Where Nothing Can Survive

Every summer, thousands of square miles of the Gulf of Mexico die. The Dead Zone is caused by pollution that flows down the Mississippi River. It's runoff from factories, sewer plants, and farms. And it causes a lot of problems for fishermen in the area. This year, the Dead Zone is projected to be huge - maybe the largest ever. Samara Freemark explains.

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Every summer, thousands of square miles of the Gulf of Mexico die. The Dead Zone is caused by pollution that flows down the Mississippi River. It's runoff from factories, sewer plants, and farms. And it causes a lot of problems for fishermen in the area. This year, the Dead Zone is projected to be huge - maybe the largest ever. Samara Freemark explains:

Imagine for a moment youíre a shrimp fisherman. Every day you send out your fleet to the same waters you've fished for decades. And your boats pull in a lot of shrimp- thousands of pounds a day, millions a year. And then one day, a normal summer day, you send the boats out, and they come back empty.

"You go from about 5000 pounds to nothing. It's dead. That's why they call it the dead zone."

That's Dean Blanchard. He runs the largest shrimp company in America- Dean Blanchard Seafood. and#8232;

Blanchard started seeing the dead zone about five years ago, but it's not a new phenomenon. For a long time, nutrient fertilizer from upstream has run into the Mississippi River and from there, into the Gulf. It fertilizes big algae bloomsñ and when the algae decays, it sucks oxygen out of the water, making it impossible for fish to live there.

What's new is how much fertilizer there is now.

"It's not natural."

Nancy Rabalais is a marine biologist at LUMCON. That's Louisiana's center for marine research. She says that over the past several decades there's been a surge in fertilizer use in the Corn Belt states. That eventually ends up in the Gulf.

"We're having 300 times more than we did in the 1950s. And it's just over loaded the system."

Rabalais predicts this year's dead zone will be almost three times as big as it was twenty years ago - more than 8000 square miles.

Of course, the bigger the zone, the further out shrimpers like Dean Blanchard have to send their boats. That means a lot of wasted time, fuel, and wages.

And the zones might mean even bigger problems. Don Scavia is a professor at the School of Natural Resources at the University of Michigan.

"There's a half a billion dollar shrimp industry in the gulf. And the shrimp depend on that habitat. And what we're concerned about is that if the dead zone continues or even grows, that fishery may collapse."

Congress is taking some measures to address the problem. Conservation programs in the Farm Bill work to reduce how much fertilizer farmers use, and how they apply it.

But there's something else in the Farm Bill too - a lot of subsidy programs. Those pay for ethanol production. Which means more corn. Which means a lot more fertilizer.

ìAnd what is debated every 5 years is how much funding will go into those conservation programs, relative to funding going into subsidy programs. And, by far, the subsidies win." (laughs)

Scavia says for every $1 spent on conservation programs in the Corn Belt, $500 go to subsidizing crops.

Shrimper Dean Blanchard says he's not sure how long he can live with that balance, especially as he watches the dead zone grow.

"How big is this thing going to get? If we kill the oceans we have problems. We have serious problems."

But Don Scavia is hopeful. He says we know exactly how to reduce nutrient runoff ñ in fact, the basic programs are already in place. It's just a matter of Congress choosing the right funding priorities.

For The Environment Report, Iím Samara Freemark.