What fools we are for spoiling our
coasts, our oceans
Cape Cod Times
May 8, 1999
I was recently perched in a window seat of a big jumbo jet flying along America's eastern coastline.
It was depressing. Very depressing.
From the Maryland portion of Chesapeake Bay all the way to the Everglades, I and the rest got an unnerving view of what's happened to the waterfront. It was a quick lesson in land use, a lesson I almost wish I hadn't seen.
I saw factories spewing all kinds of stuff from smokestacks. They were located, again and again, right on a river or estuary just a bluefish cast from the ocean.
I saw lots of parking lots located right on the waterfront. Not that you have to go particularly far to see that kind of ecological nonsense, for from my battered Cape Cod Times chair in the Provincetown bureau sits a splendid view of the MacMillan Wharf parking lot, the town's biggest and baddest. It features rows of cars parked less than 20 feet from Provincetown Harbor. When it rains, you can watch oil, antifreeze, cigarette butts (does anyone understand why people, especially tourists, dump ashtrays in parking lots?) pouring into the harbor.
Cars and factories, roads and houses. The whole east coast is a cesspool of overbuilding and stupid building. We've allowed an environmental wrecking ball of colossal proportions to wiggle its way for thousands and thousands of miles along the coast.
You just know it will never be undone, which makes the heart simply shudder. As much as Massachusetts loves to impose rules and regulations on its citizenry, nobody foresees the town of Provincetown being forced to relocate that parking lot - not now, not ever. Same for all the other pollution factories that lace nearly every estuary and tidal river along the eastern seaboard.
What do these sky-high observations have to do with a commercial fishing column?
Because late at night, when the souls of all the fish you've killed come back to haunt you, and you're wondering about the state of the fisheries and questioning why The Guys in Charge only have one target in their sights - fishing pressure - and you wonder what is really causing stocks of every stupid fish that lives on this earth to plummet ... You just about have to know it's the whole ecosystem gone crazy.
As Pogo said long ago: We've met the enemy, and it's us.
We have overpopulated our nest, and it shows. Funny thing, nobody seems to talk up Zero Population Growth any more.
During the Valdez oil spill, Woods Hole's John Pearce said something I'll never forget: The amount of oil that drips into the ocean minute by minute, day by day, is a zillion times greater than could ever be caused by one splashy, media-sparkly oil spill. That's the much bigger worry, and we seem to do nothing about it.
We know Cape Cod has certain estuaries and small bays that have turned eutrophic or nearly so, from too much nitrate-loading (read: septic systems and lawn fertilizers) flowing into these badly flushed systems. Long Island Sound, which is bigger than a breadbox, is nutrient-loaded, for gosh sake.
On the West Coast, urban residents are getting a first taste of regulation. The feds have listed many of the numerous salmon stocks out there (each one supremely linked to its particular river system). Consequently, the residents of Washington state and Oregon are, for the first time ever, going to pay cash money and be forced to tweak their lifestyles to meet structures of the Endangered Species Act.
Fishermen there, of course, have been restricted for ages. But everyone has known that habitat problems were the curse for these wondrous silvery flashes that swim upstream like our bass. Particularly around Portland and Seattle, residents will change how they water lawns, wash cars and be restricted in their pesticide and fertilizer use. New waterfront-watershed developments are now curbed.
Seattle has runaway urban sprawl in a big way, just like Florida and, yes, Cape Cod. Their mayor says, "In working to protect the salmon, it may turn out that the salmon saves us." Smart fella.
Our flounder and other nearshore fish haven't yet triggered the ESA, but after that airplane ride, you almost wish they would.
We seem to be a species with no brains, no brains at all.