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

June 11, 1999

Air Date: June 11, 1999


Yellowstone Bioprospecting / Jyl Hoyt

Jyl Hoyt of member station KBSX reports on the controversy over the search for valuable genetic material in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park. Three groups successfully challenged a deal to allow what's known as "bioprospecting" in the park. (07:30)

Corporate Cannibals Chew on Sustainability

A new generation of businesspeople is bringing environmental and social interests into the boardroom. John Elkington, author of Cannibals with Forks: The Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business, talks with host Steve Curwood about some corporations that are beginning to catch on to an emerging ethic of sustainable capitalism. (06:10)

Belgium Dioxin Scare

Steve talks with journalist Chris White about Europe’s most serious food scare since 1996. Meat products and byproducts have been pulled off the shelves in Belgium, and countries all over the world are refusing Belgian exports after it was discovered that thousands of pounds of animal feed had been contaminated with the carcinogen dioxin. The crisis has already cost Belgium $500 million, and the Belgian government is being blamed for not responding quickly enough. (04:05)


Listeners weigh in on our coverage of the recent whale hunt by native Americans in Washington state. (02:35)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about... James Lovelock and his theory of a living, self-regulating Mother Earth. His influential book, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, was published thirty years ago. (01:15)

Salmon and Climate Change

A new study links the decline of salmon in the North Pacific ocean with global climate changes impacting marine ecosystems. Host Steve Curwood talks with Dr. David Welch, from the Canadian National Department of Fisheries and Oceans, about the study and its implications for the future of salmon. (05:45)

Alewife Return / Naomi Schalit

The alewife are running thick again in the cool waters of Maine. From a Maine mill town we hear from those who help the tiny creatures battle the currents upstream. Naomi Schalit [shal-LEET] has our report. (05:10)

Living With Big Cats

A mysterious cat, the eastern cougar, is making a comeback in the United States one hundred years after being hunted to near extinction. Its return means some soul-searching for residents who must learn to live with the truly wild animal. (02:45)

Natives and the Oil Spill / Susan Kernes

In the final installment of our special series on the legacy of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Susan Kernes visits with residents of the remote native American communities of Prince William Sound to talk about the lasting impact of the spill. She found that ten years later, most of the oil is gone but the people, and the subsistence species on which they depend, still haven't fully recovered. (10:20)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Jyl Hoyt, Naomi Schalit, Susan Kernes
GUESTS: John Elkington, Chris White, David Welch
COMMENTATOR: Chris Bolgiano

(Theme music intro)

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

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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Who owns life? And should the government license genetic prospecting on public land? Park managers want the royalties but some activists say the national parks should be off-limits for private profits.

BADER: We would write a ticket to somebody for removing a rock or a pine cone, but on the other hand we would allow a corporation to come in and remove life forms for commercial exploitation.

CURWOOD: Also, predictions from a business consultant who says environmental stewardship is becoming mandatory and not optional for major corporations.

ELKINGTON: I think we're going to see quite a number of companies just disappearing, I mean going to the wall, because they don't adapt in time.

CURWOOD: And the Belgian food and dioxin scandal: everything from chicken to chocolate is tainted. Those stories and more this week on Living on Earth, but first news.

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(NPR News follows)

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Yellowstone Bioprospecting

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Biotechnology, the altering of genes to make organisms do what we want, is changing the face of medicine and agriculture. It's also posing environmental threats and raising profound ethical questions. Not surprisingly, our national parks are now on the frontiers of biotechnology. It turns out that these reserves of biological diversity are prime hunting grounds for those who are looking for unusual forms of DNA. In Yellowstone National Park, officials want to make a deal with profit-making corporations to allow them to extract genetic samples of microbes from the famous Yellowstone hot springs and geysers. In exchange, the park would get scientific services and a share of royalties from any commercial applications of the genes. But an outcry from opponents has so far blocked the plan. From member station KBSX in Boise, Idaho, Jyl Hoyt explains.

(Running spring)

HOYT: A teenager leans over a small gurgling creek in Yellowstone National Park and takes a whiff.

BOY: It smells (laughs) like rotten eggs. It's cool, though.

HOYT: Visitors aren't the only ones who think Yellowstone's world-famous hot springs and hissing, spouting geysers are cool. Scientists do, too. Like other visitors from around the world, they've been fascinated by the bizarre smells and colors of the thermal features for more than a century.

VARLEY: When scientists first started coming into Yellowstone in the late 1800s, they presumed that that was some kind of a mineralization that was going on. But we now know that each one of those colors is caused by a different species of microorganism.

HOYT: John Varley is Yellowstone's Resources Director. He says outside scientists have helped the Park Service understand the biology of the park's unique microbes, which thrive in boiling water. But the park has not benefitted from all discoveries. In the early 1980s, for instance, microbes taken from Yellowstone led researchers to the process of DNA fingerprinting. A Swiss company now earns millions of dollars a year from that discovery, but the park gets nothing. And John Varley says the extraction of genetic material, known as bioprospecting, is not unique to Yellowstone.

VARLEY: It's a problem throughout the National Park System. Goes on in the southwestern parks as it relates to their cacti and their flower blossoms. It goes on in the cave parks, because there's immense interest in the physiology of all of these blind cave organisms.

HOYT: It's all perfectly legal. Federal law allows scientists to sample tissue of plants and animals in the parks as long as they get a permit. But a few years ago, the Park Service began to look for ways to turn the process into a two-way street, and in 1997 Yellowstone struck a new kind of deal. In exchange for the right to sample the park's microbes, the San Diego-based biotechnology firm Diversa agreed to pay the park $100,000 and to share up to 10% of royalties from any products it develops from park organisms. The park also agreed to catalogue the DNA of local wildlife for the Park Service. Park officials say they hoped the deal would become a model for the entire park system, but it made some environmentalists angry.

BADER: We actively tell people in the parks that they're not allowed to pick flowers, they're not allowed to remove pine cones, you can take pictures and you can enjoy it but you can't leave with these things.

HOYT: Mike Bader used to work in the park. Now he's director of the Montana-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

BADER: And this is hard, as a former park ranger in Yellowstone, to rectify this disparity here, where we would write a ticket to somebody for removing a rock or a pine cone, but on the other hand we would allow a corporation to come in and remove life forms for commercial exploitation.

HOYT: The Alliance and two other environmental groups took the Park Service to court over the deal, which they say was struck largely behind closed doors. And this spring, a Federal judge voided the agreement. He ordered the Park Service to renegotiate it, following the terms of the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires broad public involvement and assessment of environmental impacts. Mike Bader says he hopes the court's action will keep Yellowstone from setting a very bad precedent.

BADER: We want to make sure that we're not going down a slippery slope here. And if we allow companies to come in and take aquatic organisms out of thermal pools, we may allow lumber companies to come in and cut trees later, because the same rationale might be used. That well, we're only cutting a few, we're really not going to harm the forest, none of the trees will go extinct, and we need the money.

HOYT: But bioprospectors say the process is very different from logging or mining. Jay Short, the CEO of Diversa Corporation, says at Yellowstone, it means analyzing only a few drops of water and then using the information to make artificial enzymes.

SHORT: And so, I think that's very different than commercializing materials such as grizzly bears and trees, where you're actually extracting the material and using that material and you have to go back and replenish. Whereas, you know, we need one sampling, and to have enough to study the information in that sample is teaspoon-sized.

VARLEY: What a bioprospector will take out in the course of a year, a trout fisherman can take out in one fish.

HOYT: Yellowstone's John Varley.

VARLEY: I just never heard anyone make a logical case that it could be harming anything.

(Footfalls through grass)

HOYT: At Angel Terraces, bubbling pools color the earth so vividly in hues of orange, brown, and peach, that jet pilots flying overhead can see them.

(Laughter and ambient conversation)

HOYT: The hot springs and geysers are part of what draws millions of visitors every year, and the park has been struggling under tight budgets to manage the crush of people. That's why some environmental groups were happy with the original Diversa deal. Tom Carnet is the President of the National Parks and Conservation Association.

CARNET: There has been a lot of exploitation in the past, and this is a step in the right direction by having some funds flow back to the parks.

HOYT: Ironically, the court order in the Diversa case did not affect the bioprospecting still being done under the old permit system. So, private scientists are still taking samples in the park. But Yellowstone is getting nothing in return. Still, park administrators say they are committed to working out new bioprospecting deals that do benefit the park.

(Running spring)

HOYT: As the afternoon sun turns Mammoth Hot Springs a golden hue, John Varley says bioprospecting contracts can turn the drive for private gain into public good.

VARLEY: The thing that I like about these agreements is that we might make capitalists into conservationists.

HOYT: Even though the deal has been voided for now, Diversa says it will still make its payments and continue its wildlife research for the park. Meanwhile, the Park Service is reviewing its system-wide policy on bioprospecting, and beginning an environmental review of the Diversa case: a process expected to take about two years. For Living on Earth, I'm Jyl Hoyt in Yellowstone National Park.

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Corporate Cannibals Chew on Sustainability

CURWOOD: Many corporations are saying they'd rather change than fight with environmental advocacy groups. Green interests are now part of the business strategies of Wal-Mart, Intel, Dow Chemical, Shell Oil, BP, Ford Motors, and many other large firms. Writer John Elkington says this is all in response to an emerging business ethic. He calls it sustainable capitalism. And he writes about it in his new book Cannibals with Forks: The Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business.

ELKINGTON: The rather strange title flowed from an observation about 3 or 4 years ago. We mainly work with companies, and we started to see more and more of the companies that we were then working with getting involved in mergers and acquisitions. So either they were taking over other businesses or themselves starting to be taken over. So we started to use the phrase in the office at least, corporate cannibalism. And that was a problem for us, because obviously, when companies are thinking about those sorts of issues, they have relatively little time to think about social or environmental agenda items. And I came across a Polish poet who asked the question in the 60s, "Is it progress if cannibals learn to eat with forks?" And so by extension, we're saying it probably would be progress if these corporate cannibals, these very large corporations, learned to use the triple-pronged fork or the triple bottom line of sustainable development.

CURWOOD: Let's talk about these three bottom lines or this 3-pronged fork, as you call it.


CURWOOD: What should businesses be looking at?

ELKINGTON: Well, the one thing that we're not saying is that the business should abandon the conventional financial bottom line. The triple bottom line has a dimension which has all to do with economic prosperity, another dimension which has to do with environmental quality, and a third dimension, which business is very often less inclined to think about, which has to do with social equity or social justice.

CURWOOD: Social equity in the corporate boardroom? I can see both the folks in the business outfits sort of saying (clears throat), and the activists who have been their antagonists for so many years also pretty uncomfortable with this notion.

ELKINGTON: If you look at just the last few years, you've seen a number of companies that would once have raised their eyebrows in exactly that way, finding that social issues, the social equity issues, have got the power to reach up and bite them. If you think about Shell in Nigeria, or you think about Nike's more recent problems with child labor and countries like Indonesia and China and Vietnam, these issues, whether the companies like it or not, are now on the agenda.

CURWOOD: Can you tell us a story of a major corporation that's actually started to put sustainability principles into practice?

ELKINGTON: Well, I think that it's interesting that some of the companies that are moving, or trying to move, fastest in this area are ones that have been quite severely bruised in the past. And I mentioned Shell. If you look at what they're currently doing, they've got a board-level committee responsible for sustainable development. But perhaps the signal from that company, which has been most interesting to the outside world, is that Mark Moody Stewart, the chairman of their committee of managing directors, recently announced that Shell would invest $500 million in renewable energy. Now, in terms of the total investment by Shell, that's still a relatively small number, although it will sound big to most of us. But I think it is evidence of a real intent to start to move toward much more sustainable forms of energy, technology.

CURWOOD: What are some concrete steps that companies can take to start their process toward sustainability?

ELKINGTON: Well, I think one of the most obvious things that companies can do is to open up to the outside world. Very often they see the activists and campaigners and other pressure groups that have been trying to push some of these agenda onto them as problems. But companies that have opened their doors, allowed these people in, engaged them in meaningful ways, and particularly where they've done it year on year, have found that it's actually been a very powerful learning experience on both sides. Reporting is another part of it. More and more companies in different parts of the world are producing environmental reports on an annual basis. Some of them are even beginning to produce sustainability reports. And a third thing is to identify at least one person at board level who has responsibility for monitoring and, to a degree, ensuring that these issues are properly managed.

CURWOOD: How long do you think it will take before the majority of companies are taking more than token steps toward sustainability?

ELKINGTON: It is at least my hope that over the next 20 or 30 years we will see progress, which has been relatively slow to date, suddenly kicking into a different gear. So, actually I think we're going to see a huge shake-out. I think we're going to see quite a number of companies and quite a number of complete value chains just disappearing, I mean going to the wall, because they don't adapt in time. So I don't think this is going to be an easy transition. At times I think it's going to be quite bloody. But that's the nature of economic progress.

CURWOOD: John Elkington is Chairman of the London-based consulting form SustainAbility, and author of Cannibals with Forks: The Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business. Thanks for joining us today.

ELKINGTON: Thanks, Steve.

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Belgium Dioxin Scare

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Europe is in the midst of its worst food scare since fears of mad cow disease forced Britain to ban all beef exports in 1996. Today the crisis is in Belgium, where the government suspended sales of poultry, eggs, beef, pork, and byproducts. The move came after a television program revealed that tons of animal feed had been contaminated with one of the most deadly toxins known to science: dioxin. The scandal has already cost the Belgian economy a half a billion dollars, and the tab is still running. Countries all over the world are refusing Belgian food exports. Chris White, a journalist who's lived in Brussels for the past 15 years says you only need to go shopping to see the impact of the ban.

WHITE: When you walk into any supermarket or shop, the shelves in the past few days have been completely empty. And in terms of quantity, we're talking about an entire nation's food stocks.

CURWOOD: Now, has the food actually been tested? I mean, do people know that in fact dioxin is in the food that was being sold?

WHITE: Well, this all came to light when a Dutch test was done and they found dioxin residues 1,000 times above the World Health Organization's acceptable level. And that really sort of began the whole scandal. And since then they have been doing various tests, but it's not quite clear exactly what the residues are in each of these foods. I think to some extent it's been banned purely on the basis, unless they're sure, it's banned.

CURWOOD: Well, how did the dioxin get in the food?

WHITE: Well, at the moment, a father and son who ran an animal feed business are still in custody. They are under arrest, charged with fraud, and possibly much more serious charges to follow. They fed, either deliberately or accidentally, contaminated engine oil into the feed. The supposition here, and the accusation is, that they did it deliberately to bulk out the feed. If it were an accident, it would be rather different. If it were a criminal activity, then there is a possibility in everybody's minds that it might have been going on for some time.

CURWOOD: So, what are people eating there in Brussels right now? What happens if you go out to a restaurant?

WHITE: Well, I'm going out to a restaurant in a moment with a colleague who's come over to visit me, and they've got on offer pasta dishes, vegetables, and horse meat, which of course is not affected.

CURWOOD: What are the odds that any of this food could have gotten here to the United States?

WHITE: Well, I have to say it's reasonably slim, but Belgium is a major exporter of food products. So, it would be unlikely that the American market has escaped entirely. But it has to be said that people shouldn't worry too much, because I think that the amounts of residue would be extremely small. That is to say if it hasn't been going on for years, I suppose.

CURWOOD: So, Belgian chocolate's okay, even if it's made with milk.

WHITE: No. Belgian chocolates are one of the things that people should be very wary of, and that is probably one of the most damaging economic effects of this whole scandal. That the Belgian chocolate export market has been severely damaged.

CURWOOD: What's the government's response been to all this?

WHITE: Well, the government has been accused of being very slow and laggardly in getting the facts together on this whole scandal, and amazingly, one of the ministers of the Belgian government has admitted that one of the reasons for not being able to say how extensive the danger might be, is that 50% of the company concern's business was done in the black. That is to say, not declared to the tax man.

CURWOOD: Now, you've lived in Belgium for some 15-odd years. How does this scandal and event compare to other events that you've observed in Belgium, in terms of its impact on the society and the economy, and the mentality there?

WHITE: Well, I think I concur with most Belgians I've spoken to today, who say that they've had a succession of very serious scandals, and that this is the worst scandal they can recall. It shocked the Belgian nation to the roots. They are now aware that their government is very, very borderline in terms of correctness, and I think that they feel it's a corrupt country, and that something has got to be done about it.

CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for taking this time with us today.

WHITE: Well, thank you very much.

CURWOOD: Chris White edits the European Parliamentary Magazine in Brussels.

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CURWOOD: And now it's time to hear from you, our listeners.

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CURWOOD: Many of you had strong feelings about our coverage of the Makah whale hunt. The story concerned the Makah Indian tribe, which harpooned its first whale in 75 years and resumed a tradition that was halted when commercial whalers almost wiped out the animals. But many listeners say that culture and tradition were no justification for the killing. Greg Carter, who hears us on KQED in San Francisco, writes, "Clearly, your folks on the scene must have been wearing rose-colored glasses, or are just plain insensitive to the killing of a magnificent whale, still a threatened species in spite of the downgrading by the US. Perhaps they should have spent some time at Laguna San Ignacio, where the gentle creatures calve and mate. Had your reporters done so, they might not have seen so much joy in the false tradition claimed by the Makah."

Likewise, Patricia Wolff, a listener to KUNM in Albuquerque, New Mexico, called the hunt inexcusable. "I, for one," she writes, "do not care if the whale killers were Japanese, Norwegian, or Native American. What they did was cruel, cowardly, and utterly contemptible."

And Bill Dollinger of Silver Spring, Maryland, left this comment on our listener line.

DOLLINGER: This is a massacre. This was nothing more than primitive blood lust hiding behind the phrase "native rights."

CURWOOD: Other listeners supported the Makah. Joe Sweeney, who hears us on WHYY in Philadelphia, found the protest against the whale hunt ironic.

"I cannot see," he writes, "how the people who destroyed the whale population have any room to criticize the native people who want to continue their tradition. Haven't we done enough to them already? There is a basic injustice in the fact that people who now stand on Indian land have the right to sit and criticize the way Indians live their lives."

And Debra Ann Pine, a Chippewa Indian who listens to WCMZ in Sault-St. Marie in Michigan, felt that the whale hunt was important in preserving what she calls an already fragile Native American culture. "The Makah whale hunt," she writes, "made my heart swell with hope with the taking of the gray whale. Hope in that our people will not disappear into the American cultural void."

Please, share your culture, your beliefs, and your responses with us. Call our listener line at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. Or send us an e-mail at LOE@NPR.ORG. That's LOE@NPR.ORG. Our postal address is 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. And you can visit our Web site at www.loe.org. Once again, www.loe.org. Tapes and transcripts are $15.

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The Living on Earth Almanac

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

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CURWOOD: It's been 30 years since British scientist James Lovelock published Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, and his book remains influential and controversial today. Lovelock's Gaia theory is that the Earth, including its physical surface, oceans, and atmosphere, is a single, self-regulating super- organism. The idea, named after Gaia, the Greek Earth-goddess or Mother Earth, has been incorporated into New Age spirituality, and has been roundly criticized by many mainstream scientists. But over the decades it has gained some acceptance. The theory helps explain, and is supported by phenomena like forest fires, which reduce excess oxygen levels in the air, and ocean algae blooms, which can reduce excess carbon in the air. While Lovelock is most famous for his Gaia idea, he was also handy as a maker of a device which can detect pesticide residue in animals. The invention showed how chemicals spread through the food chain to creatures all over the world. The data provided evidence that gave fuel to Rachel Carson's fire and helped form a scientific foundation for her classic Silent Spring. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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Salmon and Climate Change

CURWOOD: For years, marine scientists have been stumped by the rapid decline of salmon populations in the north Pacific Ocean. The numbers are going down too fast to simply blame over-fishing, dammed rivers, and pollution. Now, a new study sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund, suggests global warming may be a factor. Climate change effects on ocean ecosystems are largely unknown, according to David Welch, head of the High Seas Salmon Research Program for the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and one of the scientists involved in the study. But, he says, evidence is starting to mount that the North Pacific Ocean is no longer a friendly place to the salmon.

WELCH: What is happening is we're seeing a physical change in the structure of the ocean. It's warmer at the top. It's got more fresh water from runoff from rain or from glacier melt water. Both of those things seem to be sealing off the surface layer from the deep ocean. And that's the area where we have most of the nutrients. There's no light, so the plants can't grow there. The ocean, through storms and other processes, has to bring that nutrient to the surface, where the plants can then use it. They produce food that then goes up the food chain, and eventually turns into what the salmon eat.

CURWOOD: What exactly kills the salmon?

WELCH: What seems to be happening is that they're growing more slowly. Small fish have higher mortality rates, because there's more things around to eat them. So when growth is cut back, they stay small for a longer period of time. As a result, they have higher mortality and fewer fish come back from the sea. Salmon survival, compared to 2 decades ago, for some species, is only one tenth of what it was. We've always thought of the ocean as being a very stable place for salmon. We now know that's not true.

CURWOOD: Salmon have been in trouble for a long time. We've put up dams where they go to spawn. We've contaminated the water where they go to spawn. There's also been development in those riparian areas where they go to spawn. And of course they're been heavily fished. What proportion of the problem that salmon are having there in the Pacific Northwest would you attribute to climate change versus all those things that have happened in the freshwater riverways for them?

WELCH: All of these things are very interlinked, so it's difficult to tease out one versus the other and point a finger and say this is causing almost all of the problems. What we do know is that there have been large-scale changes in the climate, that are affecting survival in both the ocean and in fresh water. But what we are seeing now in the 80s and the 90s is that the changes for the worst in the ocean are actually larger than the changes in fresh water survival. That's a big surprise even to scientists, because we usually think of the ocean as being so big and so wet that it can't possibly have changed that fast for an animal like salmon. Let me put it in perspective for you, Steve. In the 1980s, for every 5 adult salmon that would come back from the ocean that could be caught, we might now only catch 1. So only 20% survival or 25% survival, perhaps, is now typical compared to what was happening in the 80s. Now, some component of that is probably global warming. My personal bet is that we're going to establish over the next 10 to 15 years that a very large component of these changes are due to global warming.

CURWOOD: What impact does the loss of salmon have on the Pacific Ocean system as a whole?

WELCH: Well, the reductions in salmon populations affect us all. It affects both the ecosystem, and it also affects humans. It affects the ecosystem because salmon are one of the key predators. If you wanted to go out anywhere in the North Pacific Ocean, and dip in that, 95% of the fish that you'd catch that were over the length of your finger would be salmon. That's a big component of the ecosystem out there. For all of us living along the shores of the North Pacific, whether in Asia or in North America, salmon in northern areas is a very important part of our economy. It's also an obligation that we have to maintain a part of the ecosystem.

CURWOOD: In the course of doing this research, you looked at a number of factors beyond salmon. What's the message here? What does this research on changing temperatures and the oceans tell us?

WELCH: The message is, I think, that we're moving into terra incognito. On the old charts from the Middle Ages, cartographers, when they drew their maps of the oceans, wrote, "Here be dragons," things they didn't understand. We're going to be facing more and more of them. The climate system, we don't understand enough about it as scientists to be able to tell people precisely how the climate is going to change and what the consequences are going to be. But people rely on stability. Ecosystems rely on stability. And that's going to be the thing that we're going to have the least of. We're going to be moving into a period of very rapid change, and as scientists we're going to be stressed ourselves, and very hard-pressed, to try to find answers to these questions. But as a person, I don't want to simply be documenting what's happening, and saying this is what happened. We need to be able to be proactive, realize these things are going to happen, and that science is not going to provide us with all of the answers as to what's happening. There is a serious public debate that needs to be engaged in on where we're going to go in the future and how we go there.

CURWOOD: Dr. David Welch, head of the High Seas Salmon Research Program for the Canadian National Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Thanks for joining us.

WELCH: Thank you, Steve.

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Alewife Return

CURWOOD: On the East Coast of North America each spring, a fish called the alewife migrates from saltwater to fresh to spawn in natal ponds. Now, the alewife may not conjure up images as powerful or as romantic as the salmon, but for many, the return of this herring-like fish each year is a passionate affair. In the tiny town of Damarascotta Mills, Maine, the alewives have returned in huge numbers this year, sparking hopes that a population decimated by over-harvesting may now be coming back. Producer Naomi Schalit found 2 people there who know the alewives well.

(Splashing water)

BALT: I'm Frank Balt, Sr., and I live in South Jefferson. I've lived there all my life, I'm 63 years old. And I guess I'm the alewife counter or the tender, whatever you want to call me. We're at the mouth of the fish ladder. The lake is on one side, on the left. And the fish ladder is on the right. And there's a lot of little resting pools. The fish come from down below, up to the fish ladder, and they stop in one of these little pools and rest. And then they go into the lake. And it's 87 feet from the top to the bottom that they have to come uphill.


BALT: I'm cranking this wheel. And on the other end is a gate. And as I turn the wheel it lifts the gate about a quarter of an inch to a time. And that lets more water down where the alewives are. And we call it traction water, so that it gives them plenty of water to come up into the lake with. The stronger the current, the better they like it. They swim against the current all the time. That's what steers them to the fresh water.


BALT: I've seen it go from 28,000 bushel down to 500, in my lifetime. And so when we hit 500 we decided it was time to do something. So we shut it down, and we don't harvest them any more. And for the last 9 years we've been putting them all right into the lake. And the only ones can dip out any fish, the widows of Newcastle and Umber are entitled to 2 bushel. A lot of them will take them over to the smoker, Jack Buchan, and he smokes them.


BUCHAN: I'm Jack Buchan, and I'm running Mulyan Smokehouse for my wife and sister-in-law.

(Dripping water)

BUCHAN: Salted the fish down. Now we're stringing them on these wooden sticks. And we get done with this and we'll hang them all up in the rafters and build a smoke. They say the Indians used to do it the same way. This is my grandson; he's learned how. He can beat me stringing, actually. We used to have, I don't know, a dozen or so smokehouses down here. This is the only one left (laughs).

(Gulls call)

BALT: There's two things we do around here. You wear a hat and you don't look up, because the sky is full of seagulls and eagles and fish hawks. You just look at the fish and keep on going. They dive down, they catch a live one once in a while. But they eat a lot of dead ones, which makes it good because it would really smell wicked if it weren't for the seagulls around here. And the osprey come down, he gets a live one and feeds his young ones with it. So he has a thing to do, too; he supports his family like the rest of us. Then the eagle, well, he kind of sets back and sits in a tree, waits for the fish hawk to get a fish, and then he comes down and takes it away from the fish hawk. So I really don't really look up to him too much, and he don't really earn; he takes more than he earns.

(Splashing water)

BALT: West end, at the end of the fish ladder. Looking upstream, and looking down into the water, and it's solid with fish. There's so many fish that you can't see bottom. And it looks the best I've seen it in the last 25 years. There's more fish here than there had been for a very long time. Makes me feel real good. It's unbelievable; it looks like it used to look years ago. So, I hope they keep coming.

CURWOOD: Our sound portrait on the return of the alewife was produced by Maine Public Broadcasting's Naomi Schalit.

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Living With Big Cats

CURWOOD: Most people who live in the eastern United States spend their entire lives without ever seeing an eastern cougar in the wild. But as the forests have come back in the east, so have more and more of these magnificent and big cats. Commentator Chris Bolgiano says the recent resurgence of the elusive animal means a lot of soul searching for rural residents.

BOLGIANO: Sometimes it seems like I'm the only person in the Virginia mountains, where I live, who hasn't seen an eastern cougar. My neighbor Willie tells about the big, long-tailed cat that streaked across the road in front of him one night. My friend Lori saw one around dusk at the foot of Little North Mountain. Dave, the woodsman, heard yowling and saw eye shine around his campfire near Seneca Rocks. Stories like these have accumulated by the thousands at the end of the 20th century. Now that a few of them have been proven true, there's a question looming ahead for us easterners, especially rural mountain residents like Willie, Lori, Dave, and me. Having once nearly exterminated them, have we as a society matured into the greatness of heart needed to actually live with cougars?

Also known as mountain lions, pumas, or eastern panthers, cougars became legendary even among woods-wise Native Americans for their magical elusiveness, their ability to utterly vanish into the landscape. Unlike bears, which have been teddyfied for a century, and wolves, whose admirable family life is now well-known, cougars are stealthy and solitary, and offer little on which to hang a notion of kinship. They must be accepted on their own wild terms. Cougars are still the rarest of all wild animals in the Appalachian Mountains. Nonetheless, as I walk through my woods, I stop to peer at whiskery arrangements of twigs and brush. Even though I haven't seen one, there is an image of cougar that haunts me. It comes from the true story of Patty Mountain, not far from my house, in 1850. In that snowy winter, local farmers tracked 2 of the last cougars in Virginia along the mountain crest. Boulders there stand tall and flat-faced as houses. The sibling pair of cougars took refuge in a deep den. The male was shot, but his sister escaped. She is my hope that the spirit of cougar has survived to give us a second chance. I see her, crouched in a rock den on Patty Mountain high above the valley, her muscles taut. I see her yellow eyes gleaming in the dimness of the cave. She is looking not at me, but beyond, maybe into the future.

CURWOOD: Chris Bolgiano is author of The Appalachian Forest: A Search for Roots and Removal. She comes to us from member station WMRA in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

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Natives and the Oil Spill

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. It's been more than 10 years since the Exxon Valdez spilled millions of gallons of oil in Prince William Sound, and at first glance much of the region now appears healthy. But the subsistence way of life for native communities who survive off the clams and other sea life found at the shore line has yet to return. As part of our continuing coverage of the legacy of America's worst oil spill, we sent producer Susan Kernes out to visit with the residents of these tiny communities.

(Surf, bird calls)

KERNES: The tiny native communities of Prince William Sound look like modest suburban neighborhoods from the 1960s. The houses are boxy, and are set against the backdrop of jagged, snow-capped mountains that rise dramatically from the sea.


KERNES: Most residents get around on what are called 4-wheelers. They resemble oversized tricycles, but with four fat nubby wheels instead of three. They drive up and down narrow paths that snake through the town, to the community hall, the school, and down to the dock. But not to the grocery store. There are none. They don't need them.

(Splashing water)

WOMAN: I found two of them. Usually they get bigger.

KERNES: Village residents do much of their food shopping on their beaches, digging clams from the dimpled sand, scraping blue mussels and snails from the rocks, and gathering seaweed.

TOTEMOFF: When the tide goes out, the table is set.

(Bird and sea lion calls)

KOMPKOFF: Before, when I was a young man, the herrings were so abundant here, you know. At night time the sea lions would be out there groaning, seals and ducks by the thousands and thousands that come here spawning time.

KEARNES: Mike Totemoff and Pete Kompkoff are Alutiiqs. They've lived most of their lives on Prince William Sound, but on March 24, 1989, the Sound stopped producing its riches. Village residents refer to the day the Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef as the day the water died.

KOMPKOFF: Had the TV on, you know, and woke up early in the morning, and the news came over the air, you know, that a tank had hit a reef outside of Bligh Island over here, you know. That's about 5, 7 miles or so along there, you know. After that, running around, you see no birds or nothing; it's just like you see a movie of the desert. The [damage?] was so extensive that, you know, we wouldn't have no more subsistent lifestyle here in this community. And I was afraid, 100 miles, I've got to move out of here.

TOTEMOFF: It's just like you going into a dirty grocery store. If you found grease and stuff all over the packages that you're going to buy, you wouldn't buy those packages, would you? You'd throw them back. Same thing with us out there.

(Paper shuffles)

M. VLASOFF: March 24, 1989. This feeling of helpless, knowing that five miles away a tanker is split open and gushing out one million gallons of oil per hour. (Cries) It's still really fresh in my mind.

KERNES: Martha Vlasoff lived in Tatitlek at the time of the spill, close enough to smell the thick crude as it belched out of the tanker. From almost the moment she heard the news, she began keeping a journal.

(Paper shuffles)

M. VLASOFF: On the news they said it was being contained, but the mail plane pilot said there was no containment equipment at all around the spill, and that oil was just gushing out uncontrollably.

KERNES: By the end of the summer, over a quarter of a million sea birds, sea ducks, otters, and seals, along with countless fish and invertebrates, had been smothered to death by the thick crude. In the first year after the accident, native food gathering and hunting fell by over 50%. Now, 10 years later, many subsistence species still haven't bounced back.

L. VLASOFF: My husband used to be able to support us all winter on his subsistence seal hunting, with the meat and the fur.

KERNES: Laurinda Vlasoff is a non-native health aide who's been living in Tatitlik with her Alutiiq husband for 25 years.

L. VLASOFF: And that's just not possible any more, because they're just not here. And they're not here because they don't have the food source. For peoples that are used to just going out in the ocean and grabbing a fish and taking it home and eating it, it's terrifying.


KERNES: The fish on which local people and seals depend are struggling to recover. The latest research shows that bleeding pockets of gooey oil on beaches and in salmon streams may still be causing harm to pink salmon eggs. Some other subsistence species are doing better, and local residents have been able to make up for the less-abundant species by relying more heavily on the ones that are coming back. Laurinda Vlasoff says her community has adapted, but something important is still missing.

L. VLASOFF: The sound is recovering. I mean, we can see that it's doing its best, you know, as nature does, to live again. But it'll never be the same. Spring time we notice it the most. It's something that you anticipate like a kid waiting for Christmas, because you know that the food is going to be abundant again. And there's an excitement in the air.

KERNES: For Laurinda Vlasoff and other native residents of Prince William Sound, subsistence isn't just about calories. It's also about traditions. And those have been altered as surely as the ecology. Nature isn't alone in its struggle to recover. The region's humans are also having trouble regaining their equilibrium. Mike Totemoff.

TOTEMOFF: I'm no crybaby or no whiner, let me tell you. There's a problem around and I'd like to be right in the middle of it helping to take care of it now. But this one here, it just got me a real downbeat feeling, you know (laughs) when that happens. I'm not the only one that's had that depressed feeling. A lot of people had it, you know.

M. VLASOFF: I actually became suicidal after this spill. After a certain point, everything within my whole world began to crumble.

KERNES: Martha Vlasoff believes that 10 years after this traumatic event, the depression lingers.

M. VLASOFF: A lot of times, when you have a tragedy like this and people stay in denial for a long period of time, there is no outward appearance. But if you look beneath the surface, you would see that people have a hard time dealing with it.

KERNES: Incidents of rage, domestic violence, and suicide, fueled by a profound sense of loss, continue to haunt these native communities. There have been other social problems as well, brought about in part by large infusions of cash following the spill, into what had been largely non-cash economies.

L. VLASOFF: Yes, there was, for a short time, an increase of drugs especially. For the first time, crack came into Tatitlek. It didn't stay, but it was here for a little while.

KERNES: This gradual erosion of the traditional lifestyle didn't start with the oil spill. But the spill may have sped it up. And it also helped weaken many of the social bonds that had been fraying for years, as the modern world seeped into these native communities. Martha Vlasof was so shaken by the spill that she moved away. Laurinda Vlasoff's family is also feeling the impact of outside influence.

L. VLASOFF: My children are moving away, gradually, going to college. And setting goals for their life that means they'll be living in town most of the time.

KERNES: In Alaskan native villages, "in town" means Anchorage or other bigger communities. And some village residents wonder whether these young people will have much to return to even if they want to come back. Nearly half a billion dollars of the money from Exxon's settlement with the state and Federal governments has been used to buy land from the local native corporations to prevent it from being logged or developed. The goal is to protect habitat for important species, and natives will still be able to hunt and fish on much of the land. But some natives, such as Martha Vlasoff, feel that the sales have robbed the natives of their legacy.

M. VLASOFF: It's a very hard one for me to cope with, and it's unfortunate that future generations of native people will not be able to have just free access to those traditional lands.

(Bird calls, surf)

KERNES: In Tatitlek, close to ground zero of the oil spill, it's spring now, and the Arctic terns, sea gulls, and pigeon guillemots seem as abundant as ever. But the wildlife and beauty mask the loss of the natives' centuries-old intimacy with their environment, the social disruption of changing lifestyles, and loss of trust between people, their land, and the sea. For Laurinda Vlasoff and other native residents of Prince William Sound, it's just not the same as it was before the water died.

L. VLASOFF: We look out, and we see that the land looks fine. But we don't feel secure any more. We keep waiting; you know, when is the next one going to happen? And will there be anything left? Once your life has been turned so upside down, it's always in the back of your mind.

KEARNES: For Living on Earth, I'm Susan Kernes in Homer, Alaska.

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(Surf; fade to music up and under)

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Next week: a look at the brighter side of Alaska. One hundred years after the historic Harriman expedition, author Nancy Lord takes stock of her home and finds many of its natural resources and wonders well-preserved.

LORD: What I see in the lowering light is more fiery Irish green, spilling like liquid down the slopes. Colors seeming to drip from rock, to catch and concentrate on every level surface. What I see is seamlessly green and tirelessly unrolling, untracked by man or woman or domestic beast. Not tended, not mown, not made useful.

CURWOOD: It's green Alaska, next time on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: You can hear more of our coverage of the legacy of the Exxon Valdez in Real Audio at our Web site at www.loe.org. Our staff includes George Homsy, Terry FitzPatrick, Liz Lempert, Jesse Wegman, Miriam Landman, Stephanie Pindyck, and Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Bree Horwitz, and Barbara Cone. We had help this week from Allison Dean, Cynthia Graber, Maggie Villiger, Chris Berdik, Paul Ahn, 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. Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

(Music up an under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the W.A. Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to eliminate environmental threats to children's health; www.wajones.org; the Ford Foundation; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues; the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund; and the Surdna Foundation.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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