'Saving' The Gulf Of Mexico May Cause Harm Instead
May 14, 1999
by Dennis T. Avery
CHURCHVILLE, Va. - A year from now, President Clinton must present Congress with a plan to reduce the size of a low-oxygen zone in the Gulf of Mexico, to protect the fish and shellfish there.
A White House task force is expected to demand that Midwest farmers cut their use of fertilizer by 20 percent. This policy in the making is remarkable for two reasons.
First, no one can find any damage to the fisheries in the gulf. They've been stable and highly productive for decades. Second, no one has demonstrated any significant linkage between Midwestern farm fertilizer use and the size of the low-oxygen zone in the gulf.
Most of the nutrients that gulf fish rely on come from the Mississippi River, which of course drains the Midwest's farmlands. But since the eco-drums began beating on the issue, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has warned that fewer nutrients in the river may mean fewer fish in the gulf.
Nancy Rabelais, a Louisiana researcher, started measuring the size of the low-oxygen (hypoxic) zone at the mouth of the Mississippi in 1985. Such zones are typical where nutrient-rich rivers enter salt-water bays.
She found about 3,500 square miles of low-oxygen water. In 1988 and 1989, dry weather reduced the river's water flow and the hypoxic zone nearly disappeared.
After the Mississippi River's "flood of the century" in 1993, however, the low-oxygen zone expanded to 7,000 square miles and stayed at that high level through 1997. Rabelais began talking and writing about a dangerous expansion trend.
The Clinton White House, perfectly willing to assume that man-made pollution was inexorably driving the expansion of a marine "death zone" in the gulf, set up its Inter-Agency Task Force on Harmful Algal Blooms and Hypoxia. A rider was attached to Coast Guard appropriations bill for 1998 that, in effect, gives the upcoming task force report the force of law.
But when Rabelais measured the size of the hypoxic zone in the gulf last summer, disaster struck the policy-making process. The hypoxic zone had shrunk back to about 4,800 square miles!
Apparently, the 1993 flood created a multi-year surge of nutrients, and organic matter washed from bottomland all over Middle America.
The task force has not been able to find any decline in fish catches, or even in catches of crabs and shrimp, which are bottom-dwelling sea life more vulnerable to hypoxia. In fact, the waters around the low-oxygen zone are known to fishermen as "the fertile crescent."
Nor do the data gathered by the U.S. Geological Survey support any upward trend in the "nitrogen loadings" of the lower Mississippi's waters in recent years. To put it bluntly, the task force has found neither a hypoxia trend to arrest nor a nutrient problem to solve.
Some hypoxia believers still warn darkly that the Gulf of Mexico's fisheries could collapse like the fisheries in the Black Sea. But our resident water expert at the Center for Global Food Issues, adjunct fellow Rick Halpern, finds this the most irresponsible comparison he has ever heard in a scientific discussion.
First, the Black Sea is a huge sink of stagnant water with a mouth only 750 yards wide. Virtually no water is able to flow out of it against the incoming wind-driven current. The Gulf of Mexico is far more dynamic, with a mouth 450 miles wide!
Second, the Black Sea has been heavily overfished. The Gulf of Mexico has not.
Third, for 40 years Communist countries dumped their most notorious pollution into the Black Sea.
Yet the task force members, good bureaucrats that they are, plan to move forward, against all the evidence. They will recommend that Corn Belt farmers cut their use of fertilizer by 20 percent. They will also call for creation of another 5 million square miles of wetlands in the Mississippi Valley at public expense.
If these recommendations are implemented, the United States will pay huge costs for reducing nutrients in the Mississippi River, buy 5 million square miles of bottomland in the Mississippi Valley and turn them back into swamps.
We'll drive out some of the most productive and environmentally beneficial farming in the world and bankrupt the shakier small farms in Middle America.
Screwing down fertilizer use in Midwest will mean that farmers elsewhere will grow more corn and soybeans, perhaps in the poor-soil tropical forests in the outer islands of Indonesia or in the home of the Bengal tiger in India.
We may even see a nutrient deprivation-related decline in the very gulf fisheries for which the whole charade was intended.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.