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.
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.