Louisiana shrimp season threatened by US ethanol policy: Larry McKinney

By NOLA.com
16 June 2014

Louisiana’s spring shrimp season is officially open, but what should be a time to celebrate the annual kickoff of a key driver of the coastal economy is now overshadowed by a looming threat to the Gulf of Mexico’s fragile ecosystem. The "dead zone" — a Connecticut-sized area of low oxygen water that kills off marine life — continues to grow in size due to U.S. ethanol policy and is threatening this year’s harvest and the coastal economy.

The key factor contributing to the size and duration of this "dead zone" begins hundreds of miles away in the Corn Belt. There, the aggressive expansion of a U.S. biofuel policy called the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) in 2007 incentivized the rapid escalation of corn planted for fuel production. This push for a domestically produced "green" fuel came at a time of increased reliance on foreign oil imports and heightened demand for gasoline. Yet, the U.S. energy landscape has since drastically improved due to a domestic oil and gas production boom and improvements in vehicle efficiency technologies.

Despite this, the Renewable Fuel Standard continues to require that increasing amounts of biofuels be blended into the nation’s gasoline supply. As more than 80 percent of the mandate continues to be met by corn ethanol, farms across the Midwest have converted an additional 13.5 million acres to grow corn — a particularly resource-intensive crop. For instance, while corn was planted on 23 percent of U.S. cropland in 2009, it received 40 percent of the fertilizer used across the nation. As the corn crop expands to meet the requirements of the RFS, it demands a greater amount of fertilizer, which then runs off into the Mississippi River and ultimately makes its way into the Gulf of Mexico. The end result is catastrophic.

The growing amount of fertilizer being lost to the Gulf has led to the creation of this low-oxygen area of water, which spanned nearly 5,900 square miles off the Gulf Coast last summer. That made it the second-largest manmade "dead zone" in the world. When fertilizer reaches the ocean, it encourages the growth of algae blooms. The algae eventually die and decompose in a process that consumes oxygen and creates oxygen-free areas where fish and other aquatic creatures cannot survive. Prized Gulf seafood like shrimp, crabs and clams are particularly threatened by the dead zone — as are the Gulf communities supported by the seafood industry.

The Gulf produces roughly 40 percent of all the seafood in the lower 48 states, so as the dead zone grows year-after-year — as it has for the past decade — more and more fishermen face economic difficulty. The area covered by last year’s dead zone produced nearly 18 percent of the total commercial seafood sold in the United States threatening the thousands of fishermen who live and work nearby. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has previously estimated that the dead zone costs the U.S. seafood and tourism industries $82 million a year. NOAA has since projected that the 2013 shrimp season, which spans from July 2013 to June 2014, will be lower than average, dealing a blow to the Gulf Coast economy.

Fortunately, the Obama administration has begun to realize the myriad ways the RFS affects our environment, food producers and industries. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently proposed reductions to 2014 biofuel blending requirements, which could prevent increasing fertilizer runoff — but only for this year. Without comprehensive, long-term reform of the RFS by Congress, the dead zone will continue to grow and the Gulf Coast will continue to suffer.

As an academic institution we do not advocate any specific policy, but we do feel it is important to inform decision-makers about issues, especially conflicting federal policy, that has detrimental impacts. It’s time Congress work across the aisle to revise this outdated policy and better protect the livelihoods of countless families both in the Gulf of Mexico and across the nation suffering at the hands of the RFS.

Larry McKinney is the executive director of the Harte Research Institute, Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.