The Dead Zone – How Farming is Killing the Fishing Industry

By Adam Shake
May 2009

Twilight Earth is dedicated to saving the Environment through shared News, Discussion, Advocacy and Activism
The Dead Zone – How Farming is Killing the Fishing Industry
Alexandra Cousteau, has created Expedition: Blue Planet. In this segment, she discusses the how farming is creating a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.
The expedition is a 100-day journey across 5 continents to explore the most critical water issues of our time.
This journey is not just about oceans: it’s about people, our connection to water issues around the world, and a recognition that we all have the power to protect and replenish our most important life support system.
Vital to all life on Earth, water moves through our world in a constant state of flux. Cycling endlessly through ecosystems, flowing under the poles and through the atmosphere, changing states, laying waste to entire regions or achieving perfection in the shape of a single snowflake – water is a mystery and a miracle, a source of conflict and a cause for celebration, a blessing and, in its absence, a curse.
The story of our Water Planet has never been more crucial and relevant than it is today. In our era of  climate change,  desertification, sea level rise, acid rain, drought, falling water tables, dead zones, and widespread pollution, water quality and quantity is becoming more critical by the minute. The new global culture of extraction and expansion is jeopardizing the very substance that supports life on our planet.
The boundaries between human development, humanitarian relief and  environmental conservation must disappear for a sustainable world to truly begin to take shape. Water is the principle protagonist of that changing paradigm.
There is a need for a shift from the current general perception that water exists in fragmented stasis towards a more accurate understanding of water as a system in which we are all downstream from one another.
The Video above was filmed by Alexandra and her crew with openhearted Cajun people.
We’ve journeyed down the  Mississippi River from St Louis to Louisiana to investigate how farming relates to fishing. In a general sense, both farmers and fishermen survive off the land. They may not consider themselves environmentalists, yet the livelihoods of both groups are inextricably linked to the health of the planet.
Most of the farmers and fishermen we have spoken with on this leg of the Expedition do not realize just how tightly intertwined their destinies are. But the truth is, the  chemical fertilizers the majority of farmers in America’s heartland use to maximize their crop output have a direct impact on their sea-born blood brothers’ existence.
 Wilma Subra, southern Louisiana’s own activist-grandmother extraordinaire, was one of the first people to identify the Dead Zone. A chemist, she’d been conducting tests off of oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico when she noticed a strange dearth of dissolved oxygen. She and other scientists launched an investigation, and now understand how the Dead Zone works.
Wilma explains, “Nitrogen and phosphorous from fertilizers travel down the Mississippi River and into the Gulf of Mexico. This makes  algae blossom like crazy. As the algae grow, they use up all the oxygen. When they die off, they sink to the bottom of the ocean and use up more oxygen there, too. So there’s this layer of water in the Gulf that is void of oxygen—that means nothing can live there.”
Fish and shrimp flee the liquid graveyard, but anything that can’t move out of its way – including coral, oysters, and clams – dies. The result is a shocking gap in marine life for over 8,000 square miles (20,000 square kilometers). And with production of corn, a fertilizer-intensive crop, on the increase due to ethanol subsidies to farmers, the Dead Zone is only intensifying and growing with each passing year.
The Lafourche shrimp boat captains know of the Dead Zone because it impacts their ability to support their families. Scott, the head of the Golden Meadow fishermen’s association, says, “You get to places where you trawl the bottom of the ocean and there’s nothing there–no fish, no shrimp. It gives you this disgusting hollow feeling. You’ve got to go deeper and deeper out into the Gulf. That’s more dangerous, and it also costs more money in fuel. It’s getting harder to make a living as a shrimper. We’ve lost over 50 percent of our fleet in recent years. A lot of shrimp I used to see are gone.”
Dean, a fiery shrimp dealer with strong opinions on every topic from the US government to Jesus, tells us, “Last year was the worst of all. The Dead Zone came at exactly the same time as the shrimp season. We saw shrimp jumping out of the Gulf right onto the beaches to get away from that water they couldn’t breathe.”
Prior to traveling to Golden Meadow, we met in Baton Rouge with Nancy Rabalais and Eugene Turner, two of the pioneers in researching and spreading awareness of the Dead Zone. They have known about this issue for over three decades, but have been unable to draw enough funds or attention to it to bring about major change. On a societal level, they feel the government must cease providing agriculture subsidies that encourage farmers to use chemical fertilizers. However, they also feel strongly that ordinary people can have an impact by making simple lifestyle choices: eat organic, and consume less meat (much of the corn raised in the Midwest goes to feed livestock).
40 percent of America’s land drains out the mouth of the Mississippi. “We’re the cesspool of America,” Scott the shrimper says, shaking his head. “Farmers don’t care about us. Or maybe they do, but they don’t understand what they’re doing. They’re killing all the fish! They’re poisoning the sea with what’s coming out of the river from off of their fields.”
I ask Terry what can be done to solve the Dead Zone problem. He shrugs. “All we can do is pray and hope someone will do something about it.”
Carolyn, our extraordinarily hospitable local host, has other ideas. “We should boycott the US fish market for a week. If Americans didn’t get the nearly one-third of seafood we Cajuns produce, they’d quickly realize our worth. Maybe that would help us get the funding and support we need to combat this Dead Zone.”
So how does it make sense that corn is creating a dead zone, when our corn consumption is going down every year? It’s the beef we’re eating. The average American eats 64 lbs of beef a year. A cow eats 7 lbs of corn for every pound of beef that hits grocery store shelves. Taken into context then, the average American is consuming 448 lbs of corn every year, in its consumption of beef, and this is just one aspect of agriculture out of control in the United States.
Empower yourself with knowledge. Make the decisions that are right for you and your family, based on your own lifestyles.
Keep up the good fight.
Source: Blue Legacy