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The Deep Sea Blues

Corporate greed is wiping out ocean fisheries, with far-reaching consequences.

by Debbie Gilbert

he Greenpeace bus rolled through town Wednesday, August 5th, to publicize an issue that few Memphians spend any time thinking about: overfishing in the world’s oceans. Greenpeace is targeting landlocked cities such as Memphis because coastal communities, which derive part of their economy from the sea, are already aware of the crisis.

Why should you care? Because if you’ve ever bought or eaten seafood, you’re contributing to the problem. But the answer is not for everyone to just stop eating fish.

Factory trawlers like this one are removing fish faster than the ocean can replenish the supply.
“Greenpeace is not opposed to fishing,” says Paul Clarke, a spokesman for the Greenpeace oceans campaign. “We are saying fisheries can be sustainably operated.”

Clarke was one of the activists disseminating information in downtown’s Court Square last Wednesday while the local band Yow performed in the gazebo. Emblazoned on the side of the Greenpeace bus was a take-off on the Godzilla movie slogan “Size Does Matter.”

The point Greenpeace is trying to make is that independently owned fisheries are being overtaken by giant corporations, in the same manner that small family farms were swallowed up by agribusiness conglomerates in the 1980s. In fact, in some cases the same companies are responsible. Tyson Foods, the nation’s largest chicken producer and one of the wealthiest corporations in Arkansas, has entered the seafood business in a big way. Tyson bought out a company called Arctic Alaska in 1992 and now operates 28 huge trawlers out of Tacoma, Washington. These trawlers scour the Bering Sea for Pacific whiting and pollock to be made into imitation crabmeat.

It’s the use of factory trawlers, which can catch up to half a million pounds of fish in one tow of the net, that Greenpeace finds most disturbing. While small fishing boats take only a limited number at a time, allowing local fisheries a chance to recover, factory trawlers employ a “hit-and-run” tactic, wiping out an area’s fish stock before moving on to somewhere else. Years ago, frozen fish sticks and filets were usually made from cod; now, with most of the cod gone, seafood producers have turned to pollock, once considered a “trash” fish.

Today, pollock also is being overfished, especially in the North Pacific. In Alaska, populations of Steller sea lions – whose diet consists mainly of pollock – have dropped drastically as factory trawlers swallow up their primary food source. In March 1997, Greenpeace sued the National Marine Fisheries Service (part of the Commerce Department) for failure to protect the Steller sea lion under the Endangered Species Act. That lawsuit is still unresolved.

In the meantime, the ocean’s biological resources are being wasted. In 1994, for example, North Pacific factory trawlers dumped overboard 581 million pounds of dead and dying fish because they were the wrong size or species. This indiscriminate killing has an effect on all the ocean life that remains, disrupting the food chain so that the entire marine ecosystem is threatened with collapse.

“This is a finite resource,” says Clarke. “This is readily acknowledged by both government and industry. We’re running out of fish to catch.”

It would seem to be in the industry’s best interest to keep the resource sustainable, but apparently no one’s thinking about the long term.

Is there anything Memphians can do? Yes, advises Clarke: Purchase fresh seafood whenever possible. Highly processed products are likely to contain fish caught by factory trawlers.

“Family fishermen are the best stewards of that resource,” says Clarke, “just as family farmers are the best stewards of the land.”

Fighting for the Farms

When a new initiative to oppose the Shelby Farms highway plan was announced July 30th, just about everybody rejoiced. The 11-member coalition, Support Shelby Farms Inc., combines the financial and political clout of some of Memphis’ best-known citizens, including FedEx founder Fred Smith, AutoZone founder J.R. “Pitt” Hyde III, and former First Tennessee Bank chairman Ron Terry. But there has been some confusion over the nature of the group and its purpose.

A support organization called Friends of Shelby Farms, which any member of the public may join, has existed for years. A committee within that group, People Against The Highway (PATH), was formed specifically to protest the road plan, and was instrumental in staging a well-attended rally at White Station High School March 31st, at which Terry was a keynote speaker.

In a May 17th guest editorial in The Commercial Appeal, Terry outlined an alternate route – an extension of Humphreys Boulevard up to Sycamore View – that he felt was superior to the Tennessee Department of Transportation plan, which makes a big Y-shape in the middle of the park. Although Support Shelby Farms insists it is not advocating any specific route, some conservationists are worried about Terry’s scenario, which would put the road through a 400-acre section of the Lucius Burch State Natural Area on the north side of Walnut Grove. To do this, the state legislature would have to remove the natural-area designation.

“Sure, you can put a road through a natural area – that law has very little teeth to it,” says Larry Smith, executive director of the Wolf River Conservancy. “But they’d be hard-pressed to do it with federal money. If you tell the feds you want to go from a lesser-impact plan to a greater impact, they’ll look at you like you’re nuts.”

“That’s pretty much a no-no,” says Shelby Farms supervisor Tim Martin about road-building in the natural area. “At that point it will be the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation versus the Department of Transportation, and I don’t know what will happen then.”

Those who favor the Humphreys Boulevard extension describe it as “skirting the western edge” of the park. “If more people would see what the natural area looks like in the north part near the prison, I don’t think they’d be too upset,” says Friends of Shelby Farms vice president Lois Kuiken. “There’s a TVA easement and a big railroad bridge. When most people hear about the alternative of putting the road along the power lines, they say, ‘Oh, that’s a good idea. Nobody goes there anyway.’”

Charles Askew, a WRC board member, disagrees. “I consider that north part to be the most enjoyable portion of the natural area,” he says. “There’s some old river corridors for wildlife habitat. That’s where I take groups of birdwatchers.”

City councilman John Vergos, one of the 11 Support Shelby Farms members, thinks the natural-area route is the lesser of two evils. “We think [Terry’s idea] is worth looking at,” he says. “It maintains the integrity of the property – just clips across a corner of the park, and would be virtually invisible.”

The new group has been trying to persuade Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout to formally withdraw the original highway plan and request an environmental impact statement that looks at alternatives.

CLARIFICATION: In the Flyer’s August 6th Environment column, TDEC spokesperson Lola Potter did not intend to imply that a critical EPA report was withheld from the public. “All government documents are public,” she says.

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