It's Time to Reclaim Gulf Fishing from Seasonal Pollution
The Gulf Coast’s seasonal “dead zone”—an annual nightmare in which nutrient pollution from human activities leads to oxygen levels too low to support aquatic life—has plagued one of the nation’s most historically fruitful fishing regions for long enough.
The zone, which typically begins in May and lasts until October, is now bigger than the entire state of New Jersey, and it continues to grow. This is a glaring issue for the Louisiana fishing community, carrying heavy environmental consequences—both local and global— for our ecosystem.
The Mississippi River, which runs into the Gulf, serves as a drainage area for 41% of the continental United States, with waste run-off from highly fertilized land in the Midwest dumping more than 1.6 tons of oxygen-depleting nitrogen into the Gulf each year. About 5,840 square miles of ocean is covered in a smothering, pollutant-produced algae bloom, marine life cannot survive, and an entire industry idles.
The irony has not been lost on fishing communities that beef, cattle, and poultry producers in other parts of the country are the primary reason for the floundering Louisiana seafood industry.
A former commercial fisherman and current president of the Save Louisiana Coalition, Captain George Ricks knows all too well the devastating toll the erosion of Louisiana’s coast is taking on the state’s families, businesses, and restaurants.
“That’s what we’re now in for in Louisiana: our seafood, our fish, our coast. It’s part of our cultural identity. Where are we going to be without that?”
For centuries, Louisiana’s commercial fisheries have provided roughly 30% of the nation’s total catch. If coastal destruction and annual dead zones continue at the current rate, the annual loss to commercial fisheries will be nearly $550 million.
Almost a third of all domestic seafood eaten in the United States comes from Louisiana waters, with one out of every 70 jobs in the state directly related to the industry. (Even the oft-overlooked alligator industry employs half as many people as the New Orleans Police Department.) Communities built by generations of oystermen, shrimpers, and fishermen and that way of life may disappear if drastic steps aren’t taken to reverse the coast’s rapid erasure.
The good news? Dead zones are almost entirely reversible. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Black Sea’s dead zone, previously the largest in the world, was practically erased due to a shift away from fertilizer-heavy farming practices. In February 2014, Tulane University launched a national competition which promises to award $1 million to the person or group who can find a successful solution to the dead zone problem not only in Louisiana, but globally. Ideas thus far include finding uses for the dead zone nitrogen, including converting it into an energy source.
Steps are also being taken to support local fisheries in new, creative ways in the interim, with the Crescent City Farmers Market leading the charge. Modeled after community-supported agriculture (CSA) harvest subscription programs, which provide fresh supplies of seasonal produce once a week, the market’s community-supported fisheries (CSF) effort provides customers with a weekly share of fish and seafood from local Louisiana family businesses.
Founded almost three years ago in the aftermath of the BP oil spill, the CSF, which runs the length of the Lenten season, has seen great success. It not only provides New Orleanians with access to seafood they might not otherwise encounter, but it increases transparency and the connection between environment and dinner plate in Louisiana.
“We’re always looking at the possibility of expanding the program to twice a year,” said Elisa Muñoz, the manager of the market. “We want to make sure we’re able to expose folks to new seafood when there’s different stuff in the water and let them know that Louisiana seafood—all of it—is the best around.”