The shrinking bayous…

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“In the past century shrimp has gone from a sidebar curiosity sold mostly in ethnic markets to the very soul of our seafood economy. So thoroughly do shrimp dominate American seafood today that it is almost a menu category in and of itself–a type of seafood that people who generally don’t like fish all that much will eat with relish. A decade ago shrimp surpassed canned tuna as the most popular seafood in the United States and now the average American eats more than four pounds of it a year–roughly the equivalent to the U.S. per capita consumption of the next two most popular seafoods–tuna and salmon–combined. If they didn’t eat shrimp, most Americans today wouldn’t eat seafood at all…

The erosion of the Louisiana marshes is being further accelerated by another incursion: the powerful agribusiness of the Mississippi valley. The Mississippi River that feeds into Louisiana is one of the most engineered rivers on the planet. The reason it was engineered to such an extent was so that landfood producers could gain access to the tremendous fertility the river deposited in its meandering floodplain…

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Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, the Army Corps of Engineers systematically lopped off what had been called the Greenville Bends and a dozen other large meanders, shortening the river by 150 miles. Floods were indeed reduced, but afterward the lower Mississippi transitioned from being a complex marshy wetland into a fire hose that blasted sediment straight into the Gulf. With the Mississippi River radically altered, straightened, and no longer able to deposit new marshland in the delta, shrimp habitat loss was made even more extreme. In addition, nitrogen-based synthetic fertilizers coming from the corn-growing heartland surrounding the Mississippi were also shooting out into the Gulf. Formerly, when the river was more curvaceous and the floodplain was a hundred miles wider than it currently is, fertilizers and silt were able to drop out of the river and spread out over the entirety of the Mississippi valley. The floodplain performed a kind of dialysis for cleansing the water of nutrients. Today all that fertilizer goes directly into the Gulf, causing extensive algal blooms. And when those algae die, they are consumed by bacteria, which in turn suck life-giving oxygen from the water.

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This problem is further exacerbated by big agriculture’s devastation of what had previously been one of the world’s largest tracts of ecosystem called ‘bottomland forest’–another critical biological filter…

Thanks to the removal of all of those critical biological filters and the addition of so much chemical fertilizer, the outflow of the Mississippi is now markedly more nutrient rich. So much so that massive algal blooms occur every spring and summer around the river’s outflow. When those algae die and decompose, oxygen is removed from Gulf waters. And now, every year, a swath of water as large as the state of New Jersey forms in the Gulf that is so low in oxygen that creatures like shrimp must flee to other waters. This so-called dead zone has been forming annually in summer months at least since the 1970s. Shrimpers are now driven farther and farther offshore in search of a decent catch. In effect, we are trading seafood for landfood, favoring industrial agriculture over a productive natural food system…

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‘When the coastline deteriorates, it gets jagged and creates more edge–more shrimp habitat. So as the marsh retreats you get a false sense of boom in production. The problem is we don’t know when it’s all going to crash. Is it going to be next year? Ten years? A hundred years? We don’t know.’ But when the Gulf shrimp population does finally begin to seriously decline, we are not likely to notice. Because the foreign shrimp-farming industry grew exponentially during the last thirty years, it has all but eclipsed the presence and identity of American shrimp in the marketplace…

We’ve been steady in our shrimp for the last few years. But we all wonder where that tipping point is. At what point do we see this thing go in a different direction?”

American Catch