CAN FISH SURVIVE IN A PORK BARREL?
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 1997:
RALEIGH, N.C.––Forced to choose between fish
and pigs, North Carolina wants both––and got state fisheries
director Bruce Freeman’s resignation on February 13 as a
slightly early Valentine to himself. For $83,000 a year, he
decided, the job wasn’t worth the pfiesteria headache.
Freeman, a North Carolina native who previously
served as New Jersey fisheries director, was North Carolina’s
sixth fisheries director in 15 years, only one of whom stayed
longer than two years. He took office just four months before
the June 1995 destruction of the Neuse River by 20 million gallons
of hog slurry from a ruptured farm lagoon. That alone
killed as many as 40 million fish––and that spill was followed
by more than 100 others, both on the Neuse and other rivers.
There were hints that similar smaller spills had occurred for
years, to little notice, as the North Carolina hog industry rapidly
expanded over the past decade with strong government influence
at both the state and federal levels.
Red tides followed, killing fish all along the Carolina
and Florida coasts, putting shellfish off limits for human consumption,
and––far to the south––killing record numbers of
endangered manatees. The deadly agent turned out to be pfies –
t e r i a, a dinoflagellate single-celled organism that thrives in
slurry spillage, metamorphizes into as many as nine different
forms, eats fish alive, and can pass to humans.
North Carolina State University botanist JoAnn
Burkholder first identified pfiesteria in 1991, recognizing it as
severely neurotoxic to humans in 1993––but agriculture, fisheries,
and health officials didn’t want to hear about it until the
state health department was finally forced to close part of the
Neuse, including popular fishing and swimming holes,
because users were developing p f i e s t e r i a symptoms ranging
from rashes to neurological degeneration.
A neglected and abused whistleblower, Burkholder
earlier this year won belated recognition after author Rodney
Barker recounted her struggle to warn the public in a best-selling
book, And the Waters Turned to Blood.
Freeman, meanwhile, not a popular appointee
among fisheries staff to begin with, now had two heavy reasons
to curtail fishing, depletion of fish stocks and pfiesteria,
and not a lot of hope to offer anyone that fisheries afflicted by
pfiesteria can ever be reopened until hog slurry spills are prevented
for long enough to let nature somehow push the socalled
“cell from hell” into the obscurity it apparently dwelled
in for millions of years before the hog slurry crisis. When
Freeman hesitated to close the flounder fishery last summer,
allowing North Carolina fishers to exhaust not only their share
of the U.S. summer quota but also most of their winter quota,
the North Carolina Fisheries Association demanded his ouster.
Governor Jim Hunt kept him––but the North Carolina winter
flounder season lasted just 10 days. When Freeman closed it,
in mid-January, the NCFA complained to North Carolina
Senator Jesse Helms.
“We’re going to do all we can to help our fishermen,”
Helms spokesperson Wayne Boyles said.
Freeman pushed his luck on February 7 by suspending
trawling off the North Carolina coast, claiming shrimpers
were using their nets to catch gray trout, better known as weakfish.
A fishery reform bill then pending in the state legislature
sought to reinforce Freeman’s position by taxing recreational
fishers to support a buyout of commercial fishers. The bill was
endorsed by the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund,
and the League of Women Voters, but was opposed by the
NCFA, which sent 400 members to the statehouse to lobby
against it. The Joint Legislative Commission on Seafood and
Agriculture shot it down 7-6 on February 10, in effect forcing
After Freeman quit, the North Carolina Marine
Fisheries Commission reversed his trawling ban on February 22
and Pamlico County judge James Regan issued an injunction
suspending it on February 28. The ban was formally rescinded
by the department of fisheries on March 7.
The fight was just beginning, however, as state representative
Frank Mitchell (R-Iredell) on February 19 shot back
with a bill to ban all commercial fish-netting in North Carolina
waters. Mitchell, a farmer, in effect declared war on the
NCFA in hopes of creating an unlikely alliance of sport fishers
and hog producers, whose influence waned somewhat after the
Raleigh News & Observer revealed in December 1996 that state
testing had discovered hog effluent in more than a third of a
sampling of 948 private water wells. Eighty-nine were so polluted
that the users were warned to drink bottled water.
Gary Hunt, chief political advisor to Governor Hunt,
immediately dropped a moonlighting deal as “communications
advisor” to a hog farm front called Farmers for Fairness.
The Mitchell gambit apparently failed when on
February 26, influential fellow Republican legislator Richard
Morgan introduced a bill to triple the mandatory distance of
hog barns from neighbors, give counties zoning power over
new farms, and restrict hog operations near parks, recreation
areas, wildlife refuges, wells, and waterways. Morgan
acknowledged interest in keeping hog stench away from the
Pinehurst and Southern Pines golf resorts. By mid-April the
Morgan bill had cleared key committees, over vehement hog
industry opposition, and had implicit support from Hunt, who
offered a two-year moratorium on new hog facility construction
as a compromise.
A similar three-way fight among fishing, recreation,
and agriculture is underway in South Carolina, where a complete
revision of saltwater fishing laws is before the legislature.
There, the balance of power seems to favor relatively cosmetic
changes to restrict commercial-level fishing under “recreational”
permits, prevent dumping unwanted bycatch where dead
fish might wash up on beaches, and stop trawling close to
beaches during daylight hours.