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Pamlico Sound Tributary Inviting, but Contamination Lurks

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IT is still and serene as Rodney Calhoun's faded blue skiff slices through the smooth waters of the South River, a small tributary of the Neuse River, which flows into Pamlico Sound on North Carolina's central coast. Tall brown grass on each bank shelters bird, otter, alligator, and other wildlife habitats, and farmland and trees stretch into the distance. But despite the beauty and lack of urbanization, water contamination here is evident in subtle ways - from the dull topaz ripples the boat's motor churns up to a yellow sign on either side of the river that reads: ``Closed Area. Unlawful to take oysters or clams. May cause serious illness if eaten.''

Mr. Calhoun, a part-time fisherman and owner of a local fish house, says the problem is high bacteria levels caused by agricultural runoff from a 44,000-acre farm along the river's banks. The contamination is what prompted the North Carolina Division of Environmental Health to have this part of the river closed to shellfishing 10 years ago.

For the fishermen who sell their catches at Calhoun's South River Seafoods and who grew up fishing in these waters, pollution is a problem they say worsens each year and is threatening their livelihood.

``It used to be they could fish anywhere they wanted to,'' Calhoun says. Now, ``We have some guys who are in pretty dire straits. If we don't do something quick, there'll be nothing left to protect.''

What is happening here is a microcosm of what is happening in areas along the nation's coasts, say environmentalists and others. But some say the US Atlantic barrier island coast, which stretches from Maine to Texas and has seen the most rapid development, is suffering the most from its effects.

Behind these islands, the estuaries, sounds, and wetlands harbor some of the richest fishing grounds in the United States. Yet agricultural runoff, industrial discharges, sewage, and other pollution from development is degrading the water and contaminating seafood. Those most directly affected are commercial fishermen.


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