Shrinking the Gulf Coast dead zone part 1: Downriver

Print More
Grand Isle. Dean Blanchard weighs shrimp as his team unload trawlers that arrive at his dock.
“When the dead zone comes, it just kills everything,” Blanchard said.

A special two-part report written and photographed by Spike Johnson in partnership with the Pulitzer Center. The second part focuses on Midwest agriculture.

The Ace of Trade shrimp trawler motored toward Dean Blanchard’s dock early this summer and winched its nets into storage. Blanchard’s workers, strengthened by a lifetime at sea worked shirtless in the humid summer air. It was the beginning of hurricane season, and so far 2019 had been the wettest year in U.S. history. With cigarettes in mouths, they vaulted aboard the ship to shovel knee-high piles of fish off the fiberglass deck and into holding tanks, where they awaited the 12-inch-thick, semi-translucent pipes that’d suck them into the warehouse.

Blanchard has been in business for 37 years, and is one of the largest shrimp suppliers in America, distributing off the barrier island of Grand Isle in the Mississippi River Delta. He’s a squat man with a boxer’s nose, a soft talking Cajun with the gravelly voice of a lifetime smoker. He fought hard for his livelihood in the early years, when tensions ran high between American shrimpers and newly arrived Vietnamese refugees. In the 90s, Blanchard said that American shrimp boats would sometimes pull alongside his dock opening fire with automatic weapons, angry at the market competition Blanchard encouraged through his dealings with Vietnamese shrimp fishermen. He said he would always shoot back.

Grand Isle. The Ace of Trade approaches Dean Blanchard’s dock.

In 2010, Blanchard graduated to political battles with the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, a spill that sent 4.9 million barrels of oil into his fishing ground. Blanchard’s business took a hit. He later told reporter Julie Dermansky that he estimated his business was worth 15 percent of what it was before the spill. He testified in Congress and began appearing on national news shows to lobby for his industry. 

But increasingly, Blanchard and other Gulf Coast fishermen find themselves skirting a different type of pollution, a threat to the seafood industry and ocean biodiversity that’s unrelated to oil, and much harder to fix. 

“Sometimes we’ll get thousands of pounds of shrimp a day, then the next day everything’s gone,” Blanchard said. “When the dead zone comes, it just kills everything.”

The Gulf of Mexico dead zone — a large, oxygen-deprived swath of water that  is a result of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers from farms in the Midwest that have concentrated off the coast of Louisiana and Texas. The chemicals encourage the growth of algae, which suck up oxygen choking marine life. Escaping fish are forced to migrate out of natural habitats.

This year, the dead zone measured 6,952 square miles  — about the size of New Hampshire, much larger than the 5-year average of 5,770 square miles —  according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Studies by the journal Science state that the global area of dead zones has quadrupled since 1950, driven by a growing human population, and an increase in factory farming methods.

The Mississippi River basin is the country’s largest drainage basin, and one of the largest in the world.. Like a topological funnel between the Rocky and Appalachian Mountains, it directs 41 percent of America’s water, along with its contaminant load toward the Delta, and America’s most productive fishing grounds. 

Climate factors compound the growth of the dead zone, with increased rainfall contributing to field erosion and fertilizer movement. Last May, the United States Geographic Society commented that the output of the Mississippi River, and its distributary, the Atchafalaya River, were 67 percent above the long-term average between 1980 and 2018, estimating that this larger-than average river discharge carried 156,000 metric tons of nitrate and 25,300 metric tons of phosphorus into the Gulf of Mexico in one month alone, 18 percent and 49 percent above long-term averages, respectively.

“So far we have 68,000 pounds a day for the month. Normally we average about 90,000 pounds a day.”
—Dean Blanchard

Grand Isle. Dean Blanchard’s workers vault aboard the Ace of Trade to shovel knee-high piles of shrimp off the fiberglass deck and into holding tanks, where they await the 12-inch-thick, semi-translucent pipes that’ll suck them into the warehouse.

Fishing in the Gulf has become unpredictable. As the dead zone shifts and grows, ocean life are pushed into areas where they wouldn’t normally be found. Commercial and recreational fisheries depend on species that spend time within the shallow waters overlapping the dead zone. Normally they would move from inshore nurseries to offshore spawning grounds, but hypoxia blocks their migration, leading to erosions of natural habitats and declines in mating.

A study by Duke University found that hypoxia in the Gulf drives up shrimp prices generally, impacting consumers, fishermen and seafood markets. Fishermen catch smaller shrimp and fewer large ones, making small shrimp cheaper and large ones more expensive. The total quantity of shrimp caught remains the same, but a drop in popular large shrimp leads to a net economic loss. 

“So far we have 68,000 pounds a day for the month. Normally we average about 90,000 pounds a day,” Blanchard said.

That decreased volume comes even with improved equipment — new evolutions in radar, winches, and net technology that to keep the amount of fish abreast of ecological changes. 

“We get the same amount of shrimp, but we’ve got better equipment — we ought to be catching more,” Blanchard said..

The Atchafalaya River Basin Initiative

Across the Mississippi River Delta there are conservation initiatives and wetland restoration projects —  last-ditch attempts to catch river water as it barrels between man-made levees and redirect it into marshland where pollutants can be absorbed before they hit the ocean.

Seth Blitch, Coastal and Marine Conservation Director at The Nature Conservancy, sat at his desk in Baton Rouge last June, below a wall-to-wall satellite image of the Delta. Like an upside-down tree its printed lines fan out into the ocean. 

Two stories below, and hidden behind its levee, a life-sized Mississippi River slid past. The river had breached its western bank, drowning shoreside factories and chemical plants beneath brown water full of earth, fertilizer, and vegetation from the north. 

Cocodrie. Ocean dead zones globally have quadrupled since 1950 according to the journal Science, and as the human population rises, along with a reliance on large-scale farming, the problem is expected to continue.

After the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927 — which submerged 27,000 square miles of land along the Mississippi, killing hundreds of people — the US Army Corps of Engineers began to build high banks along the river under the Flood Control Act of 1928. Today, the Mississippi River levee system is 2,203 miles long, incorporating tributary flood walls and control str, with 1,607 miles of levees along the Mississippi itself. This presented a problem. While mitigating flooding, water flow, pollutants and sediment are funneled straight into the Gulf of Mexico. 

The problem is compounded by the hundreds of miles of navigation channels, pipelines and exploratory canals built by the oil and gas industry in South Louisiana. Dredged soil from much of that construction was piled on the edges of waterways, forming piles called spoil banks, or spoil levees, impeding the natural flow of water into the state’s wetlands. 

“The process of wetland renourishment by fresh water and sediment in Louisiana is severed by levees,” Blitch said.

The Atchafalaya River Basin — an area comprising about a million acres of wetlands between the Atchafalaya River and the Mississippi River — takes a third of the Mississippi’s water and is the largest river swamp in the country. Wetlands like the Atchafalaya Swamp act as filtration systems for water travelling to the ocean. Plant life slows the flow of water and sucks up nitrogen and phosphorus using them as fuel, Blitch said. 

“The process of wetland renourishment by fresh water and sediment in Louisiana is severed by levees.”
—Seth Blitch

Baton Rouge. The Louisiana State University Center for River Studies created a 10,000 square foot model of the Mississippi River Delta, based on the topography of southeast Louisiana.

“Rather than just being funneled down the leveed river like a pipe,” Blitch said, “these waters, which carry a high nutrient load, could spread out to the marshes.” 

In 2015, The Nature Conservancy bought nearly 5,400 acres of forest in the Atchafalaya River Basin, a preservation an restoration project called the Atchafalaya River Basin Initiative.

As part of the initiative — still in the permitting phase — the group plans to lower spoil banks in the land it purchased, allowing water back into the wetlands.    

“The idea is to improve/restore the flow of water and sediment such that it both floods and drains from the property more like it would have before constructed levees and spoiling altered the flow,” Blitch said in an email. “Bear in mind this is just of the section of our property where the project is planned, and not for the entire Basin.  Although we hope that this becomes a means for both the state and private landowners to think about restoration on their own lands within the Basin.”

‘There’s been little to no taste for regulating agriculture’ 

David Chauvin’s Seafood Company teeters on the silty marshland between the mouths of the Atchafalaya and the Mississippi Rivers. On a Monday in June, teeming rain attacked the tin roofs that canopy David’s workers as they dodged cascades of water. They readied shrimp storage equipment, racing to unload boats escaping the storm. Air turned grey as the deluge bounced off concrete slick with greasy puddles, and a Bobcat mini-digger ferried bucket-loads of ice between the freezer and shrimp storage bins, pushing its way through insulation curtains, orange headlights cutting through mist.

Dulac. Kim and David Chauvin run three shrimp distribution businesses in Dulac, founded in 2010 and 2013, after David retired from a 17-year career as a commercial fisherman. “People are throwing stuff in the water, whether it’s fertilizer or chemicals, in such a way that when it comes down, it’s creating the dead zone. This is not okay with us, ” says Kim.

Eight years ago, after his retirement as a commercial fisherman, Chauvin and his wife Kim set up their wholesale shrimp company. In her prefabricated office Kim Chauvin was frantic — one of their four shrimp trawlers was caught on a sand bar on Grand Isle, near Dean Blanchard’s place. 

“On the one hand we have tropical depressions, on the other we have this humongous dead zone,” she said “We’re between a rock and a hard place.” 

Switching from cell phone to cell phone, she tried to compile information and mount a rescue plan for a worst-case scenario.

In the past Kim Chauvin has met with farming groups keen to help clean up the Gulf Coast. Smaller outfits are sympathetic to the plight of shrimpers and recognize their role in the chain of pollution, working on nutrient reduction methods like cover cropping or organic farming. 

Dulac. Chance McCorkel, Kim and David Chauvin’s nephew, takes a break to shelter from the rain while unloading shrimp.

“I don’t blame the mom and pops,” she said ”It’s usually big corporations who think they don’t have to change.” 

She’d like to see regulation of agriculture enforced federally, with limits on industrial contaminants entering the Mississippi, enforced by fines for non-compliance and reparations for historical damage to Louisiana’s shrimping industry. 

“There’s been little to no taste for regulating agriculture,” said Brad Redlin, of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. “But there’s a level of reassurance that conservation systems do exist out there in the countryside.” 

In 2012, Redlin designed a certification program for farmers in Minnesota in partnership with the USDA and EPA that established standards for agricultural water quality, offering farmers a 10-year contract of environmental compliance, ensuring they’ll be within the tolerances of future water quality laws for the duration of their contract. They developed a matrix of conditions in line with current environmental law, but also look forward to including future regulations. Using software that highlights bad practice — intensive tilling, subsequent soil erosion, or too much nitrogen fertilizer — they make suggestions on how farms could run cleaner and more efficiently. 

Saint Paul, Minnesota. Brad Redlin of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. I

In 2016 his network of 15 certifiers began walking the land, field by field, acre by acre, to begin assessments. The process itself is free and voluntary and appeals to farmers – the opportunity for a soil health and efficiency assessment of their whole farm is not a chance to be missed. But if the farmer is not up to par, certification may require a financial investment to change their practice – things like planting cover crops, or buffers designed to interrupt the flow of runoff. To date Brad has 731 producers certified, including Tim and his colleagues, over a total area of 489,385 acres.

“It’s often expressed that 70 percent of the problem is coming from 20 percent of the people. That’s not invalid,” Redlin said “But it seems to be a different cliché, like death by a thousand paper cuts. Every farm is a little bit leaky and the cumulative result is a dead zone in the Gulf.”

Mike Naig, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, said he disagrees with the strict agricultural regulation proposed by shrimpers like Dean Blanchard and Kim Chauvin. Farming is in Mike’s blood, he’s one of a long line in the industry, and still travels back to his parents’ farm in northwest Iowa to help work the land on which he was raised.*

Smoothing a navy-blue suit jacket, he sits at a polished wood conference table, as he prepares to co-chair this year’s meeting of the Hypoxia Task Force in Baton Rouge. The task force, a multistate and federal partnership, was formed in 1997 to study the causes of and coordinate solutions to hypoxia in the Gulf.

“We all understand that we feed into the Gulf,” he said. “And shame on us if we don’t take advantage of the opportunity to show that we can be effective.” 

Naig argued that if conservation were a regulatory obligation versus a personal responsibility, the dynamic between farmers and government would change for the worse, that forced conditions would breed bitterness. Top-down structures for conservation, enforced federally, would mean flip-flopping back and forth on industrial and environmental goals with the four-year cycles of administration changes, while real change requires decades of steady effort. 

“We want people to use their own innovative approaches,” Naig said “I think we’ll get to a better place, and we’ll get there faster through unleashing people’s creativity.” 

“On a congressional level, we need to say enough is enough.”
—Kim Chauvin

Cocodrie. Chemicals concentrate in a patch of ocean off the coast of Louisiana and Texas, encouraging the growth of algae which suck up oxygen, threatening the extinction of many species of sea life.

For Naig, more realistic is a change in attitude, mindset, and farming practice, driven from the bottom up.

Naig’s role is one of facilitation and communication. Working as an intermediary between farmers, the USDA, the EPA, and Congress, he finds support for agricultural conservation projects through funding, policy changes, and permitting. Through helping with collaboration between public and private interests – farmers, fertilizer sellers, environmental scientists, and government bodies, he’s able to offer access to equipment, technical assistance, and financial aid for nutrient reduction projects, so far realizing 1 million acres of cover crops planted, 88 completed wetlands, with another 30 under development across the state.

But Kim Chauvin said that for the shrimpers, fishermen, and communities who’ve grown businesses in the Delta, progress has been too slow. Their patience has worn thin for innovative conservation, the gradual adoption of cover crops by Midwest farmers, or incremental wetland rehabilitation.

“On a congressional level we need to say enough is enough,” Kim Chauvin said. “We need to list annual goals for change, and stick to the plan.”

She said that shrimpers want face-to-face meetings with commercial farmers and fertilizer companies. They want to explain first-hand the impact of large-scale farming on their lives, the environment, and ecology. They want fines, regulation, and a return to healthier waters. 

“We need them to understand what they’re doing to the fishing industry,” Kim Chauvin said. “The states above us should be paying something to the industry that they’re destroying.” 

*Correction: As originally published, this story inaccurately reported that Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig grew up in North Dakota. He is originally from northwest Iowa, and his family still operates a farm there. (Sept. 11, 2019)

Help us report this story     Report an error    
The Lens' donors and partners may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover.