Food Web Down

By: Chris Thompson

A cautionary environmental tale, poignant in its reminder that sometimes it’s the most well-meaning of intentions that cause us the greatest of harm…

For the record, Senator, it is important that you know we had nothing but good intentions for the Chesapeake Bay. We didn’t just barge into the watershed and start asserting ourselves. Maryland and Virginia wanted us there. The EPA wanted us there. The Fish and Wildlife Service wanted us there. The National Parks Service wanted us there. FEMA wanted us there. I could go on and on. Heck, even the Coast Guard wanted us there, that’s how bad it was.

“What’s that? Yes, Senator, it was the phytoplankton blooms that started it all but you have to imagine what we were up against at the time. Unprecedented rains and melting snow that spring had washed excess nutrients into the bay at levels never encountered before. Chief among them were nitrogen and phosphorus, byproducts of the polluted runoff from the farmlands surrounding the bay. Pollutants capable of causing the algal blooms known as ‘mahogany tides,’ that scientists have historically used to gauge the bay’s health. But what we encountered that spring wasn’t some small, seasonal bloom skirting up one of the hundred and fifty rivers and streams that empty into the Chesapeake watershed, turning its waters a deep iridescent red for a week or two. We were talking about the entire Chesapeake Watershed sir. All sixty-four thousand square miles of it, from New York to West Virginia, just absolutely choked with this stuff. Thick red and green algal mats inches deep stealing all the oxygen from the water as it decomposed and suffocating the aquatic life. Dense rafts of living biomass gumming up the propellers of the fisherman’s deadrises and clinging to the hulls of the sail powered oystering skipjacks, stranding them and their crews in the middle of nowhere as they tried to make their living off the increasingly hostile waters. It was bad, Senator. Worse than the environmentalists could have ever predicted. An algal bloom of catastrophic proportions effectively immobilizing the entire Chesapeake Bay and bringing the local economies and livelihood of millions of its citizens, not to mention the ecology, to a complete standstill. So when we came in and got to work, we were already facing an insurmountable task. But we were eager to help and confident we could effect real change.

“That’s correct, Senator, our first move was to treat the waters with Dysgene-D. Or DGD as the press have been calling it. It was one of our next generation biodegradable compounds, still early on in the testing phase, but we were confident it would do the trick. In fact, the EPA shared our confidence, fast-tracking its approval. I realize now in hindsight that we rushed it out of our labs a bit too hastily, but drastic times call for drastic measures and our mandate was to open up the Chesapeake Bay, no matter what the cost. Time was money and livelihoods were at stake, so each moment that we delayed, the bay, its wildlife and its people, suffered. At the time we were the only operation in the world that could pull something like this off. And we were diligent, sir. We considered every alternative, but after an exhaustive search for answers, we decided that the release of DGD into the watershed was the best course of action. The safest. The benefits, in our minds, far outweighed the costs as we understood them at the time.

“I’m sorry, Senator, I’m going to have to disagree with your previous statement. DGD did work. At first. That fact can’t be discounted here in my testimony. It worked quickly too, I might add. Much faster than any of our simulations had predicted. We mobilized a mighty fleet of watercraft, from tiny rafts to massive coastal freighters, and released DGD at the source of every river and stream that converged on the Chesapeake. All one hundred and fifty six of them. And as the DGD-treated waters flowed towards the bay, and joined the greater Atlantic, we effectively rid the waterways of the chokehold that the phytoplankton had on it. From DC to Delaware and from New York to Virginia, less than forty eight hours after we had released our powerful reagent, the thick phytoplankton blankets had began to die-off and break down into their various organic elements. It was a huge victory for us and for the region, one that came at a massive financial cost to our company. A cost that the federal government promised to reimburse us for, in both labor and supplies, but has yet to live up to.

“I understand your point, sir. As you and the rest of the distinguished members of this committee have so strongly pointed out, the celebrations were short lived. My colleague Dr. Foster testified in great detail to this effect earlier, and it’s true that it was a small planktivorous fish, one of the most important species native to the Chesapeake Bay, a fish called the bay anchovy, that took the biggest hit in the weeks after we had released DGD. By killing off all the phytoplankton, we provided these fish, which use comb-like structures on their gills to strain the water for food, an almost unlimited supply of nutrients. After the phytoplankton die-off it was a race by the watershed’s various organisms to capitalize on the readily available food source. And seeing how all the Chesapeake’s fish and shellfish depend on plankton for food at some point during their lives, these resourceful little anchovies were able to exploit our efforts, gorging themselves to the fullest on the decomposing algae feast.

As the bay anchovy consumed more and more of the tiny algae, their bodies unknowingly deposited vast amounts of our DGD compound into their cells. For you see DGD, in the form we engineered it, was biodegradable. Expected to have a half-life of no longer than three days. But in an unanticipated turn of events, a tiny sub-species of the Chesapeake’s myriad phytoplankton, the star-shaped Asterionella formosa, was able to modify our DGD reagent into a more permanent form. One that no longer, decomposed.

Eventually, we realized that a tipping point was being reached amongst the lower, critical members of the Chesapeake’s food web, due in large part to an overaccumulation of DGD. Where once a barely perceptible amount of the reagent concentrated in a single microscopic phytoplankton was, according to our rigorous tests, harmless, and could easily breakdown within the algae as it sunk to the bottom of the bay, this new modified form of the reagent began to reach toxic-levels. It rapidly accumulated in the bodies of the organisms who consumed the microscopic Asterionella formosa. And just like that, as if by the flip of a switch, we suddenly began to experience massive die-offs of the lower chain aquatic species that made the Chesapeake home, most notably, the tiny bay anchovy. Our field teams watched on in horror as the crucial role these tiny fish played in the coastal food web simply up and  disappeared.

“Yes, I agree, Senator. It was an unfortunate side effect to our efforts. One that was completely unimaginable. Unfortunately, this second ecological disaster was only a harbinger of a third, more devastating catastrophe. We all know by now that the Chesapeake Bay has a rich biodiversity of secondary consumers, both avian and aquatic. Its diverse waterbird food web is one of the main reasons why the bay is so prized for its wildlife and beauty. From gulls and terns and sea ducks and tundra swan to large wading birds like the stately great blue heron, these majestic animals inhabit the bay’s waters and shores in droves. And with small fish like the bay anchovy perishing almost overnight by the millions, these predatory birds descended upon their dead and dying quarry with abandon, their bellies filling with those lower creatures struck down by the toxic effect of the now modified DGD.

“That’s correct, Senator. It was several months later, as winter had settled over the lands, that we began to get the first reports of massive bird die-offs in Central and South America. The bays secondary consumers, especially its water birds, had migrated south for the winter. We sent several advance teams down to the hardest hit areas and it was even worse than we had imagined. By the tens of thousands, waterfowl were falling ill and dying, literally falling out of the sky. Yet it was the great blue heron, one of the top predators of the Chesapeake’s food web, that were the hardest hit of all. Entire flocks of the majestic birds were simply wiped out. We had our pathologist perform autopsies on recovered specimens and in every case it was DGD toxicity that was listed as the cause of death.

“How was this happening? It’s simple, Senator. The reagent was moving up the food chain faster than we could work to stop it, passing from the tiny invertebrate algae that sustained the Chesapeake’s aquatic food web to vertebrates like the bay anchovy and larger tetrapods like the water birds. By the time DGD had accumulated in the secondary and tertiary consumers, specifically top predators like the heron and osprey, it was present in such concentrations that you could recover minute amounts of the reagent from the birds tissues. It was that spring, almost a year later, when we first started hearing reports of people getting sick and dying from eating DGD contaminated wildlife. That was some of the hardest news for us to hear. And then, all at once, it was as if every news story centered around the ‘Great Coastal Contamination’ and things just went from bad to worse. There were the violent oyster and crab wars that broke out that summer amongst the few fisheries powerful enough to protect the remaining uncontaminated parts of the bay. There were the riots in the cities and the fallout from the economic collapse as entire industries simply vanished overnight. The federal government mobilized its forces. The National Guard descended on the region to restore order. FEMA stepped in. Tough legislation was enacted. But unfortunately, the fallout was too great. Entire communities disappeared as people left, seeking work and safety elsewhere. And lawsuits seemed to come from everywhere. Protesters swelled the streets. Occupied cities. Demanded reform, accountability, revenge. Our corporate headquarters in Boston, a ten story modern office building, was burned completely to the ground with the Board of Directors still inside. It was then that we knew that we had finally lost all control. That we had become public enemy number one. I feared for my life. For my family’s life. It was a chaotic time.

“Yes, that was bad, Senator. Any loss of life is such a terrible thing and the ripples that went out from our actions had such ruinous, unforeseen effects. We had, in effect, brought the entire Chesapeake’s food web crashing down and in doing so, destroyed the one thing we had set out to protect. Now the economic, political and societal fallout from this catastrophe will echo in the region for decades, if not more. There’s no denying that fact and our company has pledged to do all it can to help with the Chesapeake’s recovery.

“The food web is a delicate creature, Senator, that’s true. That fact’s been made abundantly clear to us here today. Even the slightest change to its fragile balance can have catastrophic effects. Anywhere in the world you look, you’ll encounter this fact. When we perturbed the Chesapeake with DGD, we brought about a new balance. Or a new unravelling of the web. By attacking the phytoplankton bloom, the lowest rung on the chain, we succeeded in poisoning the entire bay. There’s a lesson to be learned here sir. One that will be felt for generations to come. Every action, no matter how simple or harmless it may seem, comes at a cost. A price. Now those costs taken individually, they may not amount to much. But there’s a certain point, a tipping point, where their combined effect begins to add up. To gain momentum and take hold. It’s happened countless times before Senator, and I know that it’s often difficult to spot the signs of this so called ‘butterfly effect.’ But what’s of grave importance is that we develop the foresight to never let it happen again.

“To answer your question, Senator, it was the Chesapeake’s population of bald eagles, the foremost predator of its now extinct food web, that felt the final sting of a tiny phytoplankton’s act. It’s been three years since this disaster unfolded and my scientists tell me that there hasn’t been a single bald eagle spotted in the bay since. Where once a great symbol of our nation soared the skies of the Chesapeake and called its shores home, those skies are now empty, as silent and barren as the now lifeless waters that pass by below. It’s been the hardest of all these unfortunate events for me to make my peace with, but I find solace in knowing that we had nothing but the best intentions from the very start.”

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