Air Date: Week of May 7, 1999
Steve talks with Science News Senior Editor Janet Raloff (RAIL-off) about recent news in science and the environment, including: a new international forestry report, a study showing deleterious effects of pesticides on salmon, and declining skate stocks in the North Atlantic.
CURWOOD: The World Commission on Forests and Sustainable Development recently released a long-awaited comprehensive report. The analysis provides thousands of statistics, charts, and graphs. And it offers recommendations for protecting the world's forests. Science News magazine senior editor Janet Raloff joins us now to talk about the report, and other recent news in science and the environment. She calls the forestry update troubling.
RALOFF: It turns out you've lost a lot of the old growth forests throughout much of the world: 70% in the former Soviet Union, almost 100% in Europe, 85% in Asia. We're doing relatively well here in North America. We only lost 55% of ours. But that doesn't look at how much of the total forest is now there today. And while we have 75% of our former forested lands still under the forest canopy, that's not the case in much of the world, including Asia, where 70% of what had been forested is now not.
CURWOOD: Now, this report is not only descriptive, right? I mean, the authors have some suggestions. They have some ideas about how to stem the loss.
RALOFF: Yeah. Probably the most radical recommendation I see in the report is a recommendation that you determine the value of forests and then price wood products to reflect the full ecosystem and climatological benefits of that wood. Now, this is a rather radical idea. But then the report concludes that you need radical and urgent measures if you're going to arrest forest declines today.
CURWOOD: So if you go to the lumberyard, you would pay how much more, do you think?
RALOFF: Well, no one's quite sure yet what the difference in price would come down to. It could actually increase the price of a board foot by 10-fold, even 20-fold. And that could make a major difference in our decision making. For example, when I was putting an addition on the house, I was quoted a premium of $4,000 to put in oak trim as opposed to pine. That's a big difference. Ultimately, I was able to get the contractor to halve the price. But what if instead he'd said it was going to cost $10,000? I wouldn't have put it in at all. If you make the price of wood expensive enough, a lot of us will re-evaluate just how badly we need the lumber, and that could end up saving a lot of trees.
CURWOOD: Let's move on to Canada and some forest trouble there that seems now to be related to fish. Can you tell me about this study that's been done there in New Brunswick?
RALOFF: Yeah. It turns out that back in the 70s and 80s, there was a massive aerial spraying program for the spruce bud worm. They put a lot of pesticides on the trees and this pesticide formulation included what they thought was a harmless ingredient, what they call a wetting agent, to make the pesticide dissolve into water so it sprayed well. It turns out this extra ingredient wasn't so inert after all. It's actually a synthetic estrogen, at least when it gets in the bodies of living animals. And so, you ended up bathing a lot of the fish in local forests and streams, downstream of these trees. And it seems to have perturbed their ability to make an adjustment from fresh water into saltwater, which, for example, all Atlantic salmon must do.
CURWOOD: So what happens when the fish go from fresh water to saltwater? They've been exposed to this kind --
RALOFF: Well, nobody's quite sure. But in the laboratory, when they do experiments to simulate this, they die. It takes them about 2 months in saltwater and they just die. Not all of them, but most of them, and they seem to look like they're starving. It's not quite clear what's going on, but they're pretty sure it has something to do with a hormone perturbation in these fish. They're just not able to make the major transformations in their gills, their stomachs, and the rest of their body to pump out the salt and allow them to survive in a saltwater environment.
CURWOOD: What is this chemical, by the way?
RALOFF: It's called nonalphenol. It's hardly a household word, but it is in fact in every household. It's in dishwashing detergents, in plastics throughout the home. It's in industrial chemicals, it's in our drinking water. It's even in the spermicides in some popular condoms.
CURWOOD: Well, are they still spraying this stuff?
RALOFF: They are using it not in Canada. They're using it with a number of pesticides, I'm told, in the United States. And there's all sources of nonalphenols running into water supplies throughout the United States and Europe and Japan. So you'll find levels in our water and in waters in Europe that are comparable to what these fish encountered in the Canadian waters. And of course, the big question is if it does all kinds of strange things to these fish, what's it doing to us?
CURWOOD: On the subject of fish, you've recently been covering a problem with large skates in the North Atlantic. It's a fish that's called the barndoor skate, right?
RALOFF: That's right. Skates, for those of you who are land-locked or came from a land-locked area, as I did, they're basically flattened sharks with wings. And they are top of the food chain predators. In this case the barndoor skate got its name because it was huge. It used to be probably at least 6 feet long, tip to tail. Nowadays, when they find one, if they're lucky enough to find one, it's maybe 2 feet long. Instead of weighing 35 to 50 pounds, they weigh 2 pounds. Big difference.
CURWOOD: So, what's happening to them?
RALOFF: Well, this is a fish that has declined, maybe by 99% over the last, say, 35 years. And nobody even noticed. It just showed up almost by accident in some analysis of fishing data a couple years ago. Some scientists reported it last year, and everyone went, "Gee, that's right, there used to be lots of them. We don't see them any more." So if you have this huge fish that used to be out there, people caught them all the time, quite by accident actually. And they disappeared and no one noticed. The question is, what other fish out there might you be losing the same way?
CURWOOD: Janet, we've been hearing a lot about extensive ground fishing restrictions in the Gulf of Maine and off New England there, and of course off Canada. Could that reduce the by-catch of these skates?
RALOFF: It would reduce the by-catch, but it would probably not be in effect long enough to allow the fish to really recover. With the bony fish, like the cod and haddock, if you lay off fishing for them for 4 to 7 years, you can basically bring the population back. They're putting out a million eggs a year. With the skate, they're only putting out 2 to 20 eggs a year. It will take a long time for these fish to come back to replace every one that's taken out of the population. It may take 30 or 40 years, maybe even longer, to bring back skates to pre-harvesting populations.
CURWOOD: Janet Roloff is senior editor at Science News magazine. Thanks for joining us this week, Janet.
RALOFF: Nice to be here, Steve.
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