harmony.

WINTER: Of course. I don't know if they do it intentionally; they make remarkable harmony, that flows together the way currents in a river flow, in patterns in nature.

CURWOOD: We're talking to Paul Winter from his home and studio in Litchfield, Connecticut. And you've just release a new CD, it's called Anthems, and it's a compilation of ten years of your music, and included in this anthology are many selections that are featuring not only the sound of wolves but other animals -- whales, birds. On your anthology compact disc you have a tune called Magdalena, "a very silky melody," it says -- Tell me about "silky."

WINTER: Really the melody is a composed song by (?) Lynn and James Waters, it's called "The Grey Silkie." We call it "Magdalena" after the island in Magdalena Bay in Baja California, where we went on some whale-watching, music-making expeditions in the late seventies. One night there, a sea lion pup came to shore at our camp on the lagoon and ended up spending the entire night there with us. We didn't know if she was lost or just lonely or what, but she very quickly acclimated herself to human presence and to lots of pairs of hands petting her. And she went to sleep with her nose about six inches from mine, and I could hear these wonderful little kind of miniature whale-breaths, that, where they exhale very quickly, and grab an inhale, which is what you have to do when you're a breathing mammal in the water. It sounds like p-hah-hah, p-hah-ha -- little explosive exhales. And we were so moved by this little sea pup, we called her, that she really inspired this whole album which was to be an exploration of the voices of other creatures, other sea animals besides the whales.

(Music up, then fade under)

CURWOOD: Paul Winter, you've been called a bellwether for the public psyche, in that you seem to be able to predict not only trends in music but public concerns about our world as well. So I want to ask you now, can you look into your crystal ball and tell me what you see next on the public agenda?

WINTER: Well, I'm amused to hear that description and honored that some people feel that I've done that; I don't really know if that's true, because certainly what we've done musically over the years has not been at all in line with the trends. But in terms of what I see happening to our species now, I see us becoming more sensitive to our own human nature and to its uniqueness and to its connectedness with Great Nature, and I think what that may encourage us toward is a simpler way of living. To me, unnecessary consumption is the great environmental problem, and perhaps a lot of the rampant, neurotic consumption of our society now is from frustrated expression. We are in America, in North America, perhaps the loneliest nation in the world but I think one of the least expressive. And in major media, we rely on others to make our music, to do our entertainment, and we sit and watch television, I guess six or seven hours a day on the average -- some astounding figure -- as spectators. And the trend that I'm interested in is that of participants, away from being a nation of spectating sheep to people who participate in life, beginning with our own expression, of whatever we feel our true nature might be, that we might find the gratification from that that's I think far deeper than owning a lot of expensive cars or having more possessions or paying to see more sensational entertainment.

CURWOOD: Thank you very much. Paul Winter, of the Paul Winter Consort, talked to us from his home and studio in Litchfield, Connecticut. Thank you, sir, for joining us on Living on Earth.

WINTER: You're very welcome, thank you.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Our editor and producer is Peter Thomson. Our director is Deborah Stavro, who also produced our interview with Paul Winter. The coordinating producer is George Homsy. . . and we had help from Kim Motylewski, Lucia Small, and Colleen Singer. Our engineers are Kurt Lachowin and Laurie Azaria.

Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation, in co-operation with the Public Media Foundation and WBUR, Boston. Our theme music was composed by Michael Aharon. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

If you have any questions or comments about our show, give us a call on our listener line. . . at 617-868-7454. That's 617-868-7454. Transcripts and tapes are available for ten dollars. Write to us at Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02238. That's Living on Earth. . . Box 639. . . Cambridge, Mass. . . O2238.

(Theme music up and out)


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