1995 Censored

Foreign Policy News Stories


Project Censored


Industrial Fishing Fleets Waste 60 Billion Pounds of Fish Annually

by Peter Steinhart

by Hal Bernton
Mother Jones, July/August 1994


"Unlike rhinos, tigers and bears, when you deplete fish populations, you're threatening the survival of humanity."

Life on earth began in the moonpull and seawind of the oceans. Human blood still has the salinity of seawater. We are, ourselves, miniature oceans, dressed in skin and gone exploring the arid world that rose out of ancient seas.

We haven't gone far: Half the world's population still lives within 50 miles of the coast.

Nonetheless, our acquaintance with the sea generally ends at the first slap of ocean wave; what happens beyond the surf is hidden. But what is happening out there is something we should be angry about.

The signs are ominous. On a good day in the 1960s, an Atlantic fisherman could harpoon 30 large swordfish. Today, such swordfish are hardly ever seen; commercial fishermen on the East Coast set out a 15-to-30-mile line baited with 1,000 hooks. Even then, many they catch are immature.

What has happened to swordfish has happened to hundreds of marine species. In the last 15 years, New England cod, haddock, and yellowtail flounder have declined 70 percent; South Atlantic grouper and snapper, 80 percent; Atlantic bluefin tuna, 90 percent. More than 200 separate salmon spawning runs have vanished from the Pacific Northwest.

We are mining the seas of life. The number of fish caught in 11 of the world's 15 major fishing areas has declined from peak years, and four areas are at or near peak catch.

The human cost of this crisis is considerable. For many it means hunger, since in some countries more than half of the population's animal protein comes from the sea. Says Michael Sutton of the World Wildlife Fund, "Unlike rhinos, tigers, and bears, when you deplete fish populations, you're threatening the survival of humanity."

For others, it means the end of a way of life. The collapse of the Newfoundland cod fishery put 40,000 people out of work. In the Philippines, as traditional fishing by net and spear yields smaller and smaller returns, divers stay down 150 or 200 feet for hours, breathing air pumped through hoses, in hopes of spearing a profitable catch. In some villages, paralysis and brain damage caused by submersion at such depths is now a common affliction.

For centuries, people have gone to sea with heroic madness in their eyes. We went out to lift from the depths not just food but something mystical. We looked upon fish as castoffs from another world, as strange shapes and distant wills. We went to tempt the shimmering darkness and pull it into the light.

Even today, fish seem to us cold, silvery dreams to which we do not attribute a capacity for thought or feeling. We feel no remorse when the dazzle fades from their scales. We have never thought of fish as fellow creatures, and we do not-deep down-think of the sea as part of the living world.

In our technological age, such thinking has terrible consequences. Our ancient awe now floats in steel hulls, dragging multi-filament net over miles of seabed to pull masses of life from the ocean. A modern North Pacific trawler can reportedly take in one million pounds of fish in a single day.

Since World War 11, nation after nation has built fleets of such vessels, and as a result the world's finfish catch quadrupled between 1950 and 1990. It looked for a time as if the sea were an inexhaustible source of wealth.

But that was an illusion. Most of the increased catch came from a few distant water fisheries, whose limits were quickly reached. Meanwhile, coastal fishermen had to sail farther and farther from port to catch anything.

Large-scale fishing technologies have become less and less selective: Fish too small to be taken and species not legally fished are caught, and then thrown overboard to die. Lee Alverson of Seattle's Natural Resources Consultants estimates that in addition to the estimated 84 million metric tons of marine fish legally landed in the world each year, approximately 27 million metric tons are caught and dumped at sea. With an unreported catch that may be as high as 30 percent of the legal take, we are removing far more than the 100 million metric tons of marine fish that scientists estimate is the globe's maximum sustainable yearly harvest.

We like to think of the oceans as so vast and ancient as to be above greed or vanity. Byron wrote, "Man marks the earth with ruin-his control stops with the shore." But we now have the technological capacity to do to fish exactly what we did to the buffalo and the passenger pigeon.

We are reducing the oceans' productivity. We risk hunger, poverty, dislocation, and war. We destroy links to our evolutionary past and to the future. We turn our backs on the world and lose its kindness.

What can we do? Refusing to eat fish doesn't even begin to address the problem because others will assume our place. We must reduce the size of the world's fishing fleet, set new limits, and enforce them.

Government agencies are investigating restrictions on the gear fishermen may use, as one way to limit catch. More effective area limits and fishing quotas may also be required. For these or other controls to work, however, we need international agreements binding all nations to a common set of rules.

Unless we find new ways to care for the sea, we will be its darkest legacy. Cast up from its depths millions of years ago, we may now be the agents of its destruction.

Peter Steinhart, author of "Tracks in the Sky" and "California's Wild Heritage," writes about nature and environmental affairs.


The Alaska fishery could be America's last great resource giveaway-and powerful companies are fighting for a piece of it.

Don Tyson has never fished aboard a Bering Sea trawler, risking his life against treacherous weather to bring home a catch of cod or pollock. He hasn't worked a midnight deck shift in 30-foot seas or used a baseball bat to pound at the ice that builds up on riggings and rails.

Tyson lives in the hill country of northwest Arkansas, more than 3,000 miles from Alaska. "I'm just a chicken farmer," he likes to say. But this chicken farmer has turned a modest family business into one of the nation's largest food conglomerates, grossing more than $4 billion a year.

Tyson Foods now wants to claim one of the biggest shares of the Alaska fishery. The harvest rights it seeks from the federal government would be worth tens of millions of dollars each year. And unless federal law is amended, the government may hand over the fishery without Tyson-or anyone else- paying a dime in royalties.

Tyson has developed strong ties with President Bill Clinton, and those ties could help the company as it makes its case. The Alaska governor's office says Tyson representatives "definitely" led them to believe they have influence in Washington.

The privatization of the Alaska fishery could be the country's last great resource handout. The prairies were homesteaded in the past century; the railroads have claimed their vast land grants; many of the rich mining deposits on public lands have long since been staked out. The Alaska fishery is one of the richest in the world, with a treasure trove of pollock, cod, crab, and other species. It's a resource many Americans don't even know they own.

Tyson ventured into the fishing industry in June 1992, just about the time that Bill Clinton consolidated his hold on the Democratic presidential nomination. The corporation sought a seafood entree for its corporate dinner plate, and so spent $212 million to buy Arctic Alaska Fisheries Corp., the largest fishing company in the country.

Some industry observers questioned Tyson's purchase because Seattle-based Arctic Alaska had an aging fleet and a formidable array of legal problems. The worst of these problems were detailed last April, when a federal grand jury hit Arctic Alaska with a 44-count indictment. It charged the company with falsifyng unsafe ships to sea, falsifying documents, and Iying about crew qualifications, among other crimes. The grand jury said these acts were part of a conspiracy that had put profits ahead of people and led to the 1990 sinking of an Arctic Alaska fishing vessel, an accident that killed nine people.

But Arctic Alaska's single-minded pursuit of fish helped it to become one of the biggest seafood harvesters in the Bering Sea. And the quantity of fish Arctic Alaska caught, irrespective of how many laws it may have broken to catch them, has put the company- and its new owner Tyson-in a position to win a big share of the fishery.

Tyson Foods is wealthy and well-connected, but it isn't the only major player in the high-stakes fish lotto. Another is Christiania Bank of Norway, which bankrolled a big chunk of the Bering Sea fleet with more than $300 million in loans. Most of those loans are now in default, and the bank hopes to take the fishing shares of the boats that can't pay up. Other players include largely Japanese-owned shore processors; the catcher-boat fleet and hook-and-line fishermen who deliver to the processors; and native Eskimo and Aleut fishermen.

They all recognize that big changes are coming to the Bering Sea fishery. Too many fishermen, wielding awesome fishing technology, are going after too few fish. When the fleet shrinks there will be winners and losers. All the players are trying to make sure that whatever reform takes place will put them in the winners' circle.

So far, the federal government has tried to manage the catch by limiting the seasons for different species of fish. Seasons that once stretched out for most of the year have shrunk to a few months. This turns the harvests into frantic derbies in which boats grab as much as they can as fast as they can. The result is incredible waste, unsafe fishing practices, and economic chaos for the industry.

Scientists are also increasingly concerned about the effects of this intensive fishing on the broader Bering Sea ecosystem. The Steller sea lion, for instance, is now listed as a threatened species. Scientists have also tracked sharp population declines in fur seals and some sea birds. And while the stocks of pollock still appear relatively healthy, their total biomass has declined.

Meanwhile, the fishermen slug it out in ever-shorter seasons. Under the derby system, they lack the time and financial incentives to try to avoid catching fish that aren't worth processing or are not legally in season. Last year, the Alaska fleet caught 4.2 billion pounds of fish, then dumped a staggering 763 million pounds-seven times more fish than is retained by the entire New England fleet. As the competition intensifies, so do the pressures to keep fishing through the worst winter storms, increasing the risks in an occupation that has already killed more than 165 fishermen off Alaska in the past six years.

To top it all off, the harvests, despite their gargantuan scale, are too small to sustain the overcapitalized fleet. Some vessel owners have already filed for bankruptcy, and more filings are expected later this year.

As a solution to these problems, Tyson and some other players are politicking for a kind of 20th-century homestead act. The plan would divide the annual harvest into shares, which would be given to fishing companies in proportion to some part of their historic catch. The more fish and crab an operator caught in the past, the bigger its share. Companies could then leisurely fish their shares (called "individual transferable quotas," or ITQs), lease them to other operators, or sell them to the highest bidder. The total market value of all the shares could easily exceed $1 billion according to several industry officials.

By ending the race for fish, factory trawler operators say they could curtail the waste. Boats would target the species they want and would take the time to process whatever fish they caught. Skippers would avoid practices that endangered the lives of their crew members. And the fleet would shrink as marginal operators sold out their shares. "We are convinced that the future of the fishery up there is dependent on getting toward some sort of ITQ system," said Archie Schaffer, an Arkansas-based spokesperson for Tyson.

But not everyone agrees that privately held quotas are the best way to reform the harvest. Even if the government does turn to private quotas, critics say, the public should scrutinize the deals and gain fair payment. They fear quotas would prevent future generations of small boat fishermen from breaking into the harvest. And they question a system that would reward those companies with the biggest historic catches, since those companies may have been the ones that flooded the harvest grounds with too many boats, or broke safety and environmental regulations, or wasted the most fish.

"The people who overcapitalized the most, who showed very often the least business sense, are the ones who stand to gain the most," says Bob Storrs, a fisherman who helped organize the Alaska Marine Conservation Council. "No matter how they treated this resource, regardless of their attitude toward this publicly owned thing, we're going to give it to them forever. This is absolutely ridiculous."

The hub of the Bering Sea fishery is the remote island community of Unalaska, located some 800 miles southwest of Anchorage on the Aleutian chain. Unalaska moves to the rhythms of the fisheries, with great spasms of activity each winter as the factory trawler and crab fleets move north from Seattle to prepare for season openings. Hundreds of boisterous-sometimes brawling-fishermen and processing crews descend on the island bars as the vessels take on fuel, food, and other supplies. Then they take to the sea to work in mindnumbing shifts of six hours on, six hours off, for what may be weeks on end.

More than half of the Alaska bottom fish is taken by an at-sea factory fleet that harvests with trawl nets and lines dangling thousands of baited hooks. Tyson has a considerable stake in this fleet, but many of the biggest vessels are financed by Christiania and other foreign banks, and some are actually owned by foreign investors.

In addition to the factory ships, there are boats that deliver fish to shore plants for processing. One of the smallest of these is the 85-foot Lone Star, skippered by Chuck Burrece.

In the early days of the fishery, Burrece could find plenty of cod without venturing far from port. But this year, the season was short and the old fishing spot near town was closed to protect Steller sea lions. To find cod Burrece had to push the Lone Star to its limits, journeying 60 to 70 miles out to the dangerous strait known as Unimak Pass.

He worked the fishing ground for three days with a trawl net that scooped up about 200,000 pounds of edible fish. But Burrece and his two crewmen dumped some 70,000 pounds of dead and dying pollock, sole, and halibut. They got rid of the halibut because federal regulations retain them for the hook-and-line fleet. The rest went over because the plant Burrece delivers to was only prepared to handle cod.

Burrece recognizes that such waste is a miserable way to do business. But so long as the processor doesn't want those fish, there's no sense bringing them ashore. "We're not wasteful people," Burrece said. "I think it's bullshit to just shovel it all over the side. It's stupid because there's only so much out there."

The shore processors (most of which are owned by Japanese conglomerates) are another group concerned with how the fishery is reformed. They have managed to win special federal protection that guarantees them 35 percent of the pollock harvest through 1995. After that date, they fear they will lose out altogether in a reform program that simply doles out catching rights. They have argued for a second tier of "processing rights" that would mandate that they handle a portion of the catch. "If there's some benefit that's going to be handed out, we want to belly up to the bar like everyone else," says Dennis Phelan, a vice president of the Pacific Seafood Processors Association.

Tyson's outpost in Unalaska is in a small two-story office building squeezed between the mountains and a long dock frequented by its fleet. A sign posted on the wall warns crew members that "fighting, public intoxication, and reporting to the vessels under the influence of alcohol" are cause for firing. Don Tyson's son, John, who helped to arrange the Arctic Alaska buyout, has tried several times to visit the company's Unalaska outpost, but each time his aircraft was unable to land due to foul weather. The senior Tyson has yet to make the journey.

From a single chicken processing plant in the 1950s, Tyson has grown into the world's largest poultry producer. During the past 25 years, the company, through more than 20 acquisitions, sought to dominate a major share of the American food industry by expanding its "center-of-the-plate" protein offerings to include pork, beef, and now fish.

So far that strategy has paid off for both Tyson and its investors. The company's stock ranked third in total returns during the 20-year period that ended in 1992, according to one financial analysis. Last year, Tyson reported sales of $4.7 billion.

Tyson has also cultivated political ties, most notably with Bill Clinton after he was elected Arkansas' governor. Tyson offered Clinton rides in the company's corporate jet and became an important fund-raiser during his presidential bid. Tyson Food executives and their families gave $20,750 to Clinton's campaign and another $22,000 to Democratic Party organizations. The company's chief legal counsel, James Blair, is a close personal friend of the Clintons and advised Hillary on her well-publicized cattle futures trading.

The week before Tyson announced its 1992 purchase of Arctic Alaska, word of the buyout apparently leaked, triggering a surge of Arkansas investment in the fishing company. The federal Securities and Exchange Commission is now investigating a group of Arkansas investors, including a firm then headed by White House Administration Director Patsy Thomasson, for possible insider trading. For those investors, short-term profits were spectacular. When Tyson announced the buyout price, Arctic Alaska's stock shot up 69 percent.

But Tyson's stock dipped at the news, foreshadowing later trouble. Tyson took over a company that would ultimately be saddled with a criminal indictment.

Arctic Alaska was founded in 1983 by fisherman Francis Miller. At the time of Tyson's buyout, the company owned more than 30 trawlers, hook-and-line boats, and crab vessels.

Many of the vessels had been converted from other uses and shipped north without meeting stability standards required by the Coast Guard. One of those vessels, the Aleutian Enterprise, sank in a 1990 accident that claimed nine lives and triggered April's grand jury indictment against the company, Miller, and other Arctic officials of that era.

Schaffer, the Tyson spokesperson, said the indictment makes no suggestion that anyone in current management was involved, and adds, "[Tyson] deeply regrets the loss of life. The only other thing that I can say is that the company will vigorously defend the case.

The indictment painted a chilling picture of unqualified officers leading green-sometimes teenage-crews out to sea in unsafe ships. Officers must submit sea time to gain certification, and an affidavit unsealed after the indictment charged that Arctic Alaska officials had falsified that sea time.

In addition, Tyson has found that Miller was lax in pollution controls. Last year, Arctic Alaska was hit with a $750,000 fine by the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to grind and properly dispose of fish wastes under the Miller regime. The company also faces a criminal lawsuit filed by the state of Alaska charging that the fleet repeatedly fished with illegal bottom gear in sensitive coastal waters. Tyson has hired Alaska Gov. Walter Hickel's personal attorney, Hal Horton, to help settle the still-pending charges against Arctic Alaska. According to state officials, Tyson also flew legal counsel and Clinton friend James Blair up from Little Rock to plead Arctic Alaska's case.

Some fishing industry insiders wondered why Tyson would invest in a North Pacific company when it was apparent that too many boats were already chasing the fish. In an interview a few months after the acquisition, John Tyson told a trade journal that the company took its cue, in part, from industry proposals to create the share system. Tyson hopes that Arctic Alaska's long catch history will ensure a large slice of the fish pie. As it lobbies for the new system, Tyson is positioning itself as an "all-American" company that has a more legitimate claim to the resource than the foreign investors and banks that stand behind many other fishery players.

For decades foreign fleets controlled many of the trawler harvests in U.S. coastal waters. The 1976 Magnuson Act, which put a 200-mile zone under U.S. control, was in large part an attempt to claim the harvest for Americans. That vision was reaffirmed in 1987 by legislation that banned most foreign vessels from reflagging as U.S. ships, and also restricted foreign ownership of U.S. fishing vessels.

But some in Congress had doubts about squeezing off foreign investment that might help finance the American fleet, and the legislation had plenty of loopholes. During the next five years, some boats came under the direct control of foreign investors, while others were beholden to foreign banks.

The single biggest financier was Christiania Bank of Norway, which loaned at least $315 million to factory trawlers and other vessels. These vessels stampeded into the Bering Sea in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Now, with the short seasons and low prices, many ship operators can't make their payments. Christiania has foreclosed on at least four factory trawlers.

Along with the vessels, Christiania hopes to gain control of any fishing rights awarded to these companies. According to a Christiania loan document, the bank has asked its borrowers to sign covenants that pledge these rights as collateral. That means if the bank calls a loan, it will end up with both the vessel and a piece of the U.S. fishery.

Christiania officials say they don't plan to use the fishing rights. Instead, they want to sell them to recoup loan losses. But Tyson challenges Christiania's claim to the resource. "The whole idea of the Magnuson Act is to Americanize the fishery, and that just hasn't happened," says Tyson spokesperson Schaffer. "We believe that American ownership is important and that the companies that are American need to be rewarded."

The power to determine the fate of the Alaska fishery rests with the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, an 11-member group dominated by fishing industry representatives. They pass their plans on to the National Marine Fisheries Service, an agency in the Commerce Department, for final approval.

Most of the council members are from Alaska, and they have frequently aligned themselves with the shore plant operators out of concern that a share plan would give most of the harvest to out-of-state factory trawlers.

Nonetheless, the council has already approved a share plan for the $100 million-a-year hook-and-line harvest of halibut and black cod, and is now considering a share plan for the rest of the harvest. The hook-and-line plan set aside a small percentage of the catch for regional natives, and the new plan might do the same.

The council has been slow in developing the new share plan. In April, it voted to consider a two-step process that would first limit the size of the fleet, then eventually award rights. In a nod to conservation concerns, the plan also called for incentives that would give extra quotas to fishermen who reduced waste.

Tyson and other factory trawler owners have been lobbying to get the program on a faster track. For Tyson, that's also meant trying to improve the company's image in Alaska. Last March, Don Tyson flew to Alaska to meet with Gov. Hickel and other state officials. Tyson talked of investing in shore plants and using the corporation's power to push more fish into the American diet.

Alaska state officials claim that one Tyson representative said the company could talk to the White House about lifting a ban on the foreign export of Alaska oil, a congressional embargo that costs the state hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue. "They definitely left us with the impression that they had influence with the Clinton administration," says John Manly, Gov. Hickel's spokesperson. What Tyson wanted was fishery council members who would support a quota system.

Tyson spokesperson Schaffer says the Alaska officials were the ones who asked whether there was a way Tyson could influence Washington on the state's behalf. "What I told them is that I don't know whether there is or not but that I would look into it," says Schaffer. "That's about as far as it's gone." (If Tyson wanted to join forces with Alaska in fighting the oil embargo, they need look no further than the firm of Hal Horton, the lawyer they hired to defend Arctic Alaska-it is representing the state in a suit to overturn the federal government ban.)

Thus far, Tyson's success in shaping the council has been limited. For each vacant seat, the governor proposes three candidates, one of whom is selected to fill the post by U.S. Commerce Secretary Ron Brown. One of the nominees Tyson favored was pressured to withdraw by Alaska officials who feared a council tilt toward the Arkansas company. Another Tyson-backed candidate, Clem Tillion, is a controversial figure in Alaska, and the state Senate has asked Brown to pick someone else.

But Tyson is not ruling out further efforts. "We have not lobbied or talked to anyone in Washington about any candidate," Schaffer says, "but I think that Clem [Tillion] is someone who, if we decided to get involved in the process, we would be supportive of.... Fish regulation and fish politics are very different from what we'd been accustomed to, and we're still trying to find our way around the whole council system. "

If the council fails to deliver on the quota plan, Tyson or other factory trawler operators could go over their heads by lobbying the Clinton administration and Congress. Some factory trawler representatives have already proposed an amendment to the Magnuson Act-now up for reauthorization-that would give the Commerce Department power to develop a plan on its own.

But Rollie Schmitten, the director of the National Marine Fisheries Service, says the regional council should decide whether to introduce share plans. Schmitten also proposes a new fishing industry fee to finance $82 million of his agency's $280 million annual budget, a cost currently picked up by taxpayers. And he thinks those fortunate enough to claim harvest shares bear a special burden to pay. "If you are going to bestow a public resource to certain individuals, then there ought to be some sort of equity to the public," Schmitten says.

The Magnuson Act generally prohibits the government from levying fees on the use of national fisheries, but many members of Congress are joining Schmitten in pushing for amendments to the act that would allow for fees to help pay the cost of managing the resource and enforcing regulations.

However, any move to make the industry pay substantial fees or royalties will probably face a chilly reception. "We're open to discussing [fees and royalties]," says Schaffer. "But we've not taken a formal position on it."

The battle over the future of this fishery is likely to play out over the next few years both in Washington, D.C., and at Alaska council meetings. And while fishermen fight over who gets to profit from the resource, it will be up to the council and fishery managers to keep the fishery healthy.

Many fishermen are convinced that Alaska fisheries will remain strong, avoiding the fate of New England, Newfoundland, and other great fisheries that have been fished out. But conservationists fear these harvests could be the last buffalo hunts of a dwindling resource.

Everyone from Tyson officials to small boat fishermen like Chuck Burrece now speaks the gospel of conservation. But there are no saints in the fishing industry, especially when jobs are at stake.

Burrece, for example, feels squeezed between factory trawlers who are hogging the resource and regulators who might make him pay royalties for fishing rights. "We put our lives on the line, that's how we're paying," Burrece says angrily. "I got a lot of friends laying out there dead from catching fish. That's how we pay. That's enough."

Burrece knows he risks the same fate if he keeps defying the weather to go cod fishing. But in the race for fish, he figures he can't afford to be idle too long. On a dank evening last March, Burrece fidgeted at the dock. The forecast for the next day was bad: northeast winds gusting more than 60 miles per hour. But Burrece kept thinking about those factory trawlers that would be sure to haul in cod right through the storm.

Late in the evening, Burrece made up his mind. He told his crewmen to untie the lines, and the Lone Star motored out into the blackness of the Bering Sea.

Hal Bernton is an Alaska-based journalist who has written extensively on fisheries.


WHERE THE FISH AREN'T: Most of what we know about fish populations comes from fishermen, not biologists, and fishermen report declining levels worldwide. Other factors may enter in, but few dispute that overfishing imperils all of the world's major fisheries. The United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization determined in April 1994 that roughly 60 percent of fish populations they monitor are fully exploited or depleted. Of the 15 major fishing areas, four have declined 30 to 50 percent from estimated peak numbers, seven have declined 9 to 29 percent, and only four are at or near their estimated peak.



THE FISH ARE CALLING: Something is terribly wrong in the ocean and the fish are dying to tell us about it. About 235 million years ago, however, the sea recovered from a mass extinction that killed 96 percent of all life, so it can probably outlast the current human demolition derby. We won't.


WASTING AWAY: Alaska's trawlers threw away 763 million pounds of fish last year. Under the reform backed by Tyson, some of the most wasteful companies would get the biggest shares of the fishery.


FAST FOOD, SLOW FISHING: When the world fished only with small nets, hooks, and lines, instead of trawls the size of small shopping malls, the ocean could make fish as fast as we killed and ate them. From 1988 to 1990, Americans ate a record 47 pounds of seafood each, much of it imported; the Japanese, 160 pounds; and Icelanders, 203 pounds. The Maldivians on the Indian Ocean were the champions at 293 pounds.


FISH FIGHTS: The politics of fish in America have clearly promoted development over sustainability. Modern industrial fishing is run by insiders, many of whose fortunes depend on the decisions they make. Foxes and henhouses come to mind.


Why Haven't We Stopped Tuberculosis?

by Anne E. Platt; World Watch, July/August 1994

Tuberculosis, a disease many people associate with sequestered sanatoriums that were long ago abandoned or razed, has now reemerged as the number one killer among the world's infectious or communicable diseases. In 1993 alone, tuberculosis, also known as TB, killed 2.7 million people and infected another 8.1 million. In 1993, an estimated one-third of the world's population, or 1.7 billion people, were infected but had not yet developed the disease.

The current TB epidemic is expected to grow worse, especially in the developing world, because of the evolution of multi-drug-resistant strains and the emergence of AIDS, which compromises human immune systems and makes them more susceptible to infectious diseases. Since the medical knowledge exists to treat and cure TB, "this tragedy is totally unnecessary," Dr. Hiroshi Nakajima, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) said in January.

The resurgence of tuberculosis comes at a time when other infectious diseases that were thought to be well-controlled-malaria, cholera, and dengue fever among them-have increased and new diseases, notably AIDS, have emerged. Despite the advances in modern medicine, infectious diseases have persisted and continue to have a major effect on public health: in the 50 years following the discovery of antibiotics, efforts to control age-old epidemics have been overcome not by a lack of medical knowledge but by structural problems, including the lack of adequate health care in many parts of the world and increased rates of travel and migration.

Dengue fever, which causes hemorrhaging of the mucous membrane in the skin and abdomen, as well as aches, rash, vomiting, and fever, has been called "the epidemic waiting to happen." Dengue is endemic in Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean, while malaria is rampaging in sub-Saharan Africa, cholera is breaking out in South America, and the AIDS epidemic is sweeping through Africa, Asia, and the developing world. But the comeback of tuberculosis threatens more people than AIDS, cholera, dengue fever, and other infectious diseases combined. An estimated 2 to 3 million people were infected with HIV in 1993 worldwide, compared to WHO's estimate of 8 million people infected with TB.

By the year 2000, the global incidence of TB alone is expected to increase to 10.2 million cases per year-an increase of 36 percent over 1990's 7.5 million cases. Three- quarters of this increase can be traced to poor TB control programs, population growth, and the advancing age of the population; the remaining quarter is attributed to the interaction between the TB virus and the HIV virus. AIDS destroys the human cells that keep the TB virus dormant and accelerates the speed at which TB progresses from harmless infection to life-threatening disease. Overall, tuberculosis deaths are predicted to increase by one-sixth, to 3.5 million by the year 2000, killing 30 million people in this decade alone.

"The factors contributing to the increase in tuberculosis are multiple: it is not only HIV, it is not only the emergence of multi-drug-resistant strains, and it is not only because of the undermining and weakening of public health services worldwide," says Dr. Jonathan Mann of Harvard University's School of Public Health. "It is all of these things combined." The world is suffering from such a severe epidemic of tuberculosis that the World Health Organization declared a global state of emergency in April 1993.

To complicate matters, the United States and other countries are combating drug-resistant TB strains. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Health reported in 1992 that M. tuberculosis strains that are virtually resistant to all effective drugs have emerged in cities in the United States and elsewhere, with mortality rates over 50 percent. The academy concluded that a successful control program requires "an arsenal of vaccines and drugs" alongside diagnosis and surveillance.

Tuberculosis has special characteristics that set it apart from other infectious diseases, most of which rely on mosquitoes, rats, or water to transmit infection. Tubercle bacilli only live in human tissues, and tuberculosis can only be transmitted by close contact with an infected person. In a healthy individual, the immune system is normally able to wall off and isolate the bacilli in a nodule. This essentially neutralizes the tubercle bacillus, so the person has what is referred to as an inert infection. If the immune system remains strong, there is only a 5 to 10 percent chance of developing TB from an inert infection. But if the immune system is under severe stress-from HIV, diabetes, or chemotherapy for cancer, for example- the chances that the infection will develop into disease increase to as much as 10 percent in a single year.

A person who has active TB can spread the infection simply by coughing, sneezing, singing, or even talking. Another person has only to inhale the bacilli to become infected. If the infection is not detected and treated promptly, one person with active tuberculosis can infect an average of 10 to 14 people in one year and sometimes many more.

The estimated 1.7 billion people who have inert TB infections may show no symptoms at all. Only if those infections are activated will these people be at risk of developing the disease and transmitting it to others. Unfortunately, little is known about what activates a latent TB infection beyond the fact that people with healthy immune systems run a low risk of developing an active case of TB.

Because the already poor and disenfranchised populations of the world carry a disproportionate burden of tuberculosis, the disease has a certain stigma attached to it. But the unsanitary and crowded living conditions that are often connected to poverty do not cause TB to spread; they increase the chances that the infection will spread from person to person and the chances that a person's immune system may already be weak and therefore less able to fight the infection. Despite the misconceptions, tuberculosis is exacerbated only by the failure to detect and treat the infection properly and by close contact with infected individuals.

More than 95 percent of TB cases reported in 1990 were in the developing world, an estimated two-thirds of them in Asia. India accounted for 2.1 million cases. Developing countries are faced with a disproportionate number of cases because AIDS is spreading quickly, health services are inadequate, and little money is available for treatment. But tuberculosis is not limited to the developing world: Eastern Europe, France, Spain, and the former Soviet Union have also reported increases. In the United States, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 26,000 cases in 1992, up nearly 20 percent from 1985.

Global monitoring by the World Health Organization and regional health NGOs to identify and diagnose TB must be combined with sufficient infrastructure and resources, such as vaccines, medicines, trained health personnel, and clinics. As with other diseases, funding for research and prevention and treatment programs is essential.

Thanks to modern medicine, there is a low-cost, effective TB treatment with high cure rates among infected adults. It relies on four inexpensive drugs (rifampicin, isoniazid, pyrazinamide, and ethambutol) that have a 90 percent success rate if used every day for six to eight months. But if patients don't take the drugs consistently or don't complete treatment, TB strains develop that are more resistant to medicine, and sometimes even untreatable. If this drug regimen were used throughout the world, it would reduce the rate of transmission and cut the number of deaths by half over the next 10 years, according to WHO. In 1993, the World Bank identified short-term tuberculosis treatment as one of the most cost-effective ways to reduce the global burden of disease. In China, it costs only $13 for a supply of all the drugs needed to cure one person. In most developing countries, it costs less than $30 to save a life and prevent further transmission of the disease. In the United States, it costs up to $10,000 to treat an active case of TB compared to $200,000 to treat an active TB infection that has become drug-resistant. Worldwide, early treatment could prevent nearly 12 million deaths in the next decade, and save vast amounts of money.

The growing TB epidemic is a classic case of a public health crisis that could be headed off easily and inexpensively. Its fate will largely depend on the willingness of government and public health officials to invest up front in prevention and early intervention. If we ignore the extraordinary opportunity that exists now to fight the epidemic, we will pay a high price in lives and extensive health care costs later.

Anne E. Platt is a staff researcher at the Worldwatch Institute, where she studies environmental health and fisheries issues.


Project HAARP: The Military's Secret Plan to Alter the Atmosphere


by Clare Zickuhr and Gar Smith; Earth Island Journal, Fall 1994

The Pentagon's mysterious HAARP project, now under construction at an isolated Air Force facility near Gakona, Alaska, marks the first step toward creating the world's most powerful "ionospheric heater." Scientists, environmentalists and native peoples are concerned that HAARP's electronic transmitters-capable of beaming "in excess of I gigawatts" (one billion watts) of radiated power into the Earth's ionosphere-could harm people, endanger wildlife and trigger unforeseen environmental impacts.

The High Frequency Active Auroral Research Project (HAARP), a joint effort of the Air Force and the Navy, is the latest in a series of a little-known Department of Defense (DoD) "active ionospheric experiments" with codenames like EXCEDE, RED AIR and CHARGE IV.

"From a DoD point of view," internal HAARP documents state, "the most exciting and challenging" part of the experiment is "its potential to control ionospheric processes" for military objectives [emphasis in the original]. According to these documents, the scientists pulling HAARP's strings envision using the system's powerful 2.8-10 megahertz (MHz) beam to burn "holes" in the ionosphere and "create an artificial lens" in the sky that could focus large bursts of electromagnetic energy "to higher altitudes...than is presently possible." The minimum area to be heated would be 50 km (31 miles) in diameter.

The initial $26 million, 320 kW HAARP project will employ 360 72 foot-tall antennas spread over four acres to direct an intense beam of focused electromagnetic energy upwards to strike the ionosphere. The Earth's ionosphere is composed of a layer of negatively and positively charged particles (electrons and ions) Iying between 35 and 500 miles above the planet's surface. The next stage of the project would expand HAARP's power to 1.7 gigawatts (1.7 billion watts), making it the most powerful such transmitter on Earth. While the project's acronym implies experimentation with the Earth's aurora, HAARP's public documents make no mention of this aspect. For a project whose backers hail it as a major scientific feat, HAARP has remained extremely lowprofile-almost unknown to most Alaskans, and the rest of the country.

A November 1993 "HAARP Fact Sheet" released to the public by the Office of Naval Research (ONR) stated that the Department of Defense (DoD)-backed project would "enhance present civilian capabilities" in communications and "provide significant scientific advancements." However, while previous DoD experiments with smaller high frequency (HF) heaters in Puerto Rico, Norway and Alaska were conducted to "gain [a] better understanding" of the ionosphere, internal HAARP documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) reveal that the project's goal is to "perturb" the ionosphere with extremely powerful beams of energy and study "how it responds to the disturbance and how it ultimately recovers..."

The public fact sheet describes HAARP as "purely a scientific research facility which represents no threat to potential adversaries and would therefore have no value as a military target." However, while ionospheric experiments at the government's Puerto Rico transmitter site are managed by the civilian National Science Foundation, the Journal has learned that proposals for experiments on HAARP are to be routed through the Pentagon's Office of Naval Research.

A February 1990 Air Force-Navy document acquired by the Journal lists only military experiments for the HAARP project, including: "Generation of ionospheric lenses to focus large amounts of HF energy at high altitudes...providing a means for triggering ionospheric processes that potentially could be exploited for DoD purposes...; Generation of ionization layers below 90 km [145 miles] to provide radio wave reflectors ("mirrors") which can be exploited for long range, over-the-horizon, HF/VHF/UHF surveillance purposes, including the detection of cruise missiles and other low observables." The document concluded that "the potential for significantly altering regions of the ionosphere at relatively great distances (1000 km or more ) [1613 miles] from a heater is very desirable" from a military perspective.

One of HAARP's less-publicized goals is to find ways to disrupt the global communications capabilities of adversaries while preserving US defense communications. The Pentagon also wants to know if HMRP could bounce signals to deeply submerged nuclear subs by heating the ionosphere to trigger bursts of Extremely Long Frequency (ELF) radio waves.

Patents held by ARCO Power Technologies, Inc. (APTI), the ARCO subsidiary that was contracted to build HMRP, describe a similar ionospheric heater invented by Bernard Eastlund that claimed the ability to disrupt global communications, destroy enemy missiles and change weather. One of ARCO's patents identifies Alaska as a perfect site for a transmitter because "magnetic field lines...which extend to desirable altitudes for this invention, intersect the Earth in Alaska."

While HAARP officials deny any link to Eastlund's inventions, Eastlund has told National Public Radio that a secret military project was begun in the late-1980s to study and implement his work and, in the May/June 1994 issue of Microwave News, Eastlund claimed that "The HMRP project obviously looks a lot like the first step" toward his vision of surrounding the entire planet with a "full, global shield" of charged particles that could explode incoming enemy missiles.

The military implications of HMRP were further underscored in June, when ARCO sold APTI to E-Systems, a defense contractor noted for its work in counter-surveillance.


HMRP surfaced publicly in Alaska in the spring of 1993, when the Federal Aviation Administration (FM) began advising commercial pilots on how to avoid the large amounts of intentional (and some unintentional) electromagnetic radiation that HMRP would generate. Despite the protests of FAA engineers and Alaska bush pilots (for whom reliable communications can be a matter of life or death) the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) gave HMRP the green light. Ironically, the FEIS also concluded that the project's radio interference would be too intense to allow HMRP to be located near any military facilities.

On November 11, 1993, Inupiat tribal advisor Charles Etok Edwardsen, Jr., wrote to the White House on behalf of the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope and the Kasigluk Elders Conference. "Many of us are not happy with the prospect of ARCO altering the Earth's neutral atmospheric properties," Edwardsen wrote. "We do not wish to be anyone's testing grounds, as the Bikini Islanders have been...." referring to Pacific Islanders subjected to radiation exposure from US atomic bomb testing. Edwardsen has appealed to President Clinton to deny further funding to HMRP.

In the past, the EPA has accused the USAF of "sidestepping" the nonthermal hazards of electromagnetic pollution from powerful radar transmitters. Over the past three decades, numerous US and European studies have linked electromagnetic exposure to a range of health problems including fatigue, irritability, sleepiness, memory loss, cataracts, leukemia, birth defects and cancer. Electromagnetic radiation can also alter blood sugar and cholesterol levels, heart-rate and blood pressure, brain waves and brain chemistry.

Wildlife advocates also have cause to be concerned. The HAARP site lies 140 miles north of the town of Cordova on Prince William Sound, on the northwest tip of Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Since ordinary radar is known to be deadly to low-lying birds, HMRP's powerful radiation beam could pose a problem for migratory birds because the transmitter stands in the path of the critical Pacific Flyway. In addition, HMRP's ability to generate strong magnetic fields could conceivably interfere with the migration of birds, marine life and Arctic animals that are now known to rely on the Earth's magnetic fields to navigate over long distances.

The HAARP fact sheet states that "most of the energy of the high-power beam would be emitted upward rather than toward the horizon." Later on, however, the fact sheet notes that care will have to be taken "to reduce the percentage of time large signal levels would be transmitted toward large cities." The closest large cities are Fairbanks and Anchorage.

Even if HAARP's beam were to be directed primarily at the ionosphere, people on the ground would still have reason to be concerned. According to DoD consultant Robert Windsor, clear damp nights, downdrafts and temperature inversions can cause "ducting" and "super-refracting" that can send energy beams streaming back to Earth with "a significant-up to tenfold-increase in field intensity."

In addition to their main beams, all electromagnetic transmitters produce large swaths of "sidelobe" radiation along their flanks. US-based PAVE PAWS over-the-horizon radars, for example, use approximately one megawatt of power to send a 420-430 megahertz (MHz) beam on a 3000 mile-long sweep. At the same time, the "incidental" sidelobe radiation from these Pentagon radars can disable TVs, radios, radar altimeters and satellite communications over a 250-mile range. PAVE PAWS radiation can also disrupt cardiac pacemakers seven miles away and cause the "inadvertent detonation" of electrically triggered flares and bombs in passing aircraft. At peak power, the energy driving HAARP could be more than a thousand times stronger than the most powerful PAVE PAWS transmitter.


HMRP project manager John Heckscher, a scientist at the Department of the Air Force's Phillips Laboratory, has called concerns about the transmitter's impact "unfounded." "It's not unreasonable to expect that something three times more powerful than anything that's previously been built might have unforeseen effects," Heckscher told Microwave News. "But that's why we do environmental impact statements."

The July 1993 EIS does, in fact, admit that HAARP is expected to cause "measurable changes in the ionosphere's electron density, temperature and structure," but argues that these disruptions are insignificant "when compared to changes induced by naturally occurring processes."

Subjecting the ionosphere to HF bombardment can ionize the neutral particles in the upper atmosphere. The HMRP Fact Sheet notes that "ionospheric disturbances at high altitudes also can act to induce large currents in electric power grids" on the ground, causing massive power blackouts. According to the 1990 Air Force-Navy document, power levels of one gigawatt and above "can drastically alter [the ionosphere's] thermal, refractive, scattering and emission character." While the ionosphere over the government's smaller HF transmitter in Puerto Rico is relatively "stable," the document notes that the ionosphere above Alaska is "a dynamic entity" where added bursts of electromagnetic energy could trigger exaggerated effects.

Writing in Physics and Society (the quarterly newsletter of the American Physical Society), Dr. Richard Williams, a consultant to Princeton University's David Sarnoff Laboratory, denounced ionospheric heating tests as irresponsible and potentially dangerous.

"Trace [chemical] constituents in the upper atmosphere can have a profound effect" on the formation of ozone molecules, Williams stated. It is known that altering the temperature of the ionosphere can affect the chemical reactions that produce ozone. Referring to the Montreal Protocol (the international agreement to protect the ozone layer from ozone-depleting chemicals), Williams warned that activating HMRP's ionospheric heater "might undo all that we have accomplished with this treaty."

"Look at the power levels that will be used-10 [to the 9th] to 10 [to the 11th] watts!" Williams told the Journal in a recent interview. "This is equivalent to the output of ten to 100 large power-generating stations. A ten-billion-watt generator, running continuously for one hour, would deliver a quantity of energy equal to that of a Hiroshima-sized atomic bomb."

"Of course," Williams added, "they will operate in a pulsed mode [producing a series of short, powerful bursts], rather than continuously." The HMRP fact sheet states that the HF beam, which operates in the 2.8-10 MHz band, will only be used 4-5 times a year for several weeks at a time over a 20-year period. Nonetheless, Williams argued, to proceed without a full public discussion of HAARP's potential impacts runs the risk of committing "an irresponsible act of global vandalism. With experiments on this scale," Williams concluded, "irreparable damage could be done in a short time. The immediate need is for open discussion."

Dr. Daniel N. Baker, director of the University of Colorado's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, offered a less-alarming assessment. "The natural input of energy to the magnetosphere from the sun is very commonly 10 [to the 11th] - 10 [to the 12th] watts," Baker told the Journal. "Thus, HMRP may be a small fraction of the energy that flows into the region." Baker added that the ionosphere is, by nature, a "highly dynamic and fluctuating" environment that is able to "flush" away energy disturbances in a matter of hours or days.

Of course, in nature, one cannot simply "flush" something away without anticipating potential "downstream" consequences. Caroline L. Herzenberg, an environmental systems engineer at the Argonne National Laboratory, has suggested that, by "changing the chemical composition of the atmosphere; [and] transporting plumes of particulates or plasma within the atmosphere," HMRP may violate the 1977 Environmental Modification Convention, which bans all "military or any other hostile use of environmental modification techniques having widespread, long-lasting, or severe effects...." The US ratified the convention in 1979.


On June 14, a Senate committee report noted that the Deputy Secretary of Defense had called for increasing HMRP funding from $5 million to $75 million in the 1996 defense budget. The sudden increase would be used to promote a disturbing new mission for HMRP.

Instead of just pouring its vast energy into the skies, the transmitter's power would be aimed back at the planet to "allow earth-penetrating tomography over most of the northern hemisphere"-in effect, turning HAARP into the world's most powerful "X-ray machine" capable of scanning regions hidden deep beneath the planet's surface. According to the Senate report, this would "permit the detection and precise location of tunnels...and other underground shelters. The absence of such a capability has been....a serious weakness for [DoD] plans for precision attacks on hardened targets...."

Meanwhile, construction on the larger HMRP facility-with a potential effective radiated power of 1.7 GW (1.7 billion watts)-is set to begin in 1995. This expanded version would require additional funding from Congress. According to the 1990 project document: "The desired world-class facility... will cost on the order of $25-30 million." The Senate Committee's April report, however, predicts that the cost "could be as much as $90 million."

What You Can Do: Write Congress to demand a review of HAARP's environmental impacts. Request that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration [NITA, c/o US Department of Commerce, Washington, DC 20230] reject the HAARP frequency/power request pending the outcome of a Congressional inquiry. Queries and contributions may be sent to NO HMRP c/o Jim Roderick, PO Box 916, Homer, AK 99603.

Clare Zickuhr, a former ARCO employee and ham radio operator based in Anchorage, is a founder of the NO HAARP campaign. Gar Smith is editor of the editor of Earth Island Journal.

Project Censored page

Index of Website

Home Page