Sept. 24, 1973
Sept. 24, 1973

Table of Contents
Sept. 24, 1973

19th Hole: The Readers Take Over


Our coastal fisheries are in real danger from new power plants, voracious foreign fishing fleets and schemes that threaten the estuaries

Within the next five years a number of the most important fish species on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the United States may be gone for all practical purposes, virtually extinct. Pffft. Just a memory to most, and no more than that, save for a mounted fish on the wall or a rusted tuna can beside the road.

This is an article from the Sept. 24, 1973 issue Original Layout

It seems impossible that such disasters could occur at a time when politicians and the public are supposedly on guard against environmental damage. But it is true. Off the New England coast the sea herring, an extremely valuable food fish, is just about gone. The population has been reduced to only 10% of normal. The haddock is down to less than 3% of its normal numbers, and may never recover. In California, the striped-bass population has been cut to less than half in the last 10 years. And these cases are quite apart from the steady, deadly attrition caused by pollution and pesticide poisoning. The kill here has been direct—in the estuaries and on the sea. Basically, there are three assaulting forces:

1) U.S. power companies, which in the name of alleviating the energy crisis are creating a resource crisis by constructing, in the tidal estuaries along the coast, enormous plants that suck up and kill billions of fish, eggs and larvae.

2) Huge foreign offshore fishing fleets. The size of these flotillas can boggle the eye. On a winter evening last year Captain Howard Bogan of the party boat Jamaica was heading out to sea from Brielle, N.J. when he saw what he first thought was the Manhattan skyline all lit up but strangely out of place. The lights turned out to be from a fleet of 32 Soviet ships sitting on top of the Mud Hole, a famous fishing ground.

3) Giant water diversion schemes, such as the California Water Plan, that either slaughter fish outright by pulling them into irrigation channels or by pumping them to inland waters where they cannot reproduce.

At present, the immensity of the damage is apparent to only a handful of Americans, mainly fishermen and conservationists, such as Newton H. Ancarrow, a retired businessman in Richmond, Va., who has been trying to save the heavily polluted James River, an important tributary of Chesapeake Bay. One evening last February Ancarrow was sitting at home writing letters to members of the state legislature when he learned of a new threat. A conservationist friend phoned from New York to tell Ancarrow that he had heard a report that the Surry nuclear plant, which had recently begun operation on Hog Island in the James estuary 50 miles downriver from Richmond, had killed 156,000 fish, mainly blueback herring, on Dec. 4 and 5. Ancarrow checked out the tip and found that it was true. Worse, an investigation by biologists of the Atomic Energy Commission, which licensed the Virginia Electric Power Company plant, estimated that the Surry facility had killed as many as six million blueback herring alone in only three months of operation.

What the toll will be over the years can only be guessed at, but the Surry plant is supposed to start operating a second unit with a damaging cooling system soon. And Surry sits in an area essential to 19 species offish.

Biologically, Chesapeake Bay is possibly the single most valuable estuary in the world. The James, which feeds the Chesapeake, and the other East Coast tidal rivers and estuaries do not exist unto themselves. They are all part of a greater interwoven biological whole, one that helps make the East Coast and its continental shelf one of the richest fishing grounds on earth. By comparison, the open sea is a desert. Most of the important sports and food fish found on the Atlantic Coast depend upon tidal estuaries and rivers at some time during their life cycle. Striped bass, shad, river herring, sea sturgeon, white perch and smelt spend their adult lives in salt water, but they must spawn in rivers and the young live in rivers for a while. Menhaden, red and black drum, croaker, spot, bluefish, fluke and weakfish, which spawn in the ocean, at some stage in their lives move into the estuaries, which serve as nursery or feeding grounds.

The Surry plant is hardly the only threat to the Chesapeake or the rich East Coast ecosystem. It is merely one of 144 principal power plants operating or proposed on the estuaries and coastlines of the U.S. The outlook can only be described as grim, as John R. Clark, a senior associate at the Conservation Foundation in Washington, and his colleague William Brownell, a New Hampshire biologist, make evident in a forthcoming study that draws much of its data not from emotional environmentalists but from material buried in scattered reports by the Atomic Energy Commission, the Federal Power Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency and power industry sources.

Basically, the two scientists devote themselves to the problems posed by the once-through water-cooling systems used in power plants, be they nuclear or fossil-fueled (coal, oil, gas). Power plants need enormous amounts of cooling water. A typical million-kilowatt nuclear plant using once-through cooling requires about 850,000 gallons of water a minute, or 1.2 billion gallons in the course of a single operating day. As the water is drawn through the plant it absorbs the heat of the superheated steam after it has driven the turbines that spin the generators. Along the way the cooling water becomes anywhere from 10° to 34° hotter. It is then shot back into the body of water from which it was drawn, but now the temperature levels are dangerous to marine life. Serious problems result.

First of all, fish and other organisms are killed by "entrainment" when they are drawn involuntarily into the cooling system. Especially vulnerable are the free-floating eggs of a number offish species, larval fish, fish smaller than 2½ inches and plankton, the microscopic plant and animal life on which many fish graze. Death by entrainment comes from the high velocity of the water flow, which smashes the fish into various parts of the system, and the sudden temperature rise of the cooling water, which causes thermal shock. Recent tests at the Pittsburg, Calif. oil-and gas-fired power plant on the Sacramento River estuary showed high inner-plant mortality of larval striped bass when the cooling water temperature was above 85° or 86°. Organisms that are not killed outright, say some authorities, may suffer delayed mortality—loss of equilibrium, coma, then death. Barton C. Marcy Jr., a biologist studying the Haddam Neck nuclear plant on the Connecticut River, discovered that no larval or juvenile fish of any species survived entrainment above 82°. He also reported that 80% of the dead specimens were mangled by the machinery. In 1969 and 1970 the Haddam Neck plant killed a total of 358 million larval fish.

Valuable species of shellfish are very vulnerable to entrainment at certain stages of their life cycle. Clark and Brownell predict that the Seabrook nuclear power plant, proposed for construction next to the Hampton-Seabrook marshes of New Hampshire, could do "massive damage" to clam populations even though the plant would draw its cooling waters not from the estuary but from the bottom of the ocean outside. "The ocean water in this area," they write, "has proved to be strongly estuarine because the estuary flushes out 85% of its high-tide volume on each ebb tide. Clam larvae, which transit to the ocean and back with each change of tide, are exposed in high concentration to entrainment by the offshore intake because they are non-buoyant and tend to sink toward the bottom once they are through the inlet and out in the ocean. All larvae entrained would be killed in passage through the plant." By one estimate the clams will be reduced by more than a third.

According to Clark and Brownell, "Inner-plant kill appears to be a most serious (if not the single most serious) impact of estuarine-sited power plants with once-through cooling." However, scientists have been slow to recognize this problem because the organisms are small and can float away with the current, unseen and unappreciated. The worst documented case on record is in an Environmental Protection Agency study of the oil-fired Brayton Point power plant on Mount Hope Bay, Mass. in 1971. The EPA scientists reported that "all larval menhaden are killed on passage through the Brayton Point Plant." The highest calculated kill there for a single day was 164.5 million menhaden on July 2, 1971. The cause of death appeared to be "hydrostatic, mechanical shearing forces." Dr. C. M. Tarzwell of EPA noted bluntly, "When you are in an estuary where there is a concentration of plank-tonic and larval forms, the more water you put through the plant the more harm you are going to do."

To keep debris from entering the plant innards with the cooling water, power plants have trashracks and intake screens. Juvenile fish of certain species from 2½ to five or six inches long are too large to go through the screens to become entrained, but they are also too small to swim against the flow and escape being caught and held against the screens. "It appears that most estuarine fish impinged on power-plant screens are killed outright or suffer mortal damage resulting in delayed death by exhaustion, suffocation or external and internal mechanical impact," Clark and Brownell write. The six million fish estimated killed at the Surry plant were screen-killed. The same applies to the menhaden, anchovies and croakers done in at the P. H. Robinson gas-fired power plant on Galveston Bay, Texas in 1969-70. The small Indian Point One nuclear plant on the Hudson River averaged a yearly kill of one million to 1.5 million fish from 1965 through 1972. The AEC predicts that when Indian Point Two goes into full operation shortly, it and the smaller plant will kill five million fish a year.

The hot water that flows from a power plant can kill fish outright or affect their behavior in several ways. The most common cause of death is thermal shock, although Clark and Brownell are somewhat dubious about high temperature shock kills, surmising that other factors are involved. The heated plume, however, may put what amounts to a thermal dam in a river that can prevent fish from migrating or getting to upstream spawning grounds. "A discharge plume would not have to block a whole passageway to interfere with fish migration," Clark and Brownell write. "For example, salmon and steelhead prefer to migrate in shoal water near the edge of a riverway apparently, rather than in the deeper channel. Consequently, they would be subject to blockage by a plume that occupies only the upper part of the water and does not extend all the way to the bottom."

Interestingly, cold shock kills, caused by plant shutdowns, have also been registered. The Smithsonian Institution reported on a huge kill offish, mostly menhaden, that died in January of 1972 following the shutdown of the Oyster Creek nuclear plant at Barnegat Bay. "Menhaden normally migrate to warm waters off North Carolina during the winter," the Smithsonian reported. "However, the heated waters discharged from the cooling system of the Oyster Creek plant appear to have created 'favorable temperatures and the fish—unaware of the changing season—did not migrate. When the plant shut down on Jan. 27, water temperatures in the creek returned to their normal winter low, and the menhaden died of thermal shock." Other enormous kills from similar causes have occurred since in New York and Florida.

Fish kills from supersaturation of nitrogen—the bends—in the discharged water also occur. "Although embolism kill from power-plant discharge had been reported for fresh water," Clark and Brownell write, "the first documented example of a probable nitrogen kill in an estuarine location occurred in and around the discharge canal of the Pilgrim power station on Cape Cod Bay in early April 1973. The Smithsonian Institution reported on the incident as follows: "Thousands of adult Atlantic menhaden (10" to 14" long) are dying near the warm water discharge of Boston Edison's nuclear power plant. The kill was reported by Edison officials late Monday afternoon (April 9, 1973). There are preliminary indications that the menhaden are dying from a gas bubble condition which is caused by supersaturation of nitrogen in the water naturally. However, the water taken by the plant at a low temperature is increased roughly 26-27° F. so that when it comes out of the plant it is supersaturated. The fish are hemorrhaging in the fins. They have numerous gas bubbles on their fins and in the membranes between the fin rays.' " Clark and Brownell add that it is likely that numerous nitrogen kills have occurred at other plants but were unrecognized or unreported: "The unsolved kill of many thousands of menhaden at the Millstone Point Plant [on Niantic Bay, Conn.] in the spring of 1972 was quite probably a nitrogen embolism kill."

After summing up the considerable dangers posed by poor power plant siting and design, Clark and Brownell make some specific recommendations on how to alleviate the problems the plants cause. Their recommendations are not likely to please various power companies that, despite the toll of dead and dying fish vomiting from their plants, like to plead for "more time for research programs." Briefly put, Clark and Brownell say that existing plants must be equipped with "closed" cooling systems, in which the cooling water is constantly recirculated and is itself cooled down by evaporation in huge towers. Further, they state flatly that no new power plants should be built on critical spawning and nursery grounds of tidal estuaries. These areas are too valuable to suffer any more damage, even with the use of closed-cycle systems, which still require a small daily "make up" refill of water drawn from the estuary. Some power companies have adopted closed-cycle cooling, for example, the two new Potomac Electric units of the Chalk Point station on the Patuxent River, but in far too many cases the utilities have balked, even though the potential for extensive damage is evident. As a case in point, Clark cites the Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant that Baltimore Gas and Electric is currently building directly on Chesapeake Bay. Clark says, "I predict this single plant may be the greatest environmental disaster to fish ever to go into operation. It will kill many millions of fish. It is a perfectly designed fish trap. Watch. I predict. Quote me."

Just over our offshore horizon lies another menace to our coastal fisheries—an enormous foreign fleet that is sucking up everything that swims. In July the National Marine Fisheries Service reported sighting 210 foreign fishing vessels and support ships off the mid-Atlantic and New England coasts—some of them right at the edge of the 12-mile fishing limit. From the air it looked like a D-day armada. There were 178 Soviet ships, 10 East German, seven Polish, seven Japanese, four West German, two Spanish and two Bulgarian. The Soviets had 111 of their ships working in a string from the tip of Cape Cod northeastward to Georges Bank. Most of them were factory stern trawlers.

Soviet vessels first appeared off the East Coast in 1961 to begin so-called "exploratory fishing" for sea herring on Georges Bank east of Cape Cod, a traditional U.S. fishing ground. They kept coming back with huge trawlers and factory ships, far in advance of any privately built U.S. fishing vessels, and in the late 1960s they were joined by vessels from Poland, West Germany, East Germany, Rumania, Bulgaria, Japan and Spain. The foreign fleets indulge in "pulse" fishing, which means directing fishing intensity upon a particular species or stock until it is exhausted. Special scout ships equipped with electronic sensors plot the movements or migrations of fish, and catch vessels move in for the kill. And kill it is. Foreign catches of cod, sea bass and porgies have depressed both U.S. sports and commercial catches. And in just a few years of intense fishing the once enormous stocks of sea herring have been diminished by 90%, and haddock have been reduced to such low numbers the species may become almost nonexistent in East Coast waters. Most of the haddock the Soviet fleet caught in the mid-1960s were immature fish that would have sustained the regular U.S. fishery into the 1970s.

"The probable demise of a species is of little concern to the Russian fleet," says Al Ristori, chairman of the Emergency Committee to Save America's Marine Resources. "The all-important factor is the amount of protein that can be extracted to compensate for failures in their agricultural programs." Apart from the considerable losses to U.S. sports and commercial fishermen, the fact is, as Congressman Robert H. Steele, a Connecticut Republican, points out, "No one knows how the ecology of the entire North Atlantic may be upset by continued destruction of the stocks."

In the past several years there have been resolutions by the New England Governors' Conference, the Massachusetts legislature, the American Fisheries Society and by Ristori's committee, all aimed at extending U.S. jurisdiction to 200 miles or more offshore, and a bill to that end has been introduced in the U.S. Senate, but its chances of passage are slight. Ristori's committee, a combination of commercial and sports fishermen and conservationists, has talked to members of Congress, distributed bumper stickers, leaflets, posters and buttons, issued press releases and articles and presented its case in Congress and before the Republican Platform Committee. Opposition has come from the State Department and from the U.S. tuna industry, which is largely based in San Diego but fishes off Latin America. The Sport Fishing Institute in Washington, D.C. recently called the U.S. tuna industry "disproportionately influential" on Administration policy and noted, "It appears to us that the collective domestic fisheries are being used as sacrificial goats in a deadly game of power politics."

(In the July issue of National Fisherman, Editor David R. Getchell wrote that he experienced "the dual emotions of humor and befuddlement" when the National Fisheries Institute picked President Nixon as its Man of the Year. Calling the choice "a laugher," Getchell pointed out that the Administration "has refused to protect the fast-disappearing deep-sea lobster stock by giving it 'shelf status,' has put off forceful action to protect our offshore banks...and has announced the shutting-down of several fisheries laboratories and the mothballing of more than half a dozen fisheries research vessels.")

Next year the United Nations will hold a world law of the sea conference, and the State Department has come up with a complicated proposal under which coastal nations would have the "preferential rights" to all coastal marine resources, but migratory oceanic species, such as tuna and billfish, would be under an international authority. Even if other nations were to support the State Department proposal—and many are opposed—it would be unlikely to take effect until 1985 at the earliest, and even then enforcement would be difficult, if not impossible. After the U.S. called for foreign fleets to use quotas to give American and Canadian fishermen a chance at their traditional fishing grounds, the Russians replied they would base any quotas on years in which they had enormous catches, and the Poles and the Rumanians joined the Russians in declaring that they could not accept inspection of catches and fishing gear below deck.

The offshore fishing problem is not confined to the Atlantic. In 1970 Soviet and Japanese fleets caught almost five billion pounds of fish and shellfish from the continental shelf of Alaska. The Russians have been fishing in Oregon and Washington waters since 1966, mainly for ocean perch and arrow-toothed flounder, and the result has been a swift drop in the U.S. catch of both species. For example, in 1966 U.S. fishermen took 21 million pounds of ocean perch; in 1971 they scraped up only 10 million pounds.

On the Pacific Coast the most valuable estuary by far is the San Francisco Bay complex, fed by the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers that drain the Central Valley of California. The system supports great numbers of salmon, steelhead, striped bass, shad, sturgeon and other fish, and its heart is the Delta, a 1,100-square-mile area of sloughs, channels, marshes and farms at the confluence of the two rivers. The threat to this ecosystem, unique in California, is not from the outside but from within through diversion of essential freshwater flows to the Delta by canals that are a part of a vast irrigation scheme to supply Southern California with water. The scheme is known as the California Water Flan, and it is officially described by the state as "a massive redistribution system designed to help correct an imbalance of water resources."

Larry Green of San Bruno, Calif., a well-known outdoors writer, angler and conservationist, has helped lead the attack on the California project, calling it "the biggest boondoggle that has ever hit California, the land of boondoggles." The project was bolstered in 1960 when state voters approved a $1.75 billion bond issue. Says Green, "The plan was sold to the voters without most people knowing what it was all about. It's not for some poor, starving Okie farmers crying, 'Give us water for our parched crops.' It chiefly will benefit a few large landholders with unwatered desert acreage in Southern California. For the monetary gain of a few, we are willing to jeopardize the Delta, a whole ecosystem with all kinds of life forms—plants, plankton, animals, fish, birds—on which it is impossible to put a price."

The California project is years away from completion, but damage already is apparent. One diversion project started by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in 1952, a forerunner of the state plan, now may be pumping as much as 30% to 50% of all striped-bass eggs inland to the Delta-Mendota Canal where they float in limbo. Pumping also endangers larvae and fry. At present even some adult striped bass, to quote from a state report, "find their way to the trashracks across the canal intakes and fight the current until they die of exhaustion. As the flows toward the pumps are increased we are concerned that this loss may become serious."

The Bureau of Reclamation does attempt to save some of the young fish that are pumped inland. They load them into hatchery trucks at Tracy at the head of the canal and drive them to Antioch, where they are dumped into the estuary. The number of fish trucked, which depends on the amount of water drawn into the canal, ranges from a high of 41 million in 1966 to a low of 5.5 million in 1967, a wet year. "You lose very few fish that are trucked," says a biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game. "But there are days when the operation is sloppy, and the sea gulls start feeding."

In 1967 California started operation of its own Delta Pumping Plant and began drawing water southward through the California Aqueduct. Both the California Aqueduct and Delta-Mendota Canal feed water into the newly built San Luis Reservoir in the San Joaquin Valley. There has been one unexpected result. Striped bass that normally would have been oceanbound were swept inland to the reservoir in such numbers that in 1971 three-quarters as many stripers were caught there as in all the rest of the state—including the Pacific Ocean. But overall, the diversion of water from the Delta has caused a slump in the numbers of adult fish. The striped bass population has dropped from three million adult fish in the early '60s to 1.4 million in 1972, and king salmon entering the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers to spawn have declined from 450,000 in the early '50s to 225,000 two decades later.

Still another effect of water diversions has been to allow salt water to move inland toward the Delta for long periods of time during dry years, threatening farmlands that use Delta water for their crops. To facilitate exporting water to Southern California, state and federal agencies propose to construct a canal that would skirt the Delta, carrying with it much of the flow of the Sacramento River. This project has its Rube Goldberg aspects. As it skirts past the Delta, water would be released from it to keep back the saltwater intrusion. Green calls the canal the final part of a not-so-grand design that could severely damage the West's most valuable estuary.

In face of all these threats—from massive water-diversion schemes, from ravenous foreign fishing fleets and from uncontrolled power-plant proliferation—many fishermen and conservationists are, understandably, pessimistic. Yet as Angus Macbeth, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council who has been involved in major fishery cases, puts it, "We are lucky in that we know enough so that we can do something about the situation. We can see the causes of the trouble and take action. We've found out just in time, and this gives us a lever. We have to have real protection of our estuaries and the high seas or we will suffer major declines in our best fisheries. It's a David and Goliath situation, frankly. We have three stones in the sling: litigation, legislation and responsible action by administrative agencies. All three stones had better hit the mark."