MONTAGUE, P.E.I. - The muddy brown bend of water known as Sutherland's Hole died this summer, poisoned by the toxic runoff from nearby potato farms.
It rained hard one day in July, and trout started popping to the surface like corks in a bathtub. Then came the frogs. Not a single fish, snake or snail survived. By dusk, thousands of carcasses lined the little river's tree-choked banks.
Many people here were sickened by the spectacle, but few were surprised, for the residents of this scenic island are getting used to seeing their rivers die. This summer, it was almost a trend.
From the middle of July until the middle of September, it happened nine times.
They call them "fish kills," but the name is something of a euphemism, for the poisons kill far more than fish. In some rivers, like the one that flows through Sutherland's Hole, everything has died.
For environmental activist Sharon Labchuk, the kills are the symptom of a larger problem that has been worsening for years.
"It's easy to look at P.E.I. as a tourist and see its beauty, but behind that beauty is fish kills and poison drift and real danger," she says.
"We have a real problem here in P.E.I."
The problem, as Labchuk sees it, is the potato industry's dependence on a battery of poisons that are used to kill weeds, insects and fungus.
Prince Edward Island isn't like most farm provinces where fields are far from people.
Two new french fry plants have created a huge demand for local spuds; the amount of land tilled for potatoes has almost doubled. Today, fields are tucked everywhere - between homes, shops and even schools. More than half the children here spend their days in classrooms that are right next door to a farm field.
Potatoes need a lot of poison to survive the challenges of nature. According to Carl Willis, who ran the Agriculture Canada station here for years, most potato crops will be sprayed at least 12 times in the four-month-long growing season.
Some of that spray drifts into nearby homes and yards, and on to clothes and skin and cars.
Janet MacLeod is a freelance journalist who blames her on-going health problems on pesticides. She was returning from an assignment one hot day in 1995 when she drove past a farmer who was spraying. The pesticide blew in her car window and soaked her clothes and her skin.
She blames that brief encounter for a series of ongoing medical problems, from sinus conditions to vomiting. If she gets near the stuff now, she says, her lips start to tingle and swell.
"There are days in the summer when it's sweltering and I'm sitting here with my windows closed because I can't let the air in,"' she says.
"Driving through the countryside is a terrifying experience for me now because I don't want to get sick and don't know if I might be exposed."'
MacLeod isn't the only one.
Two tourists have written to the local paper in recent years complaining about the chemical smell and side effects of spraying during their visit.
Complaints like those prompted a government review a few years ago. New regulations were set up to ban spraying on windy days and a hotline was set up to what island residents call the "pesticide police."'
They got 112 calls last year.
But people like Labchuk complain the regulations are too lax and impossible to enforce. Spraying is only banned in a very stiff wind of more than 25 km/h.
Human health isn't the only concern. Labchuk says the pesticides are killing birds across the island. There is no longer any doubt they are killing fish.
Scores of volunteers spent years restoring the Valleyfield River, which feeds Sutherland's Hole. Governments had spent more than $1 million on the project. That work was wiped out in one day when pesticides ran into the river during a heavy rain. The poisons washed quickly out of the river, but scientists predict it could take years for the species that were killed to return.
Officials say there won't be any charges in connection with this summer's fish kills because it's unlikely any regulations were broken.
The kills were a fluke caused by unusual weather conditions, says Wayne MacKinnon of the Department of Agriculture.
Last winter's mild temperatures didn't kill enough insects, so more spraying was necessary over the summer, he says.
Poisons kill far more than fish
Hot, dry summer weather meant the plants' leafy canopy was smaller than usual, so more pesticide ended up on the soil.
Finally, the dry weather made it harder for the soil to absorb the sudden downpours.
This summer wasn't the only time P.E.I. has seen its rivers die. Between 1975 and 1998, four different ponds and rivers suffered the same fate.
In fact, two years ago, a government committee recommended specific soil erosion measures to prevent just this kind of environmental catastrophe.
The recommendations either died or were delayed.
Another committee, chaired by Willis, is expected to repeat the recommendations in a report to government next week.
"I believe it's very possible to take steps to reduce fish kills, but I don't believe in absolutes, I can't guarantee a zero," he says.
Scott Howatt, president of the P.E.I. Potato Producers Association, says he's appalled by the fish kill and his industry is determined to prevent it happening again, but he doesn't want to see the issue turn into a debate over pesticide use.
The potato industry - which employs 4,500 people on P.E.I. - simply won't survive without the poisons needed to kill the plant's natural enemies, he says.
"We have to spray to have a viable crop. We can't produce without them."'
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