Every Memorial Day weekend, in the town of Morgan City, Louisiana, residents and visitors come together for the Shrimp and Petroleum Festival, a celebration of the region's two great economic drivers. Though the festival's name may seem oxymoronic, the two industries coexist rather peacefully along Lousisana's Gulf Coast. Oil rigs act as artificial reefs, providing habitat for many species. Advances in navigation aids provided to oil service boats benefit fishing and shrimping vessels as well.
Except for the occasional spill or pipeline rupture, shrimp and petroleum can indeed celebrate together. Despite early suspicions, it isn't the oil industry that's causing the 6,000 sq. mi. hypoxic "dead zone" every summer in the Gulf. So, then, what is?
Pull on the wet suit and let's take a dip below the fold.
An article in the April 17 Times-Picayune offers a very complete overview of the history and current state of the dead zone, including the alarming news that a plan signed by nine states, two tribes and the federal government in 2001 to reduce the size of the dead zone isn't working, and the problem is getting worse, not better.
The article is a reccommended read, as well as the Ohio State University report on the dead zone, but for those short for time, here are the money graphs:
Meanwhile, a new study has traced almost 80 percent of the nitrogen-based fertilizers largely responsible for the low-oxygen zone to a relatively small number of agricultural counties in the Midwest that are heavily subsidized by the federal government to grow their crops.
The study from the Environmental Working Group in Washington says conservation programs intended to offset the runoff of fertilizers from farms have come up woefully short. In some of the counties highlighted by the study, the group said, for every $500 that goes into subsidy programs that could increase fertilizer use, a scant $1 is spent on conservation programs.
Ethanol and biodiesel hold some promise to help reduce America's dependence on imported petroleum, but the problems inherent in how they are produced and processed must be addressed before more government subsidies are shoveled into the "biofuel" dream.
Much has been written here and elsewhere on the massive pollution and water consumption problems that plague ethanol production. The limitations of transporting ethanol have also been addressed. But I've yet to hear much discussion on the threat to Gulf fisheries that will result from increased production of commodity crops in the Mississippi/Missouri drainage system.
Until and unless there are real, cooperative efforts to reduce nitrogen runoff from subsidized agriculture upstream, the "green fuel revolution" guarantees the growth of the Gulf dead zone and America's "black catch."
"You can't do just one thing."
- Campbell's Law of Everything