For more than 2 months, as well as in prior years, the state has been offering up a number of excuses as to the cause of Neuse River fish kills. The latest excuse, "overcrowding", is new to the list (see list below for other excuses). Prior to the Neuse being polluted with nutrients, Menhaden have been making their annual migration from the river to the ocean for over 2 million years without dying in massive numbers.
The plain and simple truth is that fish die in massive numbers in the Neuse because of nutrient pollution. For more that 15 years, the Neuse has been recognized by both the state and federal governments as "nutrient sensitive". The lower Neuse at New Bern is known to be impaired by nutrient pollution. Because of excessive nutrients, fish suffocate or die from attacks of toxic dinoflagellates. The massive fish kills and excessive alga growth have been clearly documented in numerous scientific studies to be related to this pollution.
When fish die on the Neuse and other North Carolina rivers, public affairs officials of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) immediately attribute the cause to "natural events." They disregard the overwhelming scientific evidence produced by some of the country's most renown scientists that nutrient pollution is at the root of the problem. Here are some of the excuses offered by state officials and their supporters:
Fish died because of a wind shift Fish died because of too much rain Fish died because of no rain Fish died because of high water Fish died because of low water Fish died because of calm waters (no wind) Fish died because of rough waters (too much wind) Fish died because they got hit by boat propellers Fish died from salt wedge intrusion Fish died because of upwelling Fish died after being hit by lightning Fish died from wounds inflicted by predator fish Fish died from no oxygen on the bottom Fish died because of no oxygen on top Fish died because they are too stupid to avoid areas of low oxygen Fish died by committing suicide when they schooled together in large numbers Fish died because the commercial fishery shut down and now there are too many fish in the river Fish died from sores caused by rough water raking their bodies over shells on the river bottom
Paradise Lost--The History While small fish kills, mostly in the river's backwaters, are relatively normal, there is no record of massive fish kills on the main stem of the Neuse River until the late 1980s. In the late 80s and early 90's, due to increasing nutrient pollution from all existing sources, plus two new sources that came on line in the late 80s (swine and poultry industry), the history changed dramatically.
In 1991, the Neuse River suffered one the largest fish kills of any river in America. In a matter of days during September 1991, over one billion fish perished. The fishermen looked at what was happening in disbelief. Millions upon millions of fish covered in open, bleeding sores covered the river. Some had holes completely through their bodies. No one had a clue as to the cause. Oxygen levels were normal and nothing previously known could explain what was happening. Before it was over, the river and its beaches would be covered with dead and dying fish of all types, but the Menhaden were hit the hardest. The stench from these rotting fish filled the hot summer air with a putrid smell so foul that only the bravest ventured outside. On the north shore of the river a bulldozer worked late into the night burying as many of the now bony creatures as possible.
State officials came down to look at the state of the river. They stood there in silence shaking their heads. They did not have a clue what was going on. And it was not just the fish. People had sores on their bodies, the same as the fish. There were reports of people suffering memory loss as well. It was really bad.
Then a University of North Carolina scientist, Dr. JoAnn Burkholder, figured out that nutrient pollution was causing the wide spread death of fish. In addition to low oxygen kills related to nutrient pollution, she also identified a one-cell animal, a creature so tiny you can put 100,000 of them on the head of a pin. This creature was producing a neurotoxin in the water that was also getting into the air. In the water the toxin paralyzes fish so that the creature can get to blood cells and suck out the contents. Pfiesteria is, simply, a microscopic killer vampire. When the news hit, people got frightened.
The state shut down the river. The fish market crashed. The news of Pfiesteria and what it does to people, the memory loss and respiratory problems, spread. The tourism industry stalled and real estate values dropped. Properties along the river could not even be sold. The pain and suffering that reverberated through the community was unbelievable.
Listening to the River Another thing happened that is critical to this story. There was a public meeting scheduled for July 1995 to address water quality problems in the Neuse River, not related to fish kills but to algae. There was so much vegetation growing in the river in the summer of 1995 that people could not get up some of the major tributaries to the Neuse in their boats. It would clog their propellers and their engines would burn out. They complained so much that the Mayor of New Bern and state officials set up a public meeting to discuss the problem. But they had to postpone the meeting because Hurricane Felix came through. They rescheduled the meeting for September 4, 1995. On the very day of that rescheduled meeting the nightmare of 1991 was repeated.
In 1995, fish kills on the Neuse had been building in intensity since early August. Once again, on September 4, 1995, fishermen watched as dead and dying fish covered the shores of the Neuse, 200 million dead was one estimate. In 1991 every Menhaden in the river had died, and a total of a billion fish were killed. This 1995 fish kill would not be as big, but only because the fishery had not yet recovered from the 1991 kill.
On the evening of September 4, 1995, the Town Hall meeting room in New Bern was filled with between 600 and a 800 people. At no time in the history of North Carolina had that many people attended this type of meeting. When Jonathan Howes, Secretary for Health and Environment, and his staff walked in, you could see the concern on their faces. People were unruly, they were angry and this time it was not just the fishermen. It was the business owners, tourism officials, local elected officials and others from nearly every walk of life. They wanted answers.
Secretary Howes and his staff were on the stage along with a few other scientists. Most of them did not have a clue as to what was happening in the river. The only one who provided any real answers was Dr. Burkholder, who again confirmed that the fish kill was caused by Pfiesteria. After the presentations the panel entertained questions from the audience. The line of people was very long. Everyone had questions and no one wanted to leave before they got some answers. It was getting late and there was no way all the questions were going to be answered. People began to raise their fists; they began to shout, and the language was not always civil. It was all that Mayor Tom Bayliss of New Bern could do to maintain order in the auditorium. I do not think anybody but Mayor Bayliss could have pulled that off.
Secretary Howes and his staff just made excuses. They denied any connection between what was going on with the river and health problems. Fortunately for us, Secretary Howes had agreed to go for a boat ride the next day.
The events of the next day are clearly recorded. On the way down to the dock Secretary Howes leaned over and asked, "what's that smell?" The answer, "You're gonna see for yourself." It was rainy and misty; you could hardly see. The skipper navigated the Riverkeeper boat to the middle of the river by compass and depth finder. The secretary stepped over to the rail and looked down at the water. The fish were all around the boat doing death spirals, spinning out of control in the water as the neurotoxin took effect. Chunks of their bodies were missing, a hopelessly sad scene. No one said a word. It was the river's turn to speak. Secretary Howes sat silently for about ten minutes, then said, "Take me to shore, I've seen enough." When we got back he went directly into the Neuse River Foundation office and called the governor. He said he told the governor that the Neuse River was broken and needed to be fixed.
The Governor Stepped in--sort of Because of health concerns, the governor shut down a major section of the river. The fish markets crashed. The news of Pfiesteria and what it does to people, the memory loss and respiratory problems, spread like a potent virus. The tourism industry stalled and real estate values went belly-up. The pain and suffering that reverberated through the community was unbelievable. It was one of the most terrible events ever witnessed in New Bern. But state officials still did not take full responsibility for protecting the public and addressing the problem. As state marine patrols were out there chasing people off the river, politicians were holding fish cookouts on the shore in New Bern to try and convince people the fish were safe to eat. Government Action/Inaction Ultimately the federal government stepped in with about $200 million to help restore the river. The state came up with a bunch of programs aimed at reducing nutrient pollution. Eleven wastewater discharge pipes were pulled out of the river. A lot of things did happen between 1995 and 2000 to fix the river and fish kills declined.
The real problem now is that time has passed and apathy has set in. As soon as the headlines died down and the tourism industry stopped screaming, things started to go back to the way they were. Many of the programs that the state implemented ten years ago are no longer being enforced. The Neuse is endangered once again.
Now, when fish die in the Neuse River, the state sends out their Rapid Response Team. Some locals refer to them as the "Rabid Excuse Team". When they go out to investigate fish kills they report to their Public Affairs Officials in Raleigh. Then the excuse factory goes into action. Any excuse that points to a natural event is fair game. Once they reported that the fish may have been hit by lightning. They actually said that. They reported that the sores on the fish were likely caused by rough water raking the fish against the sediments on the bottom. Some of the most ridiculous things ever heard are used as excuses for why the fish are dying. It is all about covering it up, keeping the public satisfied that the river is all right. If they admit the river is broken, they will have to fix it. They have neither the money nor will to do that. It is a policy of deceit. It is the same policy that led to the major fish kills in the first place. We have come full circle.
The state has not followed through on the nutrient reduction programs because of all the pressure from some of the very same people who were complaining back in 1995, the tourism and development community. All the people who suffered the economic pain and helped us get the state to set up pollution control programs now want to put pollution pipes discharging partially treated sewage back into the river. Towns, like Havelock, want more sewer capacity and the easiest way to get it is to put the pipes back into the river. We cannot allow greed and short memories to prevail.
Fishable Future Through advocacy and leadership the NRF has made a lot of progress restoring the Neuse. They have used litigation to upgrade failing wastewater treatment plants; they have removed 11 major wastewater dischargers and forced the state to set enforceable limits for nutrient pollution. Today, there are new buffer rules and sedimentation regulations set up to protect the river. The NRF has also brought the construction of new industrial hog factories to a screeching halt, proving that animal factories can not compete with family farms unless they are allowed to break the law.
But the Neuse's restoration is far from complete. Today, the Neuse is faced with numerous challenges both old and new. Untreated fecal waste from the basin's swine produce the equivalent waste of 20 million people, routinely discharged untreated to the river. Developers are demanding construction of new wastewater treatment plants that will dump more nutrients into the river and regulations to enforce existing environmental laws go unenforced.
But the Neuse is in the hands of two Riverkeepers fully equipped to handle the job. Together, these two river advocates bring the kind of grit that would put the likes of John Wayne in awe. Today's Neuse Riverkeepers, Larry Baldwin and Alissa Bierma, work on the water in classic bulldog Riverkeeper style. They have taken over the decades-old battle to keep the Neuse open and safe for fishing. She's in good hands, of that I am certain.
WHO SAYS NUTRIENTS ARE A PROBLEM
HOG POLLUTION AND THE NEUSE RIVER According to the USGS--------In the Chowan, Roanoke, Tar and Neuse basins....Agricultural fertilizer and livestock waste are major sources of nitrogen and phosphorus, supplying 50% of the nitrogen and 75% of the phosphorus originating in the basins. Point sources are 5% of the nutrient-source inputs These four rivers carry more than 13,000 TONS of nitrogen and 1,100 TONS of phosphorus to the Albemarle-Pamlico Sounds each year.
Dr JoAnn Burkholder and a team of other renown North Carolina based researchers reported in a peer reviewed study published in 2006:
Study period May 1993--Dec 2005--There are clear signals of an estuary with worsening water quality from increasing, chronic nutrient pollution.
1.Ammonia increased by 500%
2.Nitrates increased by 88%
3.Chlorophyll a--indicator of harmful algal biomass, increased by 76%
4.Bottom level dissolved oxygen decreased by 36%--it is worse than it was 14 years ago.
The Neuse was designated as one of North America's most threatened Rivers in 1995, 1996 and 1997. In 2007, it was once again designated as one of the most endangered Rivers in America. Swine pollution was named as one of the leading causes of the River's continuing pollution problems.