|Posted by Mscfuwebs@gmail.com on December 18, 2017 at 10:15 AM|
Growing problem creates opportunity for collaboration
Recently, a group of commercial fishermen from Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama traveled over one thousand miles north to meet with a group of conservation minded farmers in Wisconsin. The reason for the meeting was to discuss the ever growing Gulf Dead Zone that spreads seasonally from the mouth of the Mississippi River into highly productive fishing areas of the Gulf of Mexico. This opportunity allowed fishermen to share their stories of the Dead Zones’ impact on their livelihoods and allowed the farmers to show the fishermen some of the practices they are utilizing to help protect the Gulf fishery. Farmers and commercial fishermen have at least one thing in common; and that is the average age of both is getting older every year. This means that fewer young people are getting in to the predominately family-run businesses that make up the two industries and this could spell big trouble for the future of the nation’s food supply. This is why it is important that these two groups come together now, to address these problems so that future generations of domestic food producers can continue to supply the nation with reliable, healthy, and sustainably harvested food options that are also good for the environment.
One young farmer named Michael Dolan, age 24 of Seven Seeds Farm in Spring Green, WI is leading the charge of farmers in his region in an effort to promote sustainable, organic, and conservation minded farming practices. Michael is the Director of the Iowa County’s Uplands Watershed Group; a non-profit which includes farmers from Southwest Wisconsin who utilize conservation practices such as no-till farming, cover crop planting, stream buffers, and by maintaining tree lines all without the use of toxic sprays. “We can create change when we see the problem head on and connecting fishermen with farmers is a great place to start addressing the problem of the dead zone.” said Michael. These farmers should be applauded for their grass roots efforts, innovation, and drive to keep nutrients on the farm and out of the flow down to the Dead Zone. Together with the help of the Michael Fields Agriculture Institute- which provides administrative and organizing support to several farmer-led groups; the Wisconsin farmers recently hosted nine Gulf fishermen and their families including seafood dock owners and a wetland specialist to discuss the Gulf Dead Zone issue over a magnificent seafood dinner. Nearly, eighty-five farmers from the surrounding area attended the feast featuring a bountiful spread of fresh Gulf Seafood such as succulent shrimp, salty oysters, and some of the coast’s finest fish courtesy of Louisiana fishermen. The connections made through this gathering are invaluable in the fight to stem the growth of the ever expanding Gulf Dead Zone.
The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), announced during 2017 that the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico was the largest in recorded history. The Gulf Dead Zone; which spreads annually from the mouth of the Mississippi River on both the west and the east coast of Louisiana is largely caused by nutrient run-off from fertilizer used on upland farms that end up flowing into downstream watersheds. The influx of high amounts of nutrients from the river into the Gulf gives rise to massive algae blooms which in turn deprive the waters of nearly all the available oxygen. Any marine life that is not able to swim out of harm’s way perishes. The Gulf Dead Zone not only impacts the federal waters off of the Louisiana coast but is steadily encroaching into Texas, Mississippi, and Alabama state waters. Although, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been convening a Gulf Hypoxia Task Force since 1997, little has actually been done to slow the growth of the Dead Zone. The Wisconsin farmers predict that next year will be even worse than this year’s record breaking hypoxic zone because of the torrential rains that occurred throughout the region this fall. The impacts of the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone greatly threaten commercially-important species of shrimp, crabs, and fin-fish including highly sought after species such as red snapper, grouper, menhaden, and tuna. A recent Duke University study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicated that the Gulf Dead Zone was effecting not only the abundance of shrimp but also noted that hypoxic conditions have resulted in stunted shrimp growth. As the Dead Zone continues to grow, the problem has the severe potential to send shockwaves throughout the Gulf seafood industry; ultimately forcing consumers to have to pay higher prices for the Gulf seafood the nation has come to enjoy and depend upon.
Myself- Ryan Bradley, a fifth-generation commercial fisherman from Long Beach, MS and Director of the Mississippi Commercial Fisheries United; a non-profit business alliance of Mississippi fishermen and fishing businesses, was one of the fishermen who attended the recent get together with Wisconsin farmers. “I’ve seen the dead zone first hand both shrimping and fishing in the Gulf; every spring and summer it begins to expand. We go from catching fish as fast as we can; to seeing absolutely nothing within just one week. It seems to be getting worse every year and moving in to areas we have never seen before. The dead zone starts growing right around the time valuable fish like red snapper are laying their eggs in these waters and you have to wonder if they are able to survive. Thankfully, as river levels drop in the fall season and dissolved oxygen is replenished; the marine life begin to move back into these areas but we have noticed a significant reduction in both shrimp abundance and size each year”; I told the farmers. It is important for fishermen, farmers, and resource managers to meet face to face to discuss these issues so that we can humanize the problem and connect it to those whose livelihoods depend on one another. Hopefully, more funding can be set aside to encourage these types of invaluable exchange programs with other states such as Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, and Minnesota to further the discussion and promote voluntary wholesale change in the farming practices that are employed.
Although much of the Gulf Dead Zone has been attributed to excessive nutrient run-off from upland watersheds; an equal amount of blame could be cast on the extensive levee system that has straight jacketed the Mississippi River. The natural capacity of Louisiana’s river basins to remove nutrients has been greatly diminished as the Mississippi has become one of the most heavily engineered rivers in all of the United States. Over time, urbanization and engineering modifications have disconnected the river from the land. The result is substantial land loss in Louisiana equivalent to one football field per hour of critical habitat necessary for a plethora of native flora and fauna to thrive. Now more than ever; Louisiana is faced with unprecedented, controversial freshwater and sediment diversion projects that present tough decisions for stakeholders and policy makers in an effort to ebb the tide of land erosion. The need for coastal protection and land loss mitigation is undoubtedly needed to protect coastal ecosystems; however, generational fishing families are rightfully concerned about the future of their livelihoods due to the unknown and possibly unintended consequences of several proposed comprehensive restoration projects. It is unclear if river diversion projects would create hypoxic zones in the estuaries that juvenile marine life depends upon before moving offshore.
When it comes to the Gulf Dead Zone issue, everyone can play a role in diminishing the ever growing hypoxic areas. This can be accomplished when purchasing beef by choosing U.S. grass fed beef over U.S. grain fed beef. Grass fed is promoted as being healthier for the cattle, the consumer, and the environment. This is because grass fed beef requires far less soil tillage which equates to less soil and nutrient run-off and a significant overall reduction in nutrient use. The fewer nutrients sent down river, means less hypoxia in the Gulf Dead Zone and more of the tasty bounty the Gulf of Mexico fishery provides to countless seafood consumers. Cooperatively, farmers and fishermen are working together to solve the complex problems our industries face with the hopes of improving both industries and the environment for the benefit of all Americans for generations to come. This issue requires all hands on deck and the prudent use of all available funding sources to tackle the Gulf Dead Zone problem. The RESTORE Act funding from the historic BP Oil Spill settlement presents a once in a lifetime opportunity to make major headway in addressing the growing hypoxic zone that has likely been exacerbated by the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. Let’s not let this opportunity pass us by; we can all work together to make a difference.
Special thanks to the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute that provides administrative and organizing support for the Uplands Group. Many thanks to Wisconsin Farmers Union, Organic Valley, Strauss Brands, the McKnight Foundation, Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, and the many other sponsors and collaborators for supporting this growing connection between Wisconsin farmers and Gulf fishermen.
To read the press release from the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, click here.