10/09/09 — Local activist 'expresses' views on Neuse River

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Local activist 'expresses' views on Neuse River

By Ryan Hanchett
Published in Sports on October 9, 2009 1:46 PM

NEW BERN -- Activism is defined by a person's ability and willingness to be accountable for what he or she thinks is right.

Sometimes, more than words are used to explain the message.

Larry Baldwin is a perfect example.

Frustrated with the local government's inactivity surrounding major ecological events in the Neuse River, Baldwin decided to make his point with a simple -- yet profound -- demonstration.

With several supporters by his side, Baldwin marched into the Craven County Health Department and asked a simple question, "What is being done to monitor the river and keep the dead fish from impacting human health?"

To make sure his sentiment hit home, Baldwin brought several containers of river water and a few dead fish that he had plucked from the Neuse earlier in the week.

"I think what we did may have been taken the wrong way originally," Baldwin said Thursday. "We didn't go to the health department to stage a publicity stunt. We simply wanted to be heard."

There was no immediate response, but the demonstration has led to inquiries from several local politicians and researchers in recent days.

Menhaden have been turning up dead since August and though the rate of deaths has decreased, the problem persists. Approximately 70 million Menhaden have died in the last 60 days, and the ecological effects are being felt along the entire expanse of the Neuse.

Aside from the obvious devastation to Menhaden population, the natural predation effects are even more profound. Menhaden serve as a source of food for several other species.

"Small Menhaden like the ones in the original mass kill are vital to the food chain," said Baldwin. "The problem that we are seeing now is that larger and larger fish are starting to turn up dead. Some as large as seven inches."

The effect that thousands of decaying fish could have on humans is not yet known. Baldwin is not satisfied with the wait-and-see approach.

"I don't know how anyone can look out at this river, see a ton of dead fish floating in it and not be concerned," said Baldwin. "Because this kill has been going on for several weeks, my focus has shifted away from the effects on nature to the possible effects on humans."

Officials from the Craven County Health Department noted that the department is not responsible for monitoring river water quality.

Baldwin insisted that the water quality and the events that have led to the ongoing fish kill should be considered a public health concern. He added multiple state agencies need to be active in finding a solution to the river's problems.

"One good thing is that this problem is occurring late in the year so we don't have as many people on the water," he said. "But even in October there are fisherman, kayakers and boaters who have to look at this every time they come out."

The Mum Festival, one of New Bern's biggest events of the year, is scheduled for this weekend. The celebration will bring thousands of people in contact with the river.

"We had a lady suggest that maybe the mum smell could cover the dead fish smell," said Baldwin. "If only it were that simple."