As the heat and humidity of summer bore down on my home turf of New England last week, I made a run for it, spending two days traveling northeast at breakneck speed towards the normally cool coast of Nova Scotia.
I arrived just in time for a rare heat spell here on these windy islands sticking out into the north Atlantic.
Today it was up in the 90s Farenheit, the sun golden-bright and merciless. Too hot to go out to the beach—a day for staying in the shade and drinking lots and lots of water.
The Canadian Maritimes are a prime source of farmed mussels, and I was eagerly picturing a pot full of the glistening blue-black beauties, steamed in a fragrant shallot and wine sauce.
Ignoring the sad, dried-up looking fish at the Atlantic Superstore fish counter, I confidently asked for a 5-pound net bag of mussels, and placed it in my shopping cart.
I started walking around the store briskly, revived by the freezing air conditioning. But I kept getting whiffs of a strange smell, like something rotten. After a few minutes, I realized it was coming from my cart. It was the mussels.
I returned the bag to the fish counter, where the server took it back without argument.
So much for my fantasy of a mussel dinner.
On the way home, we stopped to pick up a local newspaper, and while waiting in a long hot road construction line, I noticed a small headline tucked on the inside pages: “Shellfish Harvesting Suspended Due to Red Tide.”
My son and I looked at each other in dismay. We had already noticed, on our first walk on our normally pristine local beach, that the water was a strange rusty-red color.
We had noticed too that there seemed to be fewer seabirds around, and that when we went down to the rocks to look for the normally numerous crabs, we could hardly find any.
We had been planning to go clamming over the weekend, out on the mud flats at low tide.
That plan would have to go the way of the mussel dinner.
When we got home, we went to the Internet to look up Red Tide, learning that it was more properly known as Harmful Algal Bloom (HAB), and that it was almost ubiquitous along the Atlantic and Pacific coastlines, especially during the summer.
We learned that eating shellfish that have been harvested from HAB water can cause “paralytic toxic poisoning” in humans, characterized by gastrointestinal and respiratory distress. Good thing I left those stinking mussels at the Superstore!
HABs have disastrous effects on other species like fish, waterfowl, dolphins, whales, and seals.
If I can’t eat mussels I may be piqued, but I can find something else just as good to eat on land.
Ocean denizens have no such options. I began to picture cormorants and seagulls with bad tummy aches. No wonder we’d seen very few of the big blue herons that used to be so numerous in the salt marshes.
While HABs are sometimes natural, there is nothing normal about the dramatic spike in coastal red tides we’ve been seeing for the past 25 years or so. They are part of the same phenomenon that causes the dead zones around the mouths of rivers that run through densely populated agricultural regions. This summer, scientists are forecasting the largest dead zone ever recorded in the Gulf of Mexico—some 8,500 square miles.
It’s human and animal sewage and fertilizer run-off that upsets the natural chemical balance of the coastal waters, feeding the destructive algae at the expense of everything else.
What we humans break, we can also fix. We could fix this problem if we wanted to. But I found mention only of closing shellfish beds to harvesting, not of trying to turn the entire problem around by reducing the amount of shit we allow to run off into the sea.
I thought that up here in Nova Scotia I might be able to escape from the relentless, depressing awareness of the cascading, ever-quickening destabilization of the natural world.
That’s just another little fantasy I’ll have to give up. There’s nowhere to run, much less to hide.