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July 21, 2006
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Transcript - July 21, 2006

BRANCACCIO: Welcome to NOW.

We want to begin with an urgent question—what to do about the sickening violence in the Middle East—in Gaza, in Israel and deep into Lebanon. Can America use its power to point the warring factions in a different direction? We want to turn to someone who's an expert at getting adversaries to stop fighting and start building peace. George Mitchell's resume includes distinguished service in his home state of Maine, and over a dozen years in the U.S. Senate—half as majority leader. But it was after he retired in 1994 that things really heated up: he's brokered ceasefires and peace agreements in hotspots including the Balkans, Northern Ireland and he served as Bill Clinton's special envoy to the mid-east.

BRANCACCIO: Senator Mitchell, good to see you.

MITCHELL: Thanks for having me.

BRANCACCIO: We have been trying to bring peace to the Middle East since well before I was born. What are we doing wrong?

MITCHELL: It's not so much what we're doing wrong but the complexity and difficulty of the situation that makes a stable peace—an elusive goal. But I don't think it's any reason for us to discontinue our efforts.

BRANCACCIO: So how do you get started when you have groups of people hell-bent on killing each other around a table? What do you to move this forward?

MITCHELL: Well, I think generally you have to accept the reality that—people act out of what they perceive to be their self-interest. And you have to try to identify what the self-interest is of each group and see if some common ground can be found.

There is, of course, common ground in the desire of every person or group or community—to live with some degree of dignity. I think you can build on that with most, not all groups. I think there are some who don't have any positive political goals, who you have to simply set out to destroy. I think al-Qaeda is one such example.

But I think one of the problems made in Western policy is to view terrorism as an enemy. Terror is a tactic, not an enemy. Terror wasn't invented in the Middle East. And it's not used exclusively in the Middle East. The fact is that some of the groups that use terror have coherent political objectives, can be discussed and dealt with. Others cannot be.

BRANCACCIO: Well, the Bush administration has lumped into its axis of evil ... Syria, supposedly the place where a lot of Hezbollah's arms are shipped through... Iran, which may be the paymaster of Hezbollah. Is it a problem that we can't engage them now?

MITCHELL: It is a problem. Saying you won't talk to people who do bad things has the benefit of moral clarity, of simplicity, easily stated and easily understood. But, of course, it frequently encounters the situation you've just described when you want something from someone and you don't talk to them, and you have to figure out a way to communicate.

I would be amazed if we aren't already engaged in some indirect dialogue at least with the Syrians because to me—Syria and Iran are not identical. And while the interest may overlap with respect to Hezbollah, they don't overlap with respect to everything. And I think that there is at least a reasonable basis to believe that we ought to be pursuing—options there.

BRANCACCIO: Kofi Annan at the UN wants hostilities to stop immediately, he said this week. But he says his delegation that he's dispatched to the region will take some time before they can actually bring about a ceasefire. Time really is of the essence in the situation right now on the ground, isn't it?

MITCHELL: I think his aides report to him that it will take some time is probably correct, although I hope it's not too much more time, because the number of civilian casualties in both Lebanon and Israel is rising.

But I do think in the very near future there will be a mechanism established to bring it to an end in the expectation and hope certainly that Hezbollah will not be permitted to continue both to be armed and physically present on the northern border of Israel, the southern border of Lebanon.

Obviously the best way to do it would be to enforce the United Nations Security Council Resolution, which calls for them to be disarmed. Private militias are incompatible with democratic governments.

BRANCACCIO: You've invested a lot of your personal time and effort in trying to bring some peace to this very region, to the Middle East. It must profoundly disappoint you when you watch the coverage that we're seeing.

MITCHELL: It's disappointing and, of course, sad to see so many people killed and so many people living in constant fear and anxiety. The people of Israel have a state, but they don't have security. They suffer from very high levels of fear and anxiety from suicide bombers, from rockets—from the north.

Palestinians, of course, have had their economy almost completely destroyed and are not able to live with any degree of dignity. And now Lebanon, which went through a truly destructive and tragic civil war is faced with the prospect of destruction of much of its infrastructure and the death of many of its citizens now. So it is indeed sad.

There are many fiendishly complex elements to what is going on now. But I believe that with United States leadership and with the assistance of others of our allies, most notably the Europeans and the Russians, that some semblance of order can be brought. And some meaningful effort to bring about a broader resolution remains possible.

BRANCACCIO: Well, Senator Mitchell, thank you very much.

MITCHELL: Thank you, David.

VO: NOW continues on the road with Public Broadcasting's David Brancaccio.

BRANCACCIO: Welcome to Chesapeake Bay. We're here because this vast bay has big environmental problems. Scientists are trying to figure out how much of them are due to the unlimited harvesting of strange but important little fish.

It's a smelly, oily, toothless fish you'd never want to eat. But the menhaden are critical to the environment here. They filter the bay and are a vital food for the bigger fish we do eat. But run them through a factory and the menhaden also make good chicken feed... or fertilizer, and

even those Omega-3 supplements you find at a drug store.

And that's where the money and politics come in. Producer Karla Murthy and I worked with Mother Jones magazine on this report.

BRANCACCIO: Late afternoon is one of the best times to catch striped bass in the Chesapeake Bay ... says Jim Price. He should know—his family has made a living fishing these waters for five generations.

PRICE: Just went over a school of fish we're going to try em—you can get your tackle out...

BRANCACCIO: The Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in North America—and home to a lot of America's favorite seafood—blue crabs, oysters, and today's catch, striped bass or "rockfish" arguably the most prized and revered game fish in the bay.

PRICE: You're gonna make me look bad if we don't catch some rockfish...

BRANCACCIO: Eventually price and his fishing buddies hit the jackpot. But once they get a good look at their catch, they notice... something is wrong.

BUDDY: "There is a classic lesion right there—that's what we look for—and that's what we prefer not to see..."

BRANCACCIO: Of the eight fish they caught, five had these red sores on their bodies. The striped bass—are sick. But Jim price already knew that... he first reeled in a sick striped bass nine years ago—and he hasn't forgotten it...

PRICE: When I first saw it, I had no idea at all of whatsoever could possibly cause this. And that fish was—has always been important to me and my family for generations has made a living out of catching the fish. And to—to see something like that, it was just shocking.

BRANCACCIO: Since then price has been on something of a crusade—to figure out what is causing this. He began collecting data on the fish he caught.. And he noticed a trend—these striped bass weren't just getting lesions, they were also getting skinnier.

PRICE: It appears to be a nutritional stress. Because there's no body fat ...

BRANCACCIO: Price is a fisherman not a scientist, but his theory is that the striped bass are starving... and that means they're not finding enough of their favorite food—an oily bony fish called menhaden.

They aren't as famous as their prized predators... But menhaden are vital to this bay. So vital that scientists are trying to figure out if Price is correct...that numbers of menhaden are dwindling. The prospect of fewer menhaden has conservationists up in arms...and has the one company that harvests menhaden commercially fighting back

The result? A political showdown that pits state against state ... one that could have major consequences for the environment and for the industry that depends on these little fish.

GOLDSBOROUGH: You could easily claim that menhaden is the most important fish in Chesapeake Bay, if not in the—the ocean in th—this region of the world. It is what an ecologist would call a keystone species.

BRANCACCIO: Bill Goldsborough is a senior scientist from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation—the oldest conservation group in the region. He says menhaden are like workaholics in the service of the environment.

They don't just feed other fish. Menhaden also help clean the water. And that's especially important around here.

GOLDSBOROUGH: It is a filter feeder. Much like an oyster, it—it takes in bay water, filters out particles—seeking to feed on microscopic plants that are overabundant in the bay.

BRANCACCIO: The bay has been fighting an ongoing battle against pollution. Every time it rains- everything from farm fertilizers to sewer waste funnels into the bay... creating a nitrogen mix perfect for growing lots of algae.

And that's where menhaden come in—- they like to munch on those microscopic plants...

GOLDSBOROUGH: So it is a key link in the food chain that in the process of feeding these very valuable fish—helps keep the water clean.

BRANCACCIO: But some say that menhaden are just as important out of the water as they are in it... industry has figured out how to turn these fish into a profit. If you grind up menhaden into fish meal—it makes a fine fertilizer for crops and a high protein animal feed—even their oils can be extracted for industrial use.

During the last century—the menhaden industry boomed. Up and down the Atlantic coast, dozens of factories turned an ocean of fish into a lucrative business... But in the 1960s, that boom turned into a bust. The menhaden were being over fished. Factories were bought out or went bankrupt... today, just one company is left standing....

GASCON: We have eleven vessels in the Atlantic. We fish thirty vessels in the Gulf of Mexico...

BRANCACCIO: Toby Gascon works for Omega Protein. The last commercial menhaden fishing company on the entire east coast. It's operation dominates the Virginia village of Reedville .

GASCON: The—this company is entrenched in this community. Actually the community was started and—and formed as a result of—of the menhaden processing industry.

BRANCACCIO: Omega is headquartered in Texas—and has some fishing operations along the gulf coast . But their plant in Reedville is the largest—and helps makes Omega the nation's leading producer of menhaden fish meal and oils.

These days—harvesting of menhaden is done a little differently... Omega sends out spotter planes, to find the huge clusters of menhaden fish. Then, boats are called in to circle the fish with industrial sized nets that cinch the fish up like a purse.

It's an impressively efficient way to catch fish. And in sheer weight—has made tiny Reedville the second largest fishing port in the country.

The fish end up here, where they're cooked, pressed, and ground up. A lot of it turns into these mountains of fish meal. It's shipped out by the truckload for animal feed and fertilizers. The oils are processed here—and end up in everything from that faux butter stuff to fancy salad dressing. Put together—those little fish make Omega millions of dollars.

But Omega's been having a tough time. Their industrial sized nets have been banned up and down the east coast. All that's left is North Carolina, and in Virginia's half of the Chesapeake Bay.

GASCON: We—we fish where the fish are. We have been limited by other states in that we don't have the ability to—to fish in their water. So they've kind of constricted us down to the Chesapeake Bay.

BRANCACCIO: And that concentrated fishing effort in Virginia's stretch of the bay has Bill Goldsborough worried...

GOLDSBOROUGH: We have a particular concern here in Chesapeake Bay because 50 to 75 percent of the commercial catch of menhaden coast wide comes out of lower Chesapeake Bay.

BRANCACCIO: Goldsborough says we're already seeing warning signs that Omega is taking too much menhaden. Remember those red sores on the striped bass? He says that's just the beginning.

Menhaden are so critical to the ecosystem here—for feeding other fish and for fighting pollution in the Bay... he worries that taking so much of such a key species will upset the environmental balance in the Chesapeake...

GOLDSBOROUGH: The numbers of menhaden in the Atlantic coastal population have been going down steadily for the last 15 years and are approaching—the lowest level on record. So, there's no doubt that there is reason for concern about the menhaden population.

GASCON: We take all worries seriously—because we realize that we share the waters and our natural resources with everyone. However, these worries are not legitimate.

BRANCACCIO: Gascon says Omega is not taking too many menhaden out of the water. He argues that no one cares about the health of those fish more than his company.

GASCON: No one has a greater interest in the health and sustainability of—of this—this species of fish than—than this company because our—our business depends on it. Our future depends on it.

BRANCACCIO: Goldsborough says—of course it's in Omega's best interest to care about menhaden... but that's just one fish. He says—we've got to start paying attention to all fish in the bay.

And failure to do so could lead to disastrous results... he cites the historic collapse of the North Atlantic Cod Fishery—a five hundred year old fishery—nearly wiped out.

GOLDSBOROUGH: If you look at an individual fish species and ignore the fish that it depends on and that depend on it, then you're doomed to failure. You're doomed to repeat all of the mistakes of the past where that approach has been employed and stocks have collapsed anyway.

BRANCACCIO: Goldsborough's group—the Chesapeake Bay foundation—joined a coalition of sports fishermen and environmentalists... called Menhaden Matter... they began a campaign—demanding not an end to menhaden fishing but a limit—a cap on the size of Omega's catch.

They took their case to a government agency—the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries commission...a commission where representatives from all east coast states try to hash out coast wide fishing policies.

Last summer—they voted for an annual cap on Omega's harvest. It was the first time the Atlantic states commission had ever voted to limit the menhaden catch.

Omega was not happy.

GASCON: I was extremely disappointed that this—this commission—this very res—well respected commission decided to pass management measures that were—was not based on science—and it sets a very dangerous precedent.

BRANCACCIO: Gascon says that the cap isn't justified because there's no hard evidence that Omega is over fishing menhaden in the Bay. And he's right...scientists are working right now to figure that out. But their studies won't produce comprehensive data for a few more years.

That's a big reason why the proposed cap was set to keep Omega's catch at current levels. Not an outright ban—more like putting on the brakes until the scientists know for sure what is going on.

GOLDSBOROUGH: The actual responsibility of a good steward of a natural resource is to be precautionary. It is to be aware of warning signs ahead a time. And - even if you don't have complete documented proof of a problem, you're going to act however modestly to avoid a problem.

BRANCACCIO: But Omega believes that what's really going on is an attempt to shut them down.

GASCON: When you talk about precautionary, you—you can ratchet precautionary down to we couldn't catch enough fish to—to stay in business here. A direct cap on this fishery would—would limit us and—and our ability to—to go out and—and make our fish catch in the good years. And that—that would eventually lead to, you know, possible cutbacks.

BRANCACCIO: You're talkin' about jobs.

GASCON: Yeah, it you—you could lose—you could lose many of these jobs. You could lose all of these jobs.

BRANCACCIO: Omega is the largest employer in the northern neck of Virginia—employing around 275 workers. And those jobs are vital in an already depressed rural county.

But Goldsborough says—those jobs aren't going anywhere.

GOLDSBOROUGH: The precautionary measure that's being proposed right now is to cap it at current levels. Jobs would not be affected. It's a red herring, to use a term, for them to suggest that jobs are being threatened by this current proposal.

BRANCACCIO: But even though the Atlantic states commission passed the cap on menhaden—it doesn't go into effect until it's turned into state law.

And this is where it gets a little odd... in Virginia, a decision about fish usually falls to a local state commission of biologists and resource managers. They regulate the catch for every fish in Virginia—except one—menhaden. Menhaden are regulated instead by the Virginia assembly—so the fate of this one fish is held in the hands of politicians.

And critics contend that Omega benefits from this arrangement because those politicians may be swayed a lot more by a big money employer than some possible concerns about ecosystems.

BRANCACCIO: Do ya think the Virginia General Assembly is the right place to be regulating this particular fish?

GASCON: Absolutely, I—I think the Virginia General Assembly is the right place. We have a very long history of—the support of the Commonwealth of Virginia. And—and that's what's kept us here. That's what's kept these jobs here.

BRANCACCIO: Omega has lobbied over the years to keep menhaden regulated by Virginia legislators. They've also been a consistent contributor to their political campaigns...in the end- Omega got what they wanted . This year—three bills that would have enacted the cap... died in subcommittee.

Virginia's refusal to enact the cap on menhaden now pits this state against its Chesapeake Bay neighbor, Maryland.

SLATTERY: States don't wanna be told what to do. But we've all opted into this process, because we recognize that—that these are resources that—that we hold in common

BRANCACCIO: Mike Slattery works for Maryland's Department of Natural Resources—and his office supported the cap. But, he says he's been trying to work out a compromise with Omega from the beginning.

SLATTERY: Initially we were—negotiating with the company and—had some, what I consider to be very favorable meetings.

BRANCACCIO: Slattery says—at first—Omega seemed willing to work out a solution. He says the company had even promised to help with research on menhaden and would fund some of the studies. But, he says none of those promises were kept.

SLATTERY: When it came down to actually put up—the company adopted a rather arrogant posture and insisted that they were right. And they were going to continue to press for what they wanted, and became very uncooperative

BRANCACCIO: Virginia had until July 1st to enact the cap—that deadline came and went... the Atlantic states commission could find Virginia out of compliance. If the federal government agrees with the commission, It could have dire consequences for Omega.

SLATTERY: If they are found out of compliance, they will be shut down—absent being overturned by a court ruling. And that, you know, that concerns them. It should. You know, nobody wants that.

BRANCACCIO: It seems though that this is a pretty high stakes strategy that you're company is engaged in. Isn't there a risk that you could get shut down?

GASCON: That's what some people like to say. Because I think that puts pressure on state officials here in Virginia—and—and kinda twists their arm a little bit to—to enact this.

BRANCACCIO: The commission meets next month to decide the company's fate. In the meantime—Omega continues to fish as much as it wants in the Chesapeake Bay, and they just added another boat to their fleet this year.

As for Jim Price...the fishermen who first sounded the alarm—he's found himself in an uncomfortable position—taking a stand that might leave fellow fishermen high and dry.

PRICE: I don't wanna see any commercial industry put out of business. I come from a commercial background. I've got no problem with commercial fishermen catching striped bass, menhaden, as long as it's managed and regulated properly. But it's not up to the individual fisherman or Omega Protein to decide how many they take. That's up to the public and to the managers. What do we want?

BRANCACCIO: And that's a difficult question to answer, given the stark trade-offs.

SLATTERY: It's tough. It's very tough. Especially when we're talking about such real and tangible potential consequences as lost jobs and crushed industries. Or, for that matter—depleted natural resources. You know, this is not a resource that is simply owned by Omega. This is a resource that is important to ecosystems all up and down the eastern seaboard. And while that balance is very difficult to strike, it is also necessary

BRANCACCIO: And that's it for NOW. From Chesapeake Bay, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.

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