SOUTH RIVER, N.C. — 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.
``Pollution is a serious problem,'' says Richard Christian, coastal liaison for the Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission. ``The fishermen are out there harvesting animals every day. They're the ones who see the effects of pollution first.''
Shellfish beds are the first to shut down and are the clearest indicator of polluted waters. That is because shellfish filter in water and are more sensitive to contamination. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, about one-third of the nation's shellfish beds are closed. Most close because the water has high levels of bacteria from human or animal waste.
It is more difficult to measure the impact on other fisheries. While fishermen blame pollution for decreased fish catches, many both in and out of the industry say that overfishing is part of the culprit.
Others, however, see things differently: ``There's no doubt it's a definite concern, but it's always going to be the most visible problem as you limit areas for use,'' counters Todd Miller, head of the North Carolina Coastal Federation, a conservation group of fishermen, environmentalists, and citizens working to protect the state's coastal environment.
THE rapid loss of wetlands compounds the problem. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, coastal wetlands support about 70 percent of the nation's commercially important fisheries, and the majority are along the barrier island coast. But 50 percent of wetlands in the lower 48 states have already given way to development, and 20,000 more acres are developed each year, says Beth Millemann, director of the Coast Alliance, a nonprofit environmental organization in Washington.
Many hope that two laws Congress strengthened last year - will help stem development and pollution. One is the Coastal Barrier Resources Act. Passed in 1982, it created a 450,000-acre Coastal Barrier Resources System along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts in which federal funds for flood insurance and development are prohibited. Its purpose was to discourage development by putting the financial burden on the developer, not on the taxpayer.
In 1990 the system declared another 785,000 acres on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts ineligible for insurance or development funds.
The Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA) encourages states to manage and protect coastal resources. Twenty-nine out of 35 eligible states have federally approved and funded management plans. Last year's reauthorization requires these states to develop controls for nonpoint source pollution - pollution that seeps into the water from streets, yards, and farms. It is the most critical, yet most difficult pollution source to address.
This year, another law important to coastal protection, the Clean Water Act, is up for renewal.
Still, only so much can be done on the federal level. ``The large part of the responsibility lies at the state and local level,'' says Dan Ashe, who is on the staff of the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee of the US House of Representatives. ``There is a lot of citizen concern. I think the key is to provide locals and activists with the leverage they need just to make sure their own backyard is not despoiled.''
Yet for those who earn their living from fishing, the effects on their livelihood are taking a toll.
``Most fishermen are struggling very hard. Most have to take part-time jobs to make it,'' says Lena Ritter, a spunky, seventh-generation fisherwoman who, with her husband, made a living dredging up oysters and clams in the waters behind North Carolina's Topsail Island. In 1984 they were no longer able to support their family, and both took other jobs.
``It used to be you didn't have any closures, pollution,'' she says. ``But now there's too many people for the land to take care of.''