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

June 24, 1994

Air Date: June 24, 1994


Fishing Communities / Jennifer Ludden

Jennifer Ludden reports on the struggle of New England’s fishing communities to cope with Federal restrictions on catches, designed to reverse the depletion of cod, flounder and haddock stocks in the North Atlantic. (07:06)

Wasted Bycatch / Nancy Lord

Commentator Nancy Lord, a commercial salmon fisher on Alaska’s Cook Inlet, says part of the overfishing crisis is that a huge amount of the fish caught is going to waste. (02:52)


Listeners respond to stories about a German town’s attempt to take over their local electric utility . . . and a Texas city’s voluntary phase-out of diazinon. (04:10)

Judge Breyer

Steve Curwood talks with Vic Sher of the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund about Supreme Court nominee Judge Stephen Breyer’s environmental views and case record, especially regarding risk assessment. (05:45)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright (c) 1994 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or transmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Wade Goodwin, Barbara Cariddy, Jennifer Ludden
GUEST: Vic Sherr

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Judge Steven Breyer faces Senate confirmation hearings in July. President Clinton's second nomination for the Supreme Court is a milestone for environmental law.

SHERR: The Supreme court has not had a friend of the environment since Justice Douglas. Judge Breyer is actually the first Justice who we have coming up who has actually dealt with a number of environmental issues, and indeed has resolved a number of environmental cases.

CURWOOD: Also, New England fishing communities face a bleak future. And a call for clean fishing off the coast of Alaska.

LORD: In Alaska's Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska, more fish are thrown back dead than are landed by American fishermen in all the North Atlantic: on the order of half a billion to a billion pounds per year.

CURWOOD: That and more this week on Living on Earth. First the news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: I'm Jan Nunley with this summary of environmental news. Wealthy countries are balking at the $20 billion price tag which the United Nations has put on the fight to stop the spread of deserts, but the price of maintaining the status quo may be far higher. UN environment officials estimate land degradation costs $40 billion a year in lost income. An area the size of China and India combined has been seriously degraded since World War II. The Agency estimates that 900 million people depend on these dry lands for their livelihood. But at a recent Paris meeting on desertification, the US and other wealthy nations refused to commit more than the $1 billion a year already being spent to combat the problem. Countries affected by drought say they'll try to get local people more involved in finding ways to preserve land.

The families of 28 children born with severe birth defects have reached a settlement with the owners of 5 factories along the Texas-Mexico border. The families sued a number of companies, charging that the birth defects were caused by pollution. From Austin, NPR's Wade Goodwin reports.

GOODWIN: Each of the 5 companies will pay just under $11,000 to 8 families of children born with birth defects under the settlement agreement. Ninety Maquiladores factories have been sued by the families of children born with spinabiffida and anacephaly. Anacephalic babies are born without most of their brain and die shortly after birth. Attorneys for the children claim that they will show a link between the birth defects and environmental factors caused by pollution from the plants. Spokesmen for the Maquiladores have denied that there's any connection and say that they settled to avoid the cost of a lawsuit. Although research continues, the Centers for Disease Control have not conclusively linked the birth defects to environmental contamination. However, the rate of anacephalic births along the Texas border is more than twice the national average. Attorneys for the children said that the settlement option was offered to the firms who have the lowest output of contaminants, and that the lawsuit against the other plants will proceed. For Living on Earth, I'm Wade Goodwin in Austin.

NUNLEY: There's a new reason to quit smoking if you're pregnant or planning to be. A new report from the Harvard School of Public Health has found that women who smoke during pregnancy can permanently reduce their child's lung capacity by about 5%. Researcher Douglas Dockery says it's unlikely any affected child would have trouble breathing, but the condition could make children more susceptible to lung diseases.

DOCKERY: A lower lung function in and of itself also can increase the probability of these kids having other respiratory illnesses, like bronchitis, like wheezing, or possibly even asthma.

NUNLEY: Dockery says the smoking damage is done during the first trimester, when a fetus's airway is just beginning to develop.

DOCKERY: This is a time also when the mother might not realize that she's pregnant. If she decided to stop smoking during pregnancy, for example, the deleterious effects might have occurred even before she decides to take that action.

NUNLEY: The report was published in the American Journal of Epidemiology. This is Living on Earth.

For decades, highly radioactive spent fuel has been building up at nuclear power plants around the country. Now a group of power companies and 20 states have sued the US Energy Department to force them to take possession of the nuclear waste by 1998, which they claim is required by Federal law. But the Energy Department has said it's not required to take the fuel until a permanent nuclear waste repository has been built. The Department is studying a site at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, but it won't be ready until at least a decade after the 1998 deadline.

Plastic 6-pack rings will be illegal in Maine starting in 1996, and they could soon disappear across the country if a replacement now being tested in Maine is successful. The plastic yokes can ensnare and kill wildlife if not disposed of properly. From Portland, Barbara Cariddy of Maine Public Broadcasting reports.

CARIDDY: PepsiCola says consumers in Maine have been snapping up 6-packs of soda bound together with unbleached paperboard. Company spokesman Chris Ramoser says the biodegradable yokes are being test-marketed as an alternative to plastic connectives.

RAMOSER: We've had about 16,000 6-packs out there with the paperboard tear [word?] on there, and we hope by the end of the summer, early fall, to be able to have some definitive results.

CARIDDY: Ramoser says Pepsi also wants to make sure that the paperboard yokes are as strong and reliable a their plastic counterparts before marketing them nationwide. He says if they pass muster in Maine, plastic 6-pack holders could be a thing of the past. For Living on Earth, I'm Barbara Cariddy in Portland, Maine.

NUNLEY: Scientists have finally seen their first live specimen of a rare Vietnamese ox. The female Vu Kwang ox was captured in the jungle near the Laotian border. Local residents have long known about the beast, but it's the first large mammal identified by scientists since the 1930s. Researchers sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund are scurrying to gather data on the species. They fear local residents may hunt the rare animal to extinction.

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

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(Theme music up and under)

Fishing Communities

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The United States and Canada have recently drastically reduced fishing in the North Atlantic. The mix of limits and bans is an effort to reverse the crash of the cod, flounder, and haddock fisheries. In Canada, fishing industry workers are being compensated with a multi-billion-dollar program while stocks rebuild. But on the American side, the Federal Government has offered a far more modest package of about $30 million to help communities through the crisis. And there is still no long-term plan for the future of the New England fishery. Jennifer Ludden of member station WBUR in Boston reports from New Bedford, Massachusetts, on the struggle of the region's fishing communities to find a vision of their future in a badly-depleted resource.

(Work on a fishing boat)

LUDDEN: The early morning sea air is brisk as the crew of the Seal heaves its haul on-shore in New Bedford. These 4 men have just returned from a 10-day trip, where each worked around the clock, 9 hours on, 3 off. Their catch: 17,000 pounds of cod that's being packed in ice and sent to market. The haul is only a fraction of what boats routinely caught a decade ago before years of over-fishing turned once teeming stocks of cod, flounder, and haddock, into a trickle.

TOM LEES: It's terrible, it's disgusting.

LUDDEN: Fisherman Tom Lees.

TOM LEES: You tow the net for 3 hours and haul back and get maybe 2, 3 fish. And sometimes nothing. It's just, just a few handful of skates. The future, there is no future in this.

LUDDEN: The immediate future is bleak, both because of the crash in groundfish stocks and because of Federal attempt to restore the long-term health of the fisheries. Boats must cut their fishing effort in half during the next 5 years, and strapped owners are laying off crew. The head of the local fishing union estimates a quarter of his members are out of work. Others, like Tom Lees, plan to leave soon. Still, for every Tom Lees there are those like his brother, Toby: men in their 40s and 50s who have families and see little future on the seas, but even less off.

TOBY LEES: My value with some other job is probably minimum wage, and I can't live on minimum wage.

LUDDEN: So what do you think the next 5 years will be like for you?

TOBY LEES: Everybody's walking around with question marks. We don't know if we're going to be here next year, 2 years, 3 years, 5 years. We're just trying to survive right now.

LUDDEN: To help people like the Lees survive, Federal officials unveiled a $30 million disaster aid package in March. But the impact of the aid has yet to be felt.

(Squeaking door, voices reverberating off walls)

LUDDEN: This office in downtown New Bedford is the first concrete result of the emergency assistance. It's one of 4 community aid centers where families in crisis can come to talk with a social worker, receive psychological counseling, or get information on applying for food stamps or Welfare. With an estimated 20,000 fishing-related jobs at risk in New England, officials had expected a flood of people at these centers. But so far, director Jesse Ely says turnout here has been slim.

ELY: I think what we're talking about is a very closed culture. Highly work ethic, traditionally on the water. I don't really think they've, it's really set in yet, that there is a downsizing in the fishing industry. There's going to be less vessels on the water and they're going to have to make some adaptation.

LUDDEN: The government is hoping to encourage adaptation through an array of grants and loans, which will make up the bulk of the $30 million package. But before it's even been distributed, there is a feeling in the community that the aid money won't meet their needs. Gary Golus is an outreach worker at the New Bedford Assistance Center.

GOLUS: The overall feeling is that there's just substantial money out there that will help them get retrained or help them with unemployment, and just get by in life. And that's really the difficult part as we suddenly looked at where all that money went for. There is no way a divisional assistance; it's only going to help certain people and not the entire people that really need help.

LUDDEN: Golus says that's because fishermen aren't eligible for retraining programs until after they've lost their jobs or their boats. And he says criteria for grants to research new ways of making a living from the sea are so technical that only academics and scientists really qualify. But there may be a more fundamental tension between the goals of the fishing communities and those of Washington. Many boat owners, crew, and processors want the disaster assistance to help them through the lean times. Federal officials, though, see the current crisis as more than just another low point in a boom and bust cycle. They say the future for many here lies in switching to new, under-exploited species, or getting out of fishing altogether. John Bullard of the Commerce Department oversees the aid program.

BULLARD: Nobody wants to come back 3 years down the road and say, "Where did this $30 million go? We've got nothing to show for it." And so, while some of the money without question will be used for the immediate purposes of debt restructuring or trying to avoid foreclosure, I think when all is said and done, we're going to see the great majority of this money being spent on longer-term issues.

LUDDEN: Despite the desire to plan ahead, Federal officials have been reluctant to say exactly what the future of the fishing industry should look like. They say that is up to local communities themselves. Yet, many here, like Howard Nickerson of New Bedford's Offshore Mariners Association, want Washington to take a stronger role.

NICKERSON: Fishermen are not planners. We are doers. And we don't have the time, most of us, to sit down and lay out what should be done for the industry and how and why. Maybe some of us don't know how and why.

LUDDEN: In the absence of an overarching Federal policy, those who do have new ideas are experimenting ad hoc, and increasingly many believe the future of New England's fishing industry doesn't lie in the open sea at all.

(Water running into tubs)

LUDDEN: Tubs full of hundreds of thousands of tiny cod larvae sit in this lab at the University of New Hampshire. The larvae are the first stage of an experiment to hatch in a lab cod which has become endangered in the wild. Researcher Hunt Howell ultimately hopes his project will lead to a program to restock the depleted seas. But without government help, he says, that's not likely to happen.

HOWELL: I can't imagine that any private company is going to be altruistic enough to release fish for the public consumption. After all, they're in business.

LUDDEN: Instead, Howell says private companies are more apt to use his research to grow cod in pens, than sell them directly to the market. While aquaculture would revive the supply of cod, it would also raise wrenching questions about the role of a fishing fleet conceivably made obsolete. In the end, it likely will be up to the government to devise a cohesive, viable future for not only New England fisheries, but also those in the Pacific Northwest, which are likewise struggling to maintain economies in the face of a diminishing resource. For the short term, fishermen on both coasts are counting on Federal aid to keep them in the industry. In the long term, they are hoping that whatever vision of fishing emerges, it includes them. For Living on Earth, I'm Jennifer Ludden in Boston.

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Wasted Bycatch

CURWOOD: The Northwest Atlantic isn't the only place suffering an overfishing crisis. In fact, the United Nations says all of the world, 17 major fisheries, are either at capacity or in decline. Commentator Nancy Lord says the real tragedy is that a huge amount of the fish being caught is just going to waste.

LORD: In Alaska's Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska, more fish are thrown back dead than are landed by American fishermen in all the North Atlantic: on the order of half a billion to a billion pounds per year. In New England's shrimp fishery, the weight of by-catch exceeds the weight of shrimp landed. In the Gulf of Mexico, shrimp trawls catch an average of 10 pounds of non-target species, mostly juvenile fish, for every one pound of shrimp.

This dirty fishing, in which non-targeted fish species - turtles, marine mammals, and invertebrates, are incidentally caught and usually killed - is allowed in our Federal fisheries as a cost of doing business. You might ask who's paying the cost. Certainly not those who scoop up as much as possible, as fast as possible, with non-selective gear and practices. Under current law, those who catch and sell the most product, regardless of how much they also waste, end up making the most money.

The amount of by-catch is bad enough, but then there's a second category of waste known as economic discards. Here in Alaska, much of what gets thrown overboard isn't the wrong species at all. It's simply the wrong sex or size or more than what a boat is prepared to handle. For example, in the Bering Sea rock sole fishery, 61% of what was caught in 1992 was discarded, and a third of that was rock sole. Why keep male rock sole when it's the roe-filled females that are most prized in Asian markets? Why bother with any size that doesn't easily fit through automatic filleting machines?

Just for perspective, consider that a billion pounds of wasted fish would fill 50,000 garbage trucks. A billion pounds is what Americans eat in tuna fish every year. Certainly, that amount of protein could help feed some of the 800 million malnourished people in the world.

Of course, not all of what is thrown overboard is suitable for human consumption. All of that is, however, part of someone's diet. Bigger fish eat smaller fish, and fish of various sizes are eaten by pelagic birds and marine mammals. Alaska's stellar sea lions are in sharp decline and headed for the Endangered Species List. No one seems to know precisely what's the matter, but the best guess is food stress. The young animals aren't getting enough of the pollock they normally feed on.

Clean fishing isn't a radical idea, and it's not all that hard to do. Imagine what would happen if, instead of rewarding those who catch the most fish fastest and waste a lot in the process, we offered economic incentives to fishermen to use modern technology and their own fishing skills to minimize by-catch and waste. Good fishermen would rise to the challenge, and those relics who wouldn't or couldn't change their ways would soon find themselves deep-sixed.

CURWOOD: Nancy Lord is a writer, a commentator for Living on Earth, and a commercial salmon fisher in Alaska's Cook Inlet. She comes to us from member station KBBI in Homer.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: What do you think about throwing away fish? Should we offer economic incentives to minimize by-catch and economic waste? Give us a call on our listener line at 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988.


CURWOOD: Here are some of your comments about our most recent programs. Our report on citizen efforts in a small German town to take over their local electric utility and move it toward alternative energy sources brought a call from Irvin Dawid in Palo Alto, California. Mr. Dawid says their current mix of 60% hydropower and 40% nuclear power already seems pretty clean.

DAWID: They have no greenhouse emissions. I mean, uh, no fossil fuels. I understand that the wastes produced by the nuclear plant need to be dealt with, but that's pretty clean energy that they're producing I'd just like to see energy, utilities in this country, be as clean they are there. Thank you.

CURWOOD: Back on this side of the Atlantic, we reported on the town of Greenville, Texas, where citizens have voluntarily phased out the pesticide Diazinon, which was polluting surface water. Then we asked you whether community persuasion and public education can be as effective as regulation. Dora Lee Winston of Somerset, Kentucky, says regulation isn't always the answer.

WINSTON: I think it's good to persuade people to use organic methods instead of using chemicals, but also to encourage people to use proper disposal. People are tired of being regulated in everything they do, and I think by approaching them in this way, you will have more success.

CURWOOD: Show [sp?] Silver, a listener of WBEZ in Chicago, says he favors regulation as being more effective and cost-efficient. But he says, for that to work, the public needs to be encouraged to comply. And public education is needed to counteract the messages from the chemical companies. We also got this call.

CURRY: Hi, this is David Curry of Plattsburg, New York. I listen to your show on Vermont Public Radio. While education at the community level is wonderful in terms of minimizing the use of insecticides, I think it would be more reasonable to include the cost of disposal up front in the cost of the product. Presently, it's done in New York State through a tax on motor oil for disposal of the motor oil. It's reasonable to consider, when we introduce a new product into society, what the hidden costs to our next generation, to our children and our children's children, really is.

CURWOOD: Speaking of Diazinon disposal, Lucille Sprechter of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, a listener to WCPN in Cleveland, took us to task for not providing some basic information.

SPRECHTER: Those of us who've had Diazinon in our home for some time would like to know what the manufacturer's comments are about proper disposal. I feel you could have done us a real service if you had also told us that. Thank you.

CURWOOD: Good point. So we called the folks in Greenville, Texas, back. It turns out that they asked residents just to hold on to their unused Diazinon until they could organize a city-wide household hazardous waste collection day. You can contact your local public works department if you have questions about hazardous waste disposal in your community.

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CURWOOD: And you could call us at 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. And we love letters. Write Living on Earth at Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. Transcripts and tapes are available for $10.

(Music up and under)

Judge Breyer

CURWOOD: Confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Steven Breyer are scheduled for the US Senate in mid-July. Judge Breyer is now the Chief Judge of the First US Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, and he once served on Senator Ted Kennedy's staff in the Senate. And barring any unforeseen hitches, he's expected to be easily confirmed. But if Judge Breyer's appointment has generated little controversy, it has certainly caught the attention of environmental lawyers and activists. That's because Judge Breyer has written 2 books about the arcane and controversial business of environmental risk assessment. His latest volume, published in 1993 by Harvard University Press, is called Breaking the Vicious Circle: Toward Effective Risk Regulation. To discuss Judge Breyer's thinking and his record on the bench, we called Vic Sherr, President of the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund in San Francisco. Mr. Sherr has studied Judge Breyer's writings and his environmental case record. He says the appointment to the high court should be a milestone for environmental law.

SHERR: Well you know, the Supreme Court has not had a friend of the environment since Justice Douglas stepped down in the early 70s. And Judge Breyer is actually the first Justice who we have coming up who has actually dealt with a number of environmental issues, and indeed has resolved a number of environmental cases as a sitting judge in the First Circuit. And they have been a diverse set of cases and he's issued a diverse set of opinions. He has ruled for environmental plaintiffs in a number of important cases. He has also upheld decisions by Federal agencies either not to prepare environmental impact statements, or has upheld them against challenges brought by criminal plaintiffs in a number of different cases. But what makes me feel good about the prospects of appearing in front of him is that he's clearly a judge who is very intelligent, very thorough, pays a lot of attention to the laws as passed by Congress and the reasons they were passed by Congress, and pays a great deal of attention to the actual cases presented to him in his courtroom.

CURWOOD: Surveying the people who bring environmental cases to the bar, which groups, which movements, which causes do you think are going to be cheered by Judge Breyer, and which are going to feel some apprehension, do you think, about his appointment?

SHERR: I suspect that the debate over Judge Breyer will reflect divisions within the environmental community about certain issues: most notably, the role of economics in addressing environmental problems. That's one significant issue. And a second significant issue is the role of risk assessment in regulating toxics in society.

CURWOOD: Now risk assessment is actually an area where Judge Breyer has written. He's got a couple of books out. The most recent one is called Breaking the Vicious Circle: Toward Effective Risk Regulation. Can you just briefly describe for people who don't study these things closely, just what is risk assessment, and why it's important in legal cases?

SHERR: Well, risk assessment is an effort by regulators to determine what risks are posed by certain kinds of substances that are introduced into the environment, and then to make policy judgments about what levels of risk are acceptable. So there's 2 separate inquiries. Judge Breyer's concern is that we have gotten ourselves into over-regulating certain kinds of toxic substances, and that we are causing very, very expensive solutions to obtain minimal incremental benefits. The flip side of that, and what either hasn't been in the cases that he's decided or he didn't address in his book, are the situations in which government has under-regulated, and, as a result, people in society have been harmed. And one prime example of that is the dithering over regulating lead-based gasoline, which because of arguments about cost, economic cost, and risks, took years. And as a result, significant numbers of people were exposed to problems and have had medical problems as a result.

CURWOOD: So, your concern then about the validity of risk assessment must bring you some concern about the appointment of Judge Breyer to the Supreme Court. His books seem to say that risk assessment is an effective way to look at regulation.

SHERR: What we find when you start getting into areas of risk assessment is that scientists are unable to take into account all of the variables. And sometimes don't even know what questions to ask. For instance, a whole generation of toxics has been regulated without even realizing that they might be endocrine disrupters, which have tremendous reproductive and developmental hazards at extraordinarily low levels. What gives me more comfort is that this is a widespread debate on which Judge Breyer appears to be actively engaged, and that that speaks of an open mind. And I suspect that his ideas are out there as debating points and as ideas for starts of discussion. And I would be very, very surprised if he were either wedded to them or if they would unduly influence his decision in a particular case.

CURWOOD: Now, as I understand it, Judge Breyer has something of a record in civil rights cases. He's viewed as being fairly sympathetic to civil rights. How do you think this might impact any environmental justice cases that come in front of him?

SHERR: Well, those are the coming wave on toxics and risk in society. I think that we have the opportunity, by marrying civil rights and environmental rights, to revolutionize the way the courts look at toxics. So I think it's a very exciting area, and I think Judge Breyer's record on civil rights is cause for optimism on that.

CURWOOD: Justice Douglas was fairly enthusiastic about the environment, as you mentioned. How do you think Justice Breyer, should he be confirmed, and it certainly looks like he will be, will be in his regard in the environment? Is this something he comes to with any passion?

SHERR: It's hard to say. Justice, or Judge Breyer still, his opinions are extremely readable, and they're very intelligently crafted. But one doesn't detect the same kind of passion about the environment, or, frankly, about anything else. And that's just stylistic. I think that my writings, were I a judge, would be more like Steven Breyer's than like William O' Douglass's.

CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for taking this time with us. Vic Sherr is President of the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund. Thank you, sir.

SHERR: Thank you.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living on Earth. Our program is produced and edited by Peter Thomson. The coordinating producer is George Homsy, our associate producer is Kim Motylewski, and our director is Debra Stavro. Our production team includes Jan Nunley, Jessika Bella Mura, Colleen Singer Coxe, J.P. Anderson, and engineers Rita Sand, Bob Connolly, and Karen Given. Our theme music was composed by Michael Aharon.

Living on Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, in cooperation with the Public Media Foundation and WBUR, Boston. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

ANNOUNCER: Major contributors to Living on Earth include all-natural Stonyfield Farm Yogurt - whether supporting worthwhile causes or producing healthy foods, Stonyfield's goal is to make you feel good inside; the W. Alton Jones Foundation; the National Science Foundation; and the Pew Charitable Trusts. Additional support is provided by the Jessie B. Cox Foundation.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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