At a WRWA public session last winter, the group presented slides of “potential” HAB’s in the Wallkill. I inquired as to what species of algae was found, and how it was confirmed. Their answer “we’re not sure” didn’t work for me. I asked where the specimens were kept for testing. I was told that no specimens were actually collected.
I asked why the algae were suggested to be harmful at all, pointing out how the pictured algae appeared much like any of the thousands of species of benign algae which occur in North America. I was cut short by Executive Director Jason West, who writes his own salary grants.
We’re now reading headlines about “potential” HAB’s, which neglect to mention “blooms” in the Wallkill River have not been definitively ID’d in terms of actual species. This is both remarkable and scientifically reckless.
The WRWA has made it clear, since their formation, that HAB’s are their vector of interest: They’ve been trying desperately to see something which may or may not be present – and then, inexplicably, they stop short of specific identification…; but they issue press releases anyway.
To a serious ecologist, this is troubling.
There are over 900 genera of freshwater algae described in North America, with thousands of individual species. The phylum cyanobacteria, under which a few of the HAB genera and species fall (along with innumerable other benign species) is poorly understood, at best, with fewer than half its possible species even described.
More than 99.99 percent of the thousands of species of algae in North America are harmless, and actually serve important functions toward healthier ecosystems. The hyperbole surrounding HAB’s in our region should be taken for what it is – the ecological equivalent of opening a box of baking soda, observing a white substance within, and calling it “potential” anthrax. It could be anthrax, but such an ID would be sensational, create panic, make great publicity and lead to great funding.
This form of “greenwashing” (a term I coined 30 years ago) relies on “biophobia” (fear of nature) to foment public panic, as opposed to working against truly dangerous anthropogenic threats such as pesticides and habitat destruction. The fight against man-made threats carries the risks of litigation and powerful enemies.
Riverkeeper understands profit and risk: More than half of the $5 million annual contributions it received in 2014 went to staff pay.
Riverkeeper’s staff scientist, Bill Wegner, was hired in 1999 after serving a federal sentence for smuggling endangered bird eggs. His hiring prompted an exodus of many of Riverkeeper’s original visionaries, including Riverkeeper’s president Robert Boyle, dramatically changing Riverkeeper’s ethical composition.
Riverkeeper’s treasurer resigned, stating that hiring Wegner was “…particularly inappropriate because his crime was an environmental one.”
Having worked with Wegner in the 1980s, I personally understood the severity and self-serving greed of his crimes against nature.
Riverkeeper isn’t alone: In 2010, I discovered the DEC water-quality policy-maker who consistently recommended one herbicide worked for an NGO whose largest funder was the manufacturer of that pesticide.
While HAB’s do exist, their potency and occurrence are frequently exaggerated: Panic, after all, is the friend of Profit.
Jay Westerveld is a field ecologist and founder of the New York Natural History Council.