Dead zone threatens fisheries

By Amy Wold, Advocate Staff Writer
Sep 10, 2007, The Baton Rouge ADVOCATE

GRAND ISLE — The “dead zone” area of low oxygen in the Gulf of Mexico hurts fish, shrimp and all kind of other organisms.

This year, it’s directly hurting fishermen, said Dean Blanchard, owner of Dean Blanchard Seafood Inc., during a meeting about the dead zone Friday.

Normally, when the area of low oxygen comes in close to the beach at Grand Isle, shrimpers just move their operations to Barataria Bay. That’s not working this year, he said.

Blanchard explained that inland crabbers are reporting pulling up pots full of dead crabs, fishermen report landing fish that have “no fight in them” and shrimpers aren’t even bothering to go out because the shrimp aren’t there.

Blanchard said that in the last two weeks, he’s down about 300,000 pounds of shrimp that would normally have come into his business.

“It’s just dried up,” Blanchard said. “So it looks like it’s gotten into the bay and that’s a scary proposition.”

That why the Grand Isle Port Commission, Grand Isle residents and other groups organized a community meeting Friday to come up with a new approach to getting action on reducing the annually reoccurring “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.

“Hopefully, today we can start listing some strategies,” said Wayne Keller, director of the Grand Isle Port Commission. “Mainly, today we’re trying to raise awareness and get some voice.”

By the conclusion of the meeting, people agreed that change could come by letting people in power know that finding a solution to the “dead zone” is important to many people.

In addition, there needs to be a better effort made in coordinating the Louisiana efforts with farmers and other interested parties in the Mississippi River Valley to the north, speakers said.

The dead zone of low oxygen forms every summer off the coast of Louisiana. This area —  also called the hypoxia zone —  forms when materials such as fertilizers, urban runoff and sewage flow into the Gulf of Mexico through the Mississippi River.

This nutrient-enriched water helps the growth of microscopic organisms which use up oxygen in the water column as they die and decompose.

During the summer, this low-oxygen water at the bottom of the water column doesn’t get mixed with the more oxygen- rich water at the top and creates a “dead zone” where the oxygen levels are too low to support marine life.

“This dead zone is close and it’s getting closer by the day,” said Grand Isle Mayor David Camardelle.

Nancy Rabalais, executive director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium in Cocodrie and a well-known hypoxia researcher, said the Mississippi River drains about 48 percent of the lower 48 states. That water brings the fertilizer, urban runoff and other nutrients that help feed the dead zone process.

“We have those tremendous fisheries because nutrients come down the Mississippi River,” Rabalais said. “But we have too much of it.”

A federal task force and associated scientists set a goal several years ago of reducing  the annual size of the dead zone to 5,000 square kilometers by 2015. To get there, nutrient inputs into the Mississippi River would need to be reduced by 35 to 45 percent, she said.

“This is not just a local issue, it’s a national issue,” Keller agreed.

The problem  has been a lack of money to address the issue and a lack of urgency to try and solve it, speakers at the meeting said.

“What’s been missing, really, have been the resources to jump this to a different level,” said Doug Daigle, coordinator with the Lower Mississippi River Sub-Basin Committee on Hypoxia.

If a grassroots effort is going to be effective in making change,” Daigle said, “people need to start writing to their congressional delegations to make the money available.”

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