Reconnections, Coincidences and “Coastal Governance” by Richard Burroughs

When I think of Richard Burroughs, author, biologist and professor at the University of Rhode Island, I remember a nice teenager, decked out in a sou’wester standing at the stern of his runabout as he motored through post-war Edgartown harbor—the sleepy whaling village on Martha’s Vineyard that became overpopulated after Kennedy’s Camelot and the making of Jaws.

More reminiscing: while others view Jaws as a classic, I watch dock scenes recognizing the extras, family friends; some like my parents are buried overlooking Edgartown harbor. These extras were also acquaintances of Richard’s mother, Polly, whom I fondly remember walking down Fuller Street accompanied by a golden retriever, both heading for a swim off Starbuck’s Neck.

Fast forward fifty-plus years and I am at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. In the art museum bookstore, I find The Harriman Expedition to Alaska by adventurer George Bird Grinnell, and to my surprise discover the introduction is by Polly Burroughs. Further investigation reveals that Grinnell was an uncle to Polly and Richard. Mrs. Burroughs has authored many books from an amusing tale, The Honey Boat, about the necessity to pump sewage from even the toniest yachts, to a serious work about Vineyard artist Thomas Hart Benton, not to mention an impressive collaboration with famed photojournalist Alfred Eisenstaedt.

Polly’s introduction to The Harriman Expedition to Alaska retells family lore about a rowdy Grinnell who was suspended from Yale but went on to become publisher of Forest and Stream, an early tabloid which promoted conservation. Grinnell predicted the fate of the buffalo by saying, “Their days are numbered.”

Recently I chatted with Susan Vescera, mother to Kate (gf of my son Oliver). Sue digs and archives fossils in Borrego Springs for the State of California. I mentioned Richard Burroughs’ book might interest her and discovered Sue is great-granddaughter of geologist Karl Grove Gilbert who like Grinnell accompanied Harriman on his 1899 scientific expedition to Alaska. Just as Vescera’s lineage possesses scientific genes, the Burroughs family tree reveals foresight about protecting the environment. These coincidences make reading Burroughs’ book richer for me.

Coastal Governance is informative, yet sensible about coming to terms with overcrowded coastal communities and depleted off-shore fishing banks. Governance can be read as a textbook; it has chapter summaries, discussion questions and details about the alphabet soup of state and federal agencies that trip each other vying for authority to clean up waterways or shore up eroding beach heads. Burroughs insists, “lack of coordination has led to a predicament in which both social and natural systems are degraded…[and] without overall goals for coasts and oceans, determination of a preferred use rests on complex and often indeterminate processes of bargaining.” (p. 188)

Burroughs isn’t preachy and often concludes passages with the reality that jobs are needed and compromises must be reached, and comments, “incorporating the needs of individuals for seafood and livelihoods while respecting the biological limits of coastal waters form the core of the ecosystem-based management challenge for the fisheries.” (p. 184) Ecosystem-based management, “recognize that ocean and coastal resources should be comprehensively managed to reflect relationships among all components of the system—including people.” (p. 189) Although Burroughs doesn’t advocate one way of reform, he writes about incremental change or “changing parts of the existing policy system in small ways,” (p. 131) as perhaps the most practical way to achieve results.

Burroughs weaves historical anecdotes into easy-to-understand scientific explanations about the human predicament of providing food, jobs and recreation while trying to minimize waste and curtail pollution. His history of New York City’s sewage treatment begins in the seventeenth century when chamber pots were dumped into street drainage ditches. Underground sewers began appearing in the first half of the nineteenth century. Few understood sewage had to be treated or kept away from drinking water; it was thought just moving dirty water would make it clean. Not resolved until the early twentieth century, frequent outbreaks of cholera and typhoid occurred. (p. 30-32)

A brief segue from Burroughs’ book to a Google Search shows a nineteenth century Jacob Riis photograph of children playing in street gutters near the carcass of a dead horse, further visualizing what Burroughs expresses. While change came even slower to New York’s Lower East Side, it was finally recognized that dreaded diseases didn’t stay in slums or merely sicken the other. My great aunt Marcia Allen who lived Upstate in Avon, New York succumbed to typhoid at age six.

Of interest to Alaskans whose economy is oil-based, Coastal Governance instructs that, “oil is solar energy provided in a liquid form.” Through photosynthesis organic materials accumulate in underground reservoirs (p.43-45). Burroughs explains the process of oil exploration into “ever deeper ocean waters” including the issuance of leases, how to drill and what happens when there are spills. He points out the ever-increasing technology needed to clean up, “has not kept pace.” (p.64)

Dredging harbors should also interest Alaskans as Cook Inlet is continuously deepened to accommodate ever bigger ships, thus keeping the state fed and clothed. According to Burroughs, “in 1957 [vessels] carried 226 containers, twenty feet long and drew twenty-five feet….new containerships entering service today haul well over 11,000 twenty-foot equivalent units and draw fifty feet of water.” (p. 67) Faster hydraulic methods dredge channels more efficiently but larger amounts of detritus must be dealt with.

Not all that is dredged is free of pollutants. Used as fill for creating more urban spaces, dredged materials ruined wetlands along with waterfowl and nesting habitats. Today clean fill is identified and used to restore beach erosion and, ironically, marshes. (p.78) Burroughs continues to pose both sides of the dialectic explaining, “although bigger ships and more efficient ports boost the national economy, they can also degrade the coastal environment.” (p.84)

“Fishing is one of the oldest uses of the sea,” says Burroughs. (p.163) To Alaskans, fishing is subsistence; it’s big business and a sport. In my recent memory, crab and now King Salmon have experienced abrupt declines. Burroughs elaborates that modern fishing vessels have become off-shore processing plants as nets “can sweep through a greater volume of water in a set time…[while the]freezing of fish at sea supplanted chilling them using ice, [which meant] the marketing possibilities expanded greatly.” (p. 165) Though poaching seems unavoidable, government agencies now require permits and impose limits on amounts caught.

According to Burroughs, “many fish consumers carry cards with them that identify the environmentally preferable fish to eat at restaurants or to purchase in markets.” (p. 171) My New York University daughter, Maddy, says some Manhattan restaurants charge customers for leaving fish on their plates. Burroughs continues to be the realist when saying, “Human needs for food result in fishing that in turn affects the populations of fish…[and] if overfishing degrades the biological system, then livelihoods and communities are affected…[thus] the challenge for fisheries management is to adjust human behavior so that natural and social systems prosper.” (p. 184)

Richard grew up an avid sailor and knows first hand, “people are drawn to the sea.” (p.185) Continuing to pepper his data with of-interests, Burroughs explains that in the early part of the century the catch in the US was about three billion pounds per year. Today the US catches 9.5 billion pounds per year. (p. 163-164) The early seventies was a turning point, adopting legislation and recognizing the need to stop, “[paving] over marshes and [dumping] waste into estuaries.” (p. 187)

Burroughs explains dilemmas facing present day America where, “rivers for direct water use, for navigation, and for economic development were essential for the growth of the country.” (p. 143) He waxes, “responding to the Great Depression, landing a human on the moon, and protecting equal rights required fundamental changes in policy…coasts and oceans are receiving similar attention by many today.” (p. 132) Burroughs cautions, “knowing the acceptable flow of a given pollutant is only a first step in this process.” (p. 152)

Coastal Governance by Richard Burroughs (available at Amazon) is a great resource for high school and college students, and provides knowledge for voters to make informed decisions. Great-great uncle George Bird Grinnell would be proud of nephew Richard’s book.

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Jean Bundy is a writer/painter living in Anchorage. She holds degrees from The University of Alaska, The University of Chicago and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and is a member of AICA/USA. Jean is a PhD candidate with IDSVA. Her whaling abstracts and portraits have been shown from Barrow to New York City.


She can be reached at: 38144 [at] alaska [dot] net

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