Vol. 10, No. 17

April 25 - May 1, 2002

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Picking Our Poisons

Why must vexing choices pop up at hopeful times?

We’re speaking here of two unpleasant dilemmas in our midst: the destruction of the eggs of mute swans on our shorelines and the specter of spraying more chemicals in the environment to gird against mosquitoes carrying West Nile Virus.

They are related in that both are aggressive actions to protect us from invading species and germs.

And each involves hard choices at an otherwise glorious time in Chesapeake Country: Spring has exploded; boats are being readied for a new season of pleasures; a bountiful rockfish season has opened; and we are being blessed with the excitement and recognition of being a stopover for the Volvo Ocean Race.

Yet hard decisions replete with contradictions intrude. Mute swans are majestic creatures weighing up to 50 pounds with wingspans of five feet or more. They didn’t originate in Chesapeake Country; they were brought to the Eastern Shore as adornments, but they long ago escaped and multiplied.

But unfortunately for the mutes and us, it has become the prevailing wisdom that they can’t be tolerated because they devour so much submerged aquatic vegetation. They are a federally protected species, but government wildlife officials think they have found a way around the law with a program of “addling” the eggs.

For those not tuned in, this is not a culinary procedure but a method of population control that consists of aborting swan cygnets by violently shaking the eggs and then coating them with a vegetable oil to clog microscopic openings in the shell.

Maryland became the first state in the mid-Atlantic region to obtain the federal permit to begin the addling, and now state wildlife officials have begun the gruesome task.

Another of society’s looming choices has to do with pesticides. We are being told by state authorities that mosquitoes infected with West Nile Virus are laying in wait for us. Hundreds of crows infected with the virus turned up dead last year — about half in Baltimore — and six human infections were reported, one in Prince George’s County.

Two people died, but doctors said they suffered from other conditions that could have left them extremely vulnerable to the virus.

What do we do about it? Perhaps instinct will be to rely on pesticides as the silver bullet, spraying these poisons heavily in our communities and across the countryside as we once did before their dangers became apparent.

We think that both with mosquitoes and swans, we need careful deliberation before rash actions. While it may be too late to stop the present campaign against swans, we think that it is appropriate to continue to ask whether we are doing the right thing.

Are we absolutely certain that mutes pose such a threat to Bay grass that they must, in effect, be exterminated? Are we equally as vigilant about the threats to vegetation from shoreline development and the Eastern Shore poultry industry?

With regard to mosquitoes, we think the prudent course is not to overreact by excessively spreading insecticides that, by their nature, kill living things. We need to monitor the situation, as they say, and keep in mind that the vast majority of people bitten by infected mosquitoes — 95 percent or so — will show no symptoms whatsoever.

In our haste to protect ourselves and environment, we should not act in ways that might haunt us.

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly