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Gulf of Maine Times

Vol. 5, No. 2


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Ten years later…So why is this man depressed?

By Richard C. Wheeler


How can I come up with an idea that will result in education pro-grams for the Gulf of Maine? That was the question I asked myself in 1989 when I decided to follow my dream of becoming an environmental educator. It was six months before the spirit of The Great Auk walked into my head and set up housekeeping. Here was a flightless seabird whose annual 1,500 mile (2,400 kilometer) paddle-powered migration covered all of the Gulf of Maine; a creature that once existed in such abundance that even ship captains were awed; a bird that had endured 300 years of persecution before being driven to extinction in 1844. What a metaphor for the Gulf of Maine.

Richard C. Wheeler
Photo courtesy of the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History

Eighteen months of preparation and five million paddle strokes later, I had experienced something that I wouldn’t swap with anything else I’ve done. And I wouldn’t do it again for ten million dollars.

Good fortune followed. I was asked to visit classrooms from Nova Scotia to Georgia and to serve as host of an inter-active television program called “Critters of the Gulf of Maine.” The airing of a NOVA documentary in 1994 gave me a big boost, and in 1998, Time Magazine gave me another. Still another was the involvement of master storyteller Jay O’Callahan, who has performed “The Spirit of the Great Auk” before thou-sands of people in the U.S. and Canada.

So why, ten years later, is this man depressed?

I’m gloomy because I believe that our relationship with our planet is tragically flawed. The unassailable values imprint-ed on all of us say that everything “out there” was put there for us by a divine power, and that the most industrious of us will reap the most benefit from those gifts. The rules of nature don’t apply to us, the thinking goes. “If we break it, we can fix it.”

We are quick to say that there are too many raccoons or sea gulls, but we’re in total denial about our own numbers. We call that “growing the economy.” Money rules.

Dragging my mood down further is the nagging fear that we possess neither the individual or national will to take the Draconian steps necessary for the full recovery of the oceans. If we had been told at the time of the passage of the Magnussen Act that scientists had found fish to be lethal, we could not have gone about eradicating them with any greater efficacy than what we have done in the guise of fisheries management.

But doom doesn’t sell, and besides, I’m a Libra, so optimism, like the sun, eventually breaks through the clouds and warms me with a positive thought: perhaps one of my school programs will inspire a future Rachel Carson who will say the things that concern me more effectively than I have.

So I keep trying. One of the most common questions after a Great Auk presentation is: What can I do to help? If no one brings it up, I bring it up myself, as I will here. Get political. Believe that one person can make a difference. Start planning now for the next election. We get the political leadership we deserve. Throw your support toward those institutions that are focusing on issues that concern you.

I have added advice as a result of my circumnavigation of Cape Cod last fall. The visual high point was passing by areas designated as national seashore. Awesome. It really hit me then that though we set aside land areas for perpetuity, we’ve not applied the same principles to the oceans. Establishing a net-work of true marine parks in the Gulf of Maine should be a high priority for all of us. Such a campaign would be a great school project, because young people might then rise up and take possession of “their” Gulf of Maine.

I’m convinced that if enough people see the “marine environment crisis” as a “crisis of the spirit,” and move to change things, per-haps a reshaping of the way we relate to our oceans might begin to happen.

Richard C. Wheeler is the recipient of the Art Longard Award for 2000 (See Gulf of Maine Times, spring, ‘01, p. 4). He can be reached at

Petitcodiac needs unbiased study

Having just re-read the Winter 2000, edition of the Gulf of Maine Times [see dam removals], I am very concerned with the apparent disregard for all the disparate aspects of the restoration of the Petitcodiac River. The objectives deal mainly with restoring salmon stocks to the river, returning the tidal bore to its original size and clearing the silt from the region below the causeway. It is the headlong rush to breach the causeway before a full, unbiased study of all aspects of this problem can be carried out that is the most pressing concern. Also of great concern is the future lifestyle of the small communities that are downstream from the causeway, those that have built their lives around the current state of the river's mouth and the area of Shepody Bay. They seem to be largely ignored, certainly if their views conflict with those advocating the opening of the causeway. People seem to have no concept of the complexity of the situation, no idea of the effects of the carriage of massive amounts of silt into the upper reaches of the Bay of Fundy, and the side effects that will be felt much further afield.

An analysis of riverbed deposits, carried out by DFO, revealed a very high degree of nutritional content from farms above the present barrier. This nutritional concentration, now held back in Lake Petitcodiac, will be carried into the Bay of Fundy, greatly adding to the propagation of the algae bloom in those waters. The suspended detritus will not act in one direction only. Much of this sediment, which is acknowledged to contain high measured amounts of toxic pollutants and heavy metals, will make its way back and forth, twice a day. The end result could be an extension of the existing silt buildup, extending both upstream and down from the site of the present barrier. We also hear a lot about the predicted return of salmon to a restored river; the return of a for-er
tidal bore to its former splendor; the creation of the means to enjoy a scenic view that enhances the attraction of various communities. All laudable aims, but as an Army Officer, I was taught that all aims must be achievable. Wishful thinking never once bought a single loaf of bread. Salmon are under untold stress all over the world, not only because of a causeway. It is highly arrogant to think that a little tinkering with the flow of the Petitcodiac will entice this species to re-establish itself in waters that contain high quantities of toxic pollutants. Much of the pollutant materials are held in the mud, these will be released if scouring action disturbs the river bottom and banks.

A complete understanding of all primary and secondary effects of breaching the barrier must be known before any further action is taken and communities along both shores of the Bay of Fundy must be included. The wishes of communities that seem to be in agreement now must not be allowed to govern the final procedure for the restoration. Any possible dam-age to the delicate ecosystem of the Gulf of Maine watershed must be viewed as a whole. The resultant increase in the turbidity of the Bay of Fundy must have an adverse effect upon the underwater vegetation and plankton population in the Bay; with those effects being felt throughout the food chain. A true, unbiased analysis of the results of opening the causeway must determined and made known. The true facts, unadulterated by vested interests.

R.E. Stevens,
Shediac, New Brunswick