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Archive for January, 2010

It is the spring of 2008 and something big is about to happen. You are an osprey and you are waiting, hanging out in a creaking pine just a bit upriver from the Brunswick-Topsham dam. Any moment now the first fish will straggle up the dam’s fishway, heralding the start of spring migration. You are curious to see who makes it up this year.

Carl Newmark, age 11

Soon, the fishway runs thick with tens of thousands of weary pelagic wanderers fixated on the single thought of returning home. Pelagic, a crisp, green word, means pertaining to the open ocean. Many species of fish that spend most of their lives roaming the salty seas, return up-river in spring to lay their eggs in the protected fresh waters in which they were born.

As you watch the masses shimmer past, heads down into the current, all you can see are sleek little river herrings: bluebacks and alewives. Ninety-two thousand, three hundred and fifty-nine of them, to be exact (yes, someone counts them all).

If you hop onto a low branch and look very hard through all of May and on into June, you might be lucky enough to spot one of the 18 salmon that made it up the fishway that spring. Atlantic salmon runs on the Androscoggin were estimated to once have been 50,000 strong. Wild salmon on the river were recently added to the Endangered Species List.

But no matter how hard you look, and how low you swoop, your chance of seeing a shad is almost nil. In 2008, one solitary male American shad made it up the fishway to the top of the dam, keeping vigil for the hundreds of thousands that used to darken the waters. As one might imagine, his mating prospects were rather dim. Perhaps if you find him, you should have him for lunch.

He would have had better luck staying at the bottom of the fishway. A small remnant population of shad do, in fact, continue to migrate back from the sea into the Androscoggin every year. But it is here, after all the perils through which they have passed, that they finally meet an obstacle they cannot overcome: the Brunswick-Topsham fishway.

For some reason, known only to the shad themselves, the fishway doesn’t appeal to them. They pool below, captured on underwater cameras, but they won’t, or can’t, make it up the ladder. Some will spawn below the dam; but to rebound in any significant numbers they require access to the vast, and far better habitat above the dam.

Exactly how many shad weave maddeningly beneath the dam in spring is hard to tell; estimates vary wildly. Imagine sitting in front of a camera watching streams of circling fish and trying to figure out which ones you’ve already counted. “That’s Fred there! Wait, no, that’s Fred, and that one must be Julia.” It’s at least several thousand fish, possibly many more.

In Maine, the harvest of American shad peaked at almost 1.5 million fish in 1912. When the state closed the commercial shad fishery in 1990, landings were down to 14,000 fish. The combination of dams and pollution have reduced suitable shad spawning habitat to a mere 5% of historic levels. Not surprisingly, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission reports that the number of shad in east coast waters is at an all time low.

It has been a very long time since fish heading upstream on the Androscoggin had only to contend with predators and the current. The Brunswick-Topsham site has been dammed since the early 1800s, with the result that virtually the entire 164 mile length of the Androscoggin River, plus all its tributaries, was cut off from migratory fish for almost 200 years.

It wasn’t until 1982, with the building of the current fishway, that there was any significant passage of fish up the river. Unfortunately, experience has shown, here and elsewhere, that the specific fishway design used at the Brunswick-Topsham dam doesn’t work for American shad. It is believed to successfully pass most other species, although little research has been conducted to support this supposition.

The Androscoggin River Alliance, along with other local groups and agencies, is talking with the dam’s owners, Florida Power and Light, about rebuilding the fishway to allow for shad passage.

Maine’s Department of Marine Resources estimates that restoration of shad runs on the Androscoggin could bring in over $2 million to the valley’s economy and create a substantial number of jobs. The latest research also indicates that restoring native fish such as shad and alewives is a necessary precursor to salmon restoration.

Hydropower can be a key part of a non-polluting and sustainable energy mix. However, to make use of it without ruining our river ecosystems, will require keen attention to new scientific findings and a willingness to invest in improvements. Neither our rivers, nor our communities, will be healthy without solutions that allow for the free movement of migratory fish back and forth between fresh and salt water.

Here, I am struck by an odd confluence of words and images. In Greek, ‘ana’ means ‘up’ and ‘kata’ means ‘down.’ From these roots come the terms ‘anadromous,’ describing fish, such as shad and salmon, that migrate upriver to spawn in fresh water, and ‘catadromous,’ describing fish, such as eels, that migrate down-river to spawn in the sea.

The words anode and cathode, referring to the opposite poles of a battery, are from the same Greek roots. And, just as the flow of current from anode to cathode in a battery generates electricity that powers our homes, the flow of fish, anadromous and catadromous, through the currents of our mightiest rivers, generates the energy that powers the planet. I vote we keep the lights on.

For more information about fixing the fishway, please contact Neil Ward of the Androscoggin River Alliance at 207-933-5268 or nward@fairpoint.net.

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It all started with my alarm clock. Then my lamp, the carpet, and the buttons on my shirt. It continued with the light switch, the coffee maker, the refrigerator door handle, the seal on the prune jar, the bread bag, and the lunch containers.

There seemed to be plastic in everything I touched. I wondered if I could make it through the rest of the day without using any more plastic items. That idea lasted thirty seconds until I picked up my glasses (must I pry off the little plastic nose-pads?) and pondered having to whittle myself a toothbrush from a stick.

Over breakfast I contemplated the materials around me: giant planes of glass in the windows, metal in the silverware, clay in the plates.

Plant products were present in spectacular diversity and abundance: wood floors, cotton fabrics, newspapers, books, baskets, and food. Animals entered in wool rugs and sweaters, bird feathers nestled into sleeping bags, leather belts and a fox-skin bag. Even silk worms had spun a tiny contribution.

Plastic was ubiquitous: unabashedly romping about in children’s toys, sneaking around in fleece jackets (which are often made from recycled soda bottles), and putting its nose to the grindstone in slabs of kitchen counter tops.

What did it all mean, this interdependent mix of natural and artificial materials? From an environmental perspective does it matter which we use?

Plastic is one of the more confusing materials with which we solidify our world. With plastic comes much of the convenience and safety of modern life. Plastics can be easily molded into complex shapes. They make great insulators for items such as electrical wires and pot handles.

Both solar and wind technology rely heavily on plastics. Plastic packaging is dramatically lighter than alternatives, thereby lowering the amount of fuel needed to transport goods (although without plastic, we probably wouldn’t be transporting as many goods over as long distances as we do today).

However, using plastic is also problematic. Some plastics that we thought were stable turned out to leach dangerous chemicals into foods. Other plastics, like vinyl, release toxins during production and upon incineration.

The major ingredient in most plastics is oil. Fully 7% of the world’s oil goes into plastic manufacturing (about half as a raw ingredient and half for transforming the oil into plastic, a process usually involving high heat). The extraction and refining of oil is a major cause of pollution, destruction of wild areas, and human conflict.

Plastic has another somewhat unique quality: it never goes away. Most of the natural materials that we discard are either relatively inert, like stone, or they are derived from plants and animals and are consequently biodegradable. In other words, they break down into (usually) harmless materials by the action of living organisms, such as microbes, bacteria, and other decomposers.

The elegant process of decomposition is what makes the planet’s ecological systems tick. Things grow, they die, they decompose, new things grow out of the decomposed things.

When you discard a natural product it will eventually break down into something that is not only benign, but is essential food stock for new life. Of course you can put the wrong natural product in the wrong place and cause a great deal of harm (think oil contamination in drinking water); but by and large the earth’s systems are designed to easily reuse the materials they produce.

Although plastic is made from the same building blocks as natural materials (e.g., carbon, hydrogen, chlorine, etc), in plastic these components are joined in large, complex molecules that stump the planet’s current army of decomposers.

In other words, plastic doesn’t decompose. With a few exceptions all the plastic ever produced is out there somewhere. But where?

A big chunk of it is swirling around in a fantastically large lazy spiraling oceanic current known as the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre or more recently, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It spans an area nearly the size of the African continent, and it’s filled with about 3 million tons of floating junk, 90% of which is plastic.

Most of this plastic originates on land: it blows off trucks, it’s flushed down toilets, it floats down rivers, and it causes problems. Sea birds, dolphins and other creatures are strangled by the plastic rings around soda six packs, tangled in fishing lines, and choked on small objects.

Escaped plastic bags are particularly troubling. They look like jellyfish; sea turtles gag on them. They clog sewer systems and rivers, especially in countries with inadequate trash collection. Indeed, many countries and cities, Mumbai, India, for example, have banned the sale of plastic bags. (Riots have not ensued; it can be done.)

Although plastic doesn’t decompose, it does wear down into smaller and smaller pieces. Chemically, they are identical to the parent plastic, just smaller. Decomposition, in contrast, chemically changes materials into simpler molecules, such as water and carbon dioxide, that can then be used by other life forms.

Untold quantities of fine plastic particles are accumulating in the world’s waterways. Studies in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch found six times more plastic particles by weight than plankton, the small creature which forms the basis of the oceanic food chain.

These tiny bits of plastic seem to attract and hold on to a variety of nasty toxins, such as coolant fluids, automobile grease, and PCBs, that are present at extremely low levels in sea water.

Animals that ingest these plastic particles, that is, nearly every living organism in the sea, are therefore potentially ingesting high doses of concentrated toxins. In one study puffins were found to have toxin levels over one million times the amount normally occurring in sea water.

Tens of thousands of years hence, decomposers may evolve with the capability of biodegrading plastics; meanwhile we’re stuck with whatever we produce. In the intervening long millennia while we wait, twiddling our thumbs, for evolution to catch up, we’ll have plenty of time to remember our cloth bags when we go to the supermarket.

Perhaps during this time, too, our ability to predict the consequences of our inventions will catch up with our ingenuity in creating new materials.

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