BATON ROUGE — Four generations of the Olander family have shrimped the coast of Louisiana, but now Thomas Olander, chairman of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, is trying to convince his own son to get out of the family business while he’s still young as the Mississippi River spews poison into the Gulf of Mexico.
The shrimp are smaller, the young fish are dying off and the oysters have been beaten back. Crabbers say they’re pulling up traps filled with dead crustaceans.
The technical, scientific phrase for what’s going on is hypoxia: oxygen levels in the water unsupportive of most life. But everyone calls the hypoxic areas by a more grim name: dead zones.
This summer’s Gulf of Mexico dead zone is projected to be the worst ever, and fishermen, shrimpers, crabbers, oystermen and others who rely on the seafood industry are feeling the hurt.
“It’s a ripple effect. From the hardware stores to the restaurants … everybody in the community (is affected,)” said Louisiana Shrimp Association president Acy Cooper.
Each spring, rains wash fertilizer as well as human and animal waste into the Mississippi River and its tributaries from 31 states. The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated the amount of fertilizer washing from the Mississippi and Atchafalaya into the Gulf this year would fill 2,800 train cars.
When the river empties into the Gulf , algae feed on the nutrient-rich material but die when it is all consumed. As they decompose, the algae simultaneously make the water more acidic and deplete the oxygen levels, leading to hypoxia.
Most organisms can’t survive in these dead zones. Some animals like fish and shrimp can escape — though the hypoxia may retard their growth — but stationary species like clams and oysters just die.
Nancy Rabalais, a research professor at the LUMCON marine center in Cocodrie, has been studying the dead zone for decades, and other scientists rely on her annual forecast to predict the extent of the hypoxia. The dead zone will peak in late July and early August, and Rabalais expects it to become approximately the size of the state of Vermont, based on the amount of chemicals flowing down the Mississippi, most of which can be traced to fertilizer for corn and soybean farming.
There was some question as to whether tropical storm Cindy may have stirred up the water and caused the dead zone to dissipate, but it appears to have reformed, Rabalais said. If her…