Subsidies destroying our fish industry
Since “ethanol” has been at the center of plans to reduce reliance on imported oil in this country, the federal and state governments have offered subsidies and tax credits for the production of that form of alcohol. It is made from corn grown mostly in the midwest.
And the fertilizer needed to produce corn has a great deal of nitrogen in it which overflows many of the farmlands in the midwest into the Mississippi River. This flows down through Louisiana to the Gulf Coast where it feeds the algae which deplete oxygen from the water when they die.
And our fish need that oxygen to live. So the “dead zone” is well named.
According to an article by Tony Cox Bloomberg News, U. S. farmers this spring planted the most acreage of corn since 1944 after demand for ethanol pushed the grain’s price to a 10-year high. This has increased to alarming levels the amount of farm waste flowing down the river to the Louisiana coast.
The dead zone off the coast of Louisiana this year is expected to cover 8,543 square miles and stretch into waters off Texas, according to Nancy Rabalais, chief scientist at Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium in Cocodrie. “This is an area the size of New Jersey or potentially bigger where nothing can live,” says Matt Rota, program director at Gulf Restoration Network, a coalition of environmental civic groups. “If this were happening in the middle of the country, people would be outraged.”
Corn production requires more nitrogen than other crops such as soy beans, says Eugene Turner, an LSU oceanographer.
When the nitrogen and other nutrients from the fertilizers reach the Gulf, they feed microscopic organisms which deplete oxygen from the water as they die and decompose on the sea bottom. Fish suffocate unless they can escape.
The dead zone has been an annual phenomenon that exists in the Gulf for several of the warmer months, peaking in late July. It was discovered in the 1970s and is thought to have existed for a century. Its size is believed to have about doubled since 1985.
Louisiana’s fishing industry is the second largest in the country at present. But the number of shrimp trawlers has declined 40 percent since 2001, according to state figures.
As the dead zone expands, the shrimp catch decreases. It declined by 23 percent in the 1990s.
In 2001, the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency set a goal to reduce the dead zone to 2,000 square miles. But that has all but been forgotten. The support for ethanol and subsidies to promote it put that goal out of reach.
Unless a major change takes place in our priorities in the near future, Louisiana’s seafood industry will suffer a major defeat. And so will the nation’s food production.
In the future, you may have to substitute a dish of corn from the midwest in place of delicious broiled fish surrounded by sauteed shrimp from Louisiana for dinner. What a tragedy that would be.
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