WILL WIN THE BATTLE OF SHRIMPERS VS. FARMERS?
the Louisiana coastline, where the Mississippi River enters the Gulf,
a story is unfolding that is scarier than any TV show about flesh-eating
zombies. The area of more than 5,000 square miles, which extends into
coastal waters from Alabama to Texas, has dangerously low oxygen levels.
It is known as the Gulf of Mexico dead zone--and it is anything but
agriculture practices upstream may be the prime culprit in this alarming
narrative. Though food production is obviously essential, siltation
and pesticide runoffs from some agricultural practices are threats to
a healthy environment. The Gulfs oxygen-depleted waters are attributed
primarily to excessive use of chemical fertilizers by agricultural systems
upstream. The primary players in this drama are likely be Gulf Coast
fishermen versus agricultural enterprises in the Midwest.
folks who make a living catching the Gulf shrimp and fish the rest of
us eat, conditions have gotten very bad. Everyone remembers the BP disaster,
with its images of oil-covered animals and floating tar balls. But the
oil spill can be likened to a compound fracture, a bad injury that will
eventually heal. The Gulf of Mexico dead zone is like a virulent cancer.
swim away from the dead zone. Slow-moving, bottom-dwelling life forms
such as clams, starfish, and marine worms cannot escape. They suffocate
due to lack of oxygen. Most people spend little time considering the
fate of ocean invertebrates, but they are an essential prey base for
commercial fish. Widespread loss of prey in such an immense area does
not bode well for people who rely on healthy seas to make a living.
And for those of us who rely on the fisheries and shrimping industry
research has identified an insidious by-product of some large-scale
agricultural practices along the Mississippi River and its tributaries.
The Mississippi River carries thousands of tons of nitrogen to the Gulf
of Mexico each year. The high nitrogen levels and their environmental
effects are alarming. The annual runoff into rivers is considered a
likely cause of the Gulfs dead zone.
is available in vast quantities for consumption by the oceans
microscopic plants and animals, the organisms prosper. When they die
and sink to the bottom, they are consumed by bacteria. But heres
the catch-22: all of this increasingly abundant living matter requires
more and more oxygen. Animals that get their oxygen from the water,
from jellyfish and zooplankton to sharks and tarpon, must either leave
the area or die.
impact of a continuation, or worse, an expansion, of the dead zone in
once-fertile fishing and shrimping grounds will not be trivial. The
direst predictions are that it could be the beginning of the end for
Louisianas coastal fisheries industry, a multimillion-dollar enterprise,
sometimes generating as much as $3 billion per year.
annual surveys NOAA reports that the largest Gulf dead zone ever
recorded was 8,481 square miles in 2002, which means a major chunk
of that marine environment went belly up. More frighteningly, 550 other
dead zones have been discovered in the worlds oceans, presumably
caused by environmentally unsound practices. To avoid the worst case
long-range environmental projections, we must make some changes.
proof is still being sought, but current farming practices are strongly
indicted by some for the problem in the Gulf. Should immediate sanctions
be placed on the Midwest agriculture industrys excessive use of
nitrogen? If we wait, do we risk making the entire Gulf of Mexico a
dead zone, where marine life of economic worth cannot survive?
answers are apparent, although continuing ecological research can help
us understand long-term agro-environmental processes and their consequences.
Elected officials at the state and federal level need to step forward
and address this increasingly serious problem, crossing party lines
as necessary. Finding a solution is essential. If the dead zone spreads
across even more of the worlds oceans, we wont need to watch
TV shows about a post-apocalyptic world.
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