Fishing for New Environmentalists

In Thursday's New York Times, we read of concerns in New Hampshire about the Bush administration's relaxation of standards on factory mercury emissions. In case you haven't been following the controversy, mercury is that stuff that can badly damage the nervous systems of infants (and all of us, really), that settles into the food chain and ought to make us think twice about how much sushi we consume.

On March 15, 2005, the EPA announced new legislation that will cut mercury emissions by about 22 percent, a pittance compared to the 94 percent reduction that environmentalists say is essential and feasible. And the EPA proposes to do its pittance with unnecessary lethargy.

In the Times article, the reporter spoke with a fisherman. When she told him that the lake in which he was fishing was a probable mercury "hot spot," he replied, "You're worrying me."

And there, my friends, is a political goldmine for good environmental policy. For many years, the NRA has had the upper hand with the hunting-and-fishing crowd. It has been so successful in stressing threats to the right to carry a gun that the NRA almost single-handedly, with help from the Christian right, transformed Congress into a wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican Corporate State.

Hunters and fishermen are not all the same, to be sure, and they're also not as ideologically one-dimensional as they are often portrayed. If they understand the larger consequences of the NRA-wrought "revolution," they'll become alarmed about the threats that face them. Shrinking stocks of fish, more pollutants in the food chain, erosion of natural area by development and logging – all of these are disturbing developments for those of us who spend time outdoors.

Thus far, the environmental movement and progressives in general have not done nearly enough to engage the millions of Americans who hunt and fish. When they come to understand the direct consequences of the administration's steady unshackling of polluters, they will realize that there's more at stake in local, state and federal elections than the kind of gun they may carry. As for Christian fundamentalists, they have recently developed a vocal environmentalist wing, based on the religious conviction that humans should act as "good stewards," not despoilers, of God's green earth.

These people are a ready-made audience for a clear save-the-environment message. The facts are there, for sure. The state of Connecticut has noted, for example, that most types of fish have some mercury in them, and advised that the following people should not eat more than one meal a month of fish that are caught in Connecticut rivers and lakes:

  • Women who are pregnant

  • Women who plan to become pregnant

  • Women who are nursing their baby

  • Children under six

Subsistence and sports fishermen who eat their catch can be at a particularly high risk of mercury poisoning if they fish regularly in contaminated waters, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. Nationally, though many waterways haven't even been tested yet, mercury pollution is known to have contaminated 12 million acres of lakes, estuaries, and wetlands (30 percent of the total), and 473,000 miles of streams, rivers, and coasts. Forty-four states have issued fish consumption advisories – that's enough to put a damper on a boisterous fish-fry around any campfire.

The Washington Post reported late last year that male fish in the Potomac River are producing eggs – that's male fish, folks, presumably as troubling a gender issue to social conservatives as any. The causes are believed to be pollution, farming runoff, and human hormones coming from raw sewage. And the Potomac is hardly the only place where this is happening.

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection reported that eating blue claw crabs from the Newark Bay region may cause cancer and harm brain development. This is the result of contamination from dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

Tom DeLay, as a former exterminator, loves all pesticides, but not that many fishermen are likely to agree when they know the gory details. You get fewer fish when the small plants and animals they eat die, which they do when it rains and pesticides get swept by storm drains into streams and rivers, as New York State authorities have warned. The pesticide diazinon makes lawns look good but kills ducks, geese and other water fowl, and, it seems, song-birds.

Meanwhile, climate change isn't something that will only affect our great-grandchildren (as if that wasn't worry enough). If current warming trends continue unchecked, more than one in five Pacific Northwest rivers could become too warm for salmon, steelhead and trout by 2040. Already the region appears to be suffering the effects of warming. According to this AP report:
Average air temperatures in the Pacific Northwest rose 1.5 degrees during the 20th century – faster than the average global rise of 1 degree. At the same time, annual precipitation increased, mostly in the form of rain, while snowpack declined. Most of Washington state's glaciers are receding rapidly, and several have disappeared altogether in recent decades.
Bush's general relaxation of standards ignores the fact that nationwide, as far back as 2002, his own EPA was reporting that more than a third of surveyed rivers, and about half of all lakes and estuaries were too polluted for swimming or fishing.

Fish and fishermen are just the beginning. The continued opening up of wild areas to development obviously offers equally fertile ground for appealing to hunters and other traditionally conservative sports enthusiasts. It's just no fun heading out to bag a moose next to an oil rig or chasing rabbits round mine shafts or subdivisions. Between 2000 and 2003, the number of leases for oil, gas and coal mining on public lands increased by 51 percent – from 2.6 million acres to more than 5 million acres. In agricultural areas, the deer are so chock full of pesticides, that hunters know to stay away from them.

I could go on an on, but let's cut to the nib. Wouldn't it be nice to see ad campaigns aimed at a new group of potential environmentalists? If the forces of disinformation can use the fictitious couple, Harry & Louise, to sink universal health insurance on television, then surely the forces of human survival can show a couple of fishermen talking about "enough already" with the mercury madness.

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