Success eludes dead-zone task force

The Daily Advertiser, Lafayette, Louisiana; March 3, 2008

A federal-state task force created to address the dead-zone problem in the Gulf of Mexico met in Chicago last week. They came together with a number of state and local officials but had little to report in regard to reducing or eliminating the zone. The results so far are not encouraging. More than seven years after the task force pledged to reduce the zone to a quarter of its size by 2015, it is still growing – to nearly 8,000 square miles last summer.
Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, has studied dead zones in the Gulf and the Chesapeake Bay since the 1980s. He says the task force is "on a fast march to nowhere."
In many ways, he says, the current plan is worse than the original action plan.
"The implication," Boesch said, "is that the longer you put it off, the harder it will be in the future."
The sad fact, however, is that a solution has not just been put off. It simply has not been found.
Many of Louisiana’s problems are homegrown, but dead zones in the Gulf are unwanted gifts, primarily from other parts of the nation. Huge areas of depleted oxygen are caused by agriculture runoff. It flows down the Mississippi and Atchafalaya, bearing fertilizer and other chemicals, the most harmful of which is nitrogen. In the oxygen-depleted zones that result, fish flee and bottom-feeding marine life is killed.
In ordinarily productive areas like Grand Isle, it kills shrimp and speckled trout. Shrimpers are particularly hard-hit. Unable to trawl in the dead zones, they must fish farther out. That pushes their expenses up.
A promising effort to deal with dead zones failed because the incentive for farmers has been too small. Federal funds were made available for farmers willing to set aside land for conservation, thus reducing the amount of fertilizer that would eventually find its way into the Gulf of Mexico.
This might have worked, but the federal government decided to offer farmers larger subsidies for planting and using fertilizer, than for conserving and sending less fertilizer into the Gulf.
A new factor that supports predictions of record size this year is a major increase in corn production for ethanol. That is bringing more farmland online.
We do not advocate a plan that would benefit fishermen at the expense of farmers. The solution must be an equitable one – fair to all. Finding it has become more urgent since new research pointed to the possibility of a long-term ecological shift in the Gulf if the dead zone persists.
As time passes, the work of the task force becomes more urgent. Finding a solution that is fair to both farmers and fishermen is is a daunting challenge, but it must be addressed.