North by East
The deadliest catch, nice needles, and more.
Cartoon by Molly Obourn Fedarko
The Deadliest Catch
Ahoy, there, Discovery Channel! You’re filming in the wrong place, and more.
It’s time for the Discovery Channel to either rename its reality television series about commercial fishing or change the setting. Turns out Deadliest Catch is a title better suited to a reality series about the Northeast groundfish fishery than it is Alaskan king crabbing.
Groundfishermen in the Northeast suffer the highest death rate among commercial fishermen, according to a study recently published by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Twenty-six of 4,340 full-time groundfishermen died on the job between 2000 and 2009, the study found. The dubious honor of second-deadliest catch goes to Atlantic scalloping. Forty-four of 10,384 scallop fishermen lost their lives at sea during that same decade. By comparison, twelve of 4,658 Alaskan crab fishermen were killed.
The findings don’t surprise Captain Dave Haggerty of Harpswell, whose big catches have earned him the title of the “Haddock King” among his peers in the Northeast groundfishery. “I can’t speak to Alaskan crab fishing because I’ve never been there,” says Haggerty, who skippers the eighty-five-foot trawler Harmony out of Portland, “but I’d guess the two regions are equally bad in winter. The icing situations here are very dangerous.” In 2007, the New Bedford dragger Lady of Grace capsized in Nantucket Sound from the heavy weight of the ice that encased its deck and rigging. “All hands were lost,” Haggerty says.
Haggerty and his crew of three men net haddock during five- to ten-day excursions to Georges Bank year-round. The hazards are greatest on the return trip, as the boat moves from the milder climate of the open Atlantic into cold air blowing from the mainland. If ice is allowed to build up on the bow, it dips lower and lower, causing more spray, which in turn creates more ice. The boat may fill with water or become top-heavy, unbalancing it as it rolls from side to side. Keeping ice under control is an unceasing chore performed on a slippery deck, which is dangerous in itself. “We try to slow down and keep the spray off the boat,” Haggerty says. “Sometimes we have to stop and beat the ice off with wooden mallets and hammers.”
Commercial fishing in general is the most dangerous occupation in the country, with a fatality rate that is sixty times higher than average, NIOSH found. The formerly sky-high death rate among Alaskan crab fishermen has been halved thanks to national legislation on fishing safety and a regional program ensuring that boats are not overloaded with crab pots. That’s great news, of course, but doesn’t it create a bit of a quandary for the Discovery Channel? As one crab skipper told the NIOSH, “the reality is the Bering Sea crabbers have gone from the deadliest catch to the safest catch.”
Turns out, the Pine Tree State really might be good for you.
Whether they live in Maine year-round or only spend a few weeks here every summer, many people believe there’s something restorative about life on this side of the Piscataqua River. A pair of University of Maine chemistry professors have discovered that these folks may be right — especially during flu season. For the past several years, Ray Fort and Barbara Cole have been collecting and testing white pine needles to see if the byproduct of this signature Maine tree might have a medicinal use. This fall they announced that they had succeeded in extracting shikimic acid, a key ingredient in the anti-flu drug Tamiflu, from the conifers’ needles.
Though virtually every plant produces shikimic acid, Fort says most species quickly convert it into amino acids, preventing scientists from harvesting it from anything except star anise, a small tree found only in northwest China. (The Roche drug company, which manufactures Tamiflu, has for the past two years used exclusively star anise in its drug.) Though each of Maine’s white pines contain less shikimic acid than their Chinese counterparts, the Pine Tree State offers quantity over quality, Fort explains. “Pretty much all of the conifers that grow in Maine have between 1 and 3.5 percent of shikimic acid by dry weight of the needles,” he says, explaining that just a few branches provide enough needles for about three grams of shikimic acid. “That’s at most half of what the star anise contains. But there are a lot more pine needles around than there are star anise.”
The extraction process is so simple — scientists essentially make a pine needle tea before using chromatography to harvest the pure chemical — that Fort believes a timber company could actually employ a shikimic-harvesting crew to travel into the woods with the commercial tree harvesters. “When we got going on this four or five years ago, we were just looking for a value-added product for Maine’s forest industry — something to maybe keep the mills around a little longer,” Fort says. “We can’t patent it — it has to be public domain — so if some company in Maine wants to pick it up and use it, fine.”
Flu season is no fun, here or anywhere. But somehow having a Maine solution to this annual blight makes tackling the sniffles seem a little more bearable.
What’s on Tap?
A pair of Colby grads create a business around the flow away from bottled water.
We believe a commonsense appeal to consumers’ environmental consciousness, not to mention their wallets, makes a more effective case against bottled water than the complicated and often emotional arguments against large-scale groundwater extraction that have dominated the debate here in Maine. Two recent Colby College graduates seem to agree, and they’ve literally got people talking around the water cooler about it.
“Bottled water is an inefficient and silly industry,” says Brandon Pollock, who with Nick Friedman is the founder of Blue Reserve, a one-year-old bottle-free water cooler company based in Portland. “It makes no sense to have trucks driving water around.” Blue Reserve’s device attaches to an existing waterline and filters the tap water. The equipment resembles an ordinary water cooler minus the five-gallon bottle.
Economics majors, Pollock and Freidman were five months shy of graduation when they launched Blue Reserve with a five thousand dollar grant from the Libra Foundation’s Libra Futures Fund. The two had been talking about going into business together since they met freshman year. “We understood that in order to be successful and enjoy what we were doing, we needed to focus on an issue that was important to us,” Pollock says.
They honed in on bottled water because considerable energy is expended to make the plastic bottles, fill them, and transport them to customers. Spring water, whose commercial extraction has been hotly debated around Maine, spends even more time on the road, as the water is trucked from remote aquifers to bottling plants.
Bottleless water coolers have been on the market for a few years, but it’s still a relatively small industry. Blue Reserve is the only Maine-based business leasing them, Pollock says, adding that the monthly fee is 40 to 60 percent less than the cost of bottled water. Those savings won over many of the company’s customers, which now number twenty-five. Reducing their carbon footprint by eliminating all those water jug deliveries appealed to others.
“It’s an environmentally sensitive product that makes a lot of sense,” says Erik Hayward, a director of the Libra Futures Fund. “It’s a lot more efficient than transporting bottled water.”
We’ll drink to that.
The central Maine town is home to an unusual combination of minerals.
A Litchfieldite is a person who lives in Litchfield, a town of 3,317 people sixteen miles southwest of Maine’s state capital, Augusta. A litchfieldite also is a rock, and a most scarce and curious one at that. “No one has studied it and explained how it came to be and why it is where it is,” says Henry Berry, a physical geologist with the Maine Geological Survey. “We don’t even know its age. No one really understands it yet.”
Litchfieldite is found in only a handful of places in the world, among them the Maine town for which it was named in 1882. Like granite, litchfieldite is an igneous rock composed of a number of minerals, but they are rare ones — white nepheline, white calcite, orange cancrinite, and the one that mineral collectors prize most, royal blue sodalite. “There are some large masses of sodalite in Chile and Ontario,” says Woodrow Thompson, Berry’s colleague at the Maine Geological Survey. “Good specimens are rare in the United States.”
Chunks of Litchfield’s unusual treasure are in a number of museums, including the Smithsonian Institution, which has a sodalite cabochon weighing 4.44 carats. A chunk of sodalite is on display at the Litchfield town office, and a piece is depicted on the town seal. The town newsletter is also named Sodalite.
But don’t go packing your rock hammers and picks. Litchfield’s litchfieldite deposits are on private property, which is no longer open to collectors. It never was a rockhounding hot spot. “Litchfield is one of the early sodalite localities, but no one has ever systematically mined it because it is so widely scattered,” Thompson explains.
Moreover, sodalite, which resembles lapis lazuli with thin white veins, is not nearly so valuable as some other minerals, like the tourmaline for which Maine is best known. “It isn’t transparent,” Thompson says. “It almost never occurs in crystals, so it doesn’t make good gem material. It is primarily a collectible and a curiosity.”