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It’s About the Dead Zone – And More

All of that rain went somewhere, about which Margaret Krome learned when she visited the Mississippi Gulf Coast March 7-8 and was shown around the local seafood industry by fisherman Ryan Bradley, Director of the Mississippi Commercial Fisheries United, Inc. In addition to eating spectacular seafood, Krome had a chance to visit an oyster plant – and hear about another way that runoff from the Upper Midwest harms fisheries in the Gulf. She wrote about it in a column in the Capital Times, below.

Photo: Oyster shells being seeded with oyster spat to replenish oyster beds – which will be a necessary if insufficient remedy to the destruction being caused by opening the Spillway.

Last week, I gazed out at the Gulf of Mexico. On land, the wisteria was blooming, and although the Gulf was calm on a sunny day, trouble was brewing, as I heard from local fishermen, whose mood was anything but calm or sunny. The Mississippi River’s spring swelling has been extra large this year, and the oystermen in Pass Christian, Mississippi were struggling with the fact that, even as we talked, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was opening a spillway to divert the River’s floodwater from away from New Orleans and into Lake Pontchartrain and thence the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, when it hits the Gulf, it floods miles of oyster beds with fresh water, upsetting the salinity essential to the oyster’s survival.

I visited an oyster packing house while I was in Mississippi, and it was a sight to see. Scores of people were cleaning, shucking, freezing, and otherwise packing oysters. If we visited a few weeks from now we’d certainly see a fraction of that number, because oystermen there told me that every time the Spillway is opened, all of that fresh water emptying into the oyster beds kills the oysters, and the fishermen have to wait several years for them to recover.

The Bonnet Carre Spillway was built in 1931 in response to terrible Mississippi River floods in 1927, and it has only been opened eleven times since. Last week was the twelfth. Nobody wants New Orleans to be flooded. No fishermen talked resentfully of protecting the city and its residents. But it’s a terrible thing to have sunk hundreds of thousands of dollars in a marginal business like fishing and to watch your livelihood being killed off.

If the problem isn’t New Orleans itself, the fishermen’s dire situation should give pause to those of us upstream who casually and drastically remove protections for wetlands, as Wisconsin’s Governor and Legislature just did, in the name of removing regulations that they say impede creating jobs. In fact, wetlands are essential to the livelihoods of many Americans, like the fishermen in the Gulf. So are conservation programs that help farmers keep their farmland covered with crops, cover crops, and pastures that reduce erosion and increase water infiltration.

Many of us have heard about the Dead Zone – of what happens when farmers in the Upper Midwest don’t use conservation practices and instead let water carry nutrients off of their land rather than percolating into it. That water tears down the increasingly channelized Mississippi River and far out into the Gulf, where farm fertilizers and other nutrients support huge algal blooms that take oxygen out of the water and create large areas void of marine life – as big as the State of Connecticut last year. Everyone knows this is wrong. But we must also understand how wrong it is to even allow so much water to leave our lands – water that the Bonnet Carre Spillway is having to release, water that is going to kill healthy oyster beds just off the beautiful Gulf coast.

Those of us in the North have a moral obligation to support sound hydraulics –protecting wetlands and conservation practices that hold water here, where we need it for our crops, and not release more of it than the Mississippi River can sustainably hold in the South.

Margaret Krome and Fishermen Ryan Bradley’s sons, Aiden and Cooper.