Daily Fishing and Outdoor Report
NEW BEDFORD - In a bizarre incident that spotlights the vast amount of chemical weapons and munitions debris littering the ocean floor, a crewman aboard a clamming boat remained hospitalized yesterday for exposure to mustard gas after his vessel dredged up World War I-era munition shells.
Konstantin Burndshov sustained burns and blisters on an arm and leg and was sickened after handling a shell that had been hauled aboard the ESS Pursuit on Sunday in waters off Long Island, New York. The incident probably marks the first civilian exposure to the chemical warfare agent in the United States in decades, said Edward W. Boyer, a medical toxicologist who is leading the team treating Burndshov.
Burndshov, a New Jersey resident, remained hospitalized last night at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, but is expected to make a full recovery, according to Boyer. Three other crew members suffered milder symptoms and were treated in New Bedford and released.
Crew member Kevin O'Sullivan said Burndshov, who was wearing rubber oil skins and rubber gloves, was injured after throwing a bullet-shaped canister overboard, after the crew discovered it among a catch of clams. He said the canister smelled strange.
'It was just a strong chemical odor that didn't seem right,' he said.
For decades, the military used the waters off the United States as a dumping ground for surplus or outdated weapons. With the ocean seemingly bottomless and far from people, it was considered a prudent way to get rid of old bombs and other weapons.
But today, as fishermen chase catches in deeper waters, encounters with the remnants of past wars have become more common, some fishermen say.
Clamming boats are particularly prone to hauling up munitions because their gear stirs up the seabed. Last month, for example, workers sorting clams at a New Bedford plant discovered nearly 200 hand grenades.
The clammers of the ESS Pursuit, which operates out of Atlantic City, were exposed to the mustard gas when canisters appeared on the boat's conveyor belt. The captain, Kieran Kelly, said in a telephone interview from aboard the vessel that one canister had broken open. Burndshov was exposed, and other crew members experienced breathing difficulties and eye irritation.
The boat brought the sick men in to New Bedford, where the vessel was scheduled to unload its catch, about 24 hours later. Dave Little, 32, a commercial fisherman from New Hampshire, helped unload the boat Monday, and joined the crew as it pushed back out to sea, unaware the boat was contaminated.
About five hours later, when the boat was about 20 miles out, the Coast Guard called it back to port. 'If they hadn't turned us around, we'd still be out there,' said Little, who experienced some irritation around his eyes and mouth from the exposure.
The ESS Pursuit remained in isolation yesterday, moored off New Bedford and flanked by Coast Guard vessels as officials developed a decontamination plan. Tests on the boat revealed the presence of blister agents, a group of chemicals that includes mustard gas.
Mustard gas, used infrequently after World War I, was intended to disable enemies because the gas would get on skin and cause large, raised blisters. It was not designed as a killing agent, although it can cause death if inhaled. It is also persistent, remaining in the environment and on surfaces for days.
'That is what is stunning to everyone; it is still potent now,' said Boyer, professor of emergency medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
State Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan is leading the effort to figure out what to do with the boat's catch of thousands of pounds of clams.
Even though a state hazardous materials unit and bomb squad determined that no mustard gas or chemical agents had seeped into the clams, the state has ordered them destroyed. The catch, 168 containers, each containing 80 bushels of clams, must be disposed of.
Coan said the state has never had to dispose of so much shellfish before. A team will meet this week to develop a plan to do this safely and properly, he said. 'The Commonwealth has declared that the catch cannot be sold and will not be sold,' Coan said.
Fishermen in New Bedford said they often find discarded munitions at sea, but that they are typically harmless. 'It's pretty routine,' O'Sullivan said. 'We throw them overboard as quick as possible.'
Little said old weapons often turn up in the dredge, which digs several inches into the ocean floor. The weapons are shaken violently in the sorting process on board, and Little said he worries some day one will explode.
Massachusetts fishermen and even beachgoers occasionally come across unexploded ordnance on Cape Cod and Island beaches, or near shore areas, because those areas were once used as practice ranges by the military. There are also former dumping grounds off Massachusetts, including a region often called the Foul Area, which had been used to dump radioactive and toxic waste until the 1970s.
'More experienced fishermen know to steer clear of dumping sites where drums of nuclear waste were found, but once in a while people pick up all kinds of crazy things,' said Angela Sanfilippo, president of the Gloucester Fishermen's Wives Association.
Most of the dumping took place after World War I, World War II, and from 1950 to 1970, said David Foster, an Army spokesman.
In 1972, Congress prohibited the disposal of chemical munitions at sea, and international treaties soon followed suit.
'The bottom line is the sea disposal of chemical and conventional munitions was an acceptable practice up until 1972,' Foster said.
Bill Greene and John M. Guilfoil of the Globe staff and Globe correspondents Constance Lindner and Shana Wickett contributed to this report.
fish violence may be one of the main reasons for the plummeting Atlantic salmon stocks being witnessed on the river system's northwest branch.
For about the past decade striped bass has been a protected species, its numbers once dangerously low like those of the Northwest Miramichi salmon, who achieved only 34 per cent of their spawning requirements in 2009.
Stripers hunker down for winter in the sheltered waters of estuaries up and down New Brunswick's eastern shore, including a substantial amount on the main Miramichi near the former town of Newcastle.
This area is sacred ground for the province's once-fledgling population of striped bass, as each spring they journey away from their river habitat and make their annual pilgrimage to the area where the main Miramichi splits into its northwest and southwest branches to spawn.
During the early portion of their spawning Miramichi Salmon Association president Mark Hambrook says the stripers chow down, like many Miramichiers, on a virtual buffet of smelts who swim through these waters.
But come the end of May, with the smelts safely upriver doing a little spawning of their own, the only item on the menu for the hungry stripers are the vital baby salmon that are forced to swim through the treacherous striper territory on their way out to sea. And Hambrook said where the salmon smolts once had a puncher's chance of making it through the bass, now he says the stripers form a virtual wall across the mouth of the Northwest Miramichi, swallowing up about 60 per cent of the smolts that try to swim through.
'These salmon smolts are coming out in the hundreds of thousands and its just another feast for the striped bass,' Hambrook said.
'This has been going on for a long time but the numbers of striped bass were very low; DFO said that a couple thousand fish were all that was here and they had to let the striped bass rebuild - clearly that has worked very, very well but we're at the point where this has maybe gone too far.'
Hambrook said he commends DFO for placing a moratorium on striped bass angling for the past decade in the name of conservation, noting the department agreed that if they recorded five out of seven years with over 20,000 striped bass in the Miramichi the recreational fishery would reopen.
He said four years of stable bass populations have been documented, with over 55,000 recorded last year, but he said this year the bass aren't only surviving, they're thriving and even dominating, with well over 100,000 stripers plying the waters of the Miramichi system below the head of tide.
Reports from the end of May show anglers hooking as many as 40 striped bass in the span of one hour, and Hambrook said the fish have now extended their spawning grounds into the Southwest Miramichi River, thus threatening the comparatively stable salmon population on that portion of the Miramichi.
Realizing the value of having stable striped bass and Atlantic salmon populations on the Miramichi, and the creativity needed to achieve both, Hambrook and a group of river stakeholders have presented DFO with a motion it would like to see written into policy for 2011.
The Miramichi Watershed Management Committee last week passed a resolution asking DFO to implement a trial recreational striped bass fishery on both branches of the Miramichi for next year's angling season.
The committee said the fishery would only target only small juvenile male bass (under 40 centimetres) while allowing the females to spawn.
'I don't want to see that recovery impeded in any way, but most of the fish out there are young males - we would only be taking out these huge surpluses of males without hurting the females,' Hambrook said.
'The recovery would still hum along but we'd just be taking away some of those mouths that are eating all of the smolts.'
He said that opening up a limited striped bass fishery would also help boost up a number of local outfitters, who could promote striped bass fishing as an attractive expedition whereas now fishing bass is illegal and comes with stiff fines.
DFO spokesman Frederic Butruille said yesterday that the department is only discussing the Miramichi committee's first two requests in response to the salmon crisis.
The committee is also asking DFO to restrict salmon catches to catch and release only, while mandating the use of barbless hooks for the rest of the 2010 season.
'We had internal meetings on Friday and we still have meetings this week - the question of striped bass is not being discussed at this time,' Butruille said.