Fish vs. People?

There’s no question: getting people to care about fish eggs and larvae is a tough gig. You can’t eat them (yet), you can’t really see them and, even if you could see them, they're not exactly warm and fuzzy. Even their more technical name – ichthyoplankton – begins with the unmistakable sound of childhood disgust.

A far easier sell in today’s politically-charged atmosphere is to convince people that environmentalists (or, if you prefer, “eco-extremists”) are more concerned about a bunch of fish eggs than people. So what issue could possibly create such an unlikely fight – fish vs. people – for the public’s support? Surprisingly, this argument is part of the arcane debate over cooling systems used at power plants.

This issue is no stranger to Ecocentric; we've covered power plants and their destruction of aquatic life from several different angles. There are 25 large power plants in our home state, New York, that rely on outdated once-through cooling systems, drawing in and then spitting out up to 16 billion gallons of water every day. In the process, 17 billion fish in the early stages of development can be destroyed annually when they are drawn into the power plant, while another 171 million larger fish can be injured or killed every year when they crash against screens intended to keep them out of the plant.

Those are compelling numbers, and so are the inflated price tags that the power industry routinely circulates when faced with the prospect of switching to closed-cycle cooling; a more up-to-date and fish-friendly technology.

But the question that keeps popping up is perhaps the most basic one: Isn’t this a lot of fuss over a bunch of fish eggs?

In short, no. Because it’s not just about fish eggs, and here’s why:

1. Fish are kind of important to fishermen
The power industry often cites the lack of conclusive statistics that show the harm caused by power plant cooling systems to economically-valuable fish populations. First of all, fish, not to mention other aquatic life, have value for more than just being a dinner entrée (more on that below). But even when the Environmental Protection Agency did attempt to place a value on the benefits of closed-cycle cooling requirements for fish populations, they could only do so for less than two percent of the fish that would be protected (PDF). In other words, 98 percent of fish that would be saved – whether forage fish or prized game fish – were valued at...$0.

It’s a perfect storm of insufficient fishery statistics and woefully inadequate cost-benefit analysis.

So why does this matter? According to a 2006 report, 1.1 million recreational fishermen in New York generated over a billion dollars in direct retail sales, supporting nearly 17,000 jobs (PDF). And the value of fish landed by commercial fishermen in New York that same year was nearly $58 million, a figure that doesn’t include any of the secondary economic impacts generated by the commercial industry. But because of insufficient data and analysis, the benefits for both commercial and recreational fisheries of updating antiquated power plant cooling systems are grossly undervalued. These are significant industries for the state, and they're already facing a lot of strain from habitat loss, pollution and historical overfishing. Which leads to point number two…

2. Fair’s fair
Recreational fishermen caught 21.5 million saltwater fish in New York in 2009, yet power plants that withdraw waters from state’s estuaries and ocean can kill or injure nearly 11 million adult and juvenile fish every year, or more than half as many as recreational fishermen caught. If any of these fishermen were to be caught with more than their daily allotment of a particular species, or an undersized fish, or found fishing out of season, they could be fined or even lose their fishing license. Yet these power plants indiscriminately kill millions of fish every year, regardless of size or season, without any sort of penalty imposed.

3. Strange but true: Eggs and larvae are part of the food chain
Not every fish egg or larva becomes a full-grown fish coveted by recreational or commercial fishermen, thus easily monetized by economists. In fact, the natural rate of fish egg and larva survival is extremely low; they're sensitive to water quality, temperature, salinity and, of course, predators. Even so, every fish that fails to survive to maturity still contributes to the ecosystem by either consuming prey or serving as prey for wildlife higher up on the food chain like birds, mammals and larger fish. Power plants that rely on once-through cooling systems are playing a dangerous game by depleting the base of the aquatic food chain. If you want healthy rivers, lakes and estuaries, then you need a healthy, and complete, ecosystem.

The power industry has argued for decades that the loss of billions of eggs and larvae each year does not harm our waters. But time and time again, scientists, state and federal agencies, and federal judges have carefully considered that argument and rejected it. The fish versus people argument is a distraction from the real issue: a healthy economy depends on healthy waters, and needlessly sucking the base out from underneath the aquatic food chain has serious implications for both.