Gulf shrimpers fight for their livelihoods in a fertilizer-fueled dead zone

David Chauvin’s Seafood Company teeters on the silty marshland between the mouths of the Atchafalaya and the Mississippi Rivers in Dulac, Louisiana. On a Monday in June, teeming rain battered the tin roofs above Chauvin’s workers as they readied shrimp storage equipment, racing to unload boats escaping the storm. The rain bounced off concrete slick with diesel and fish oil. And a Bobcat mini-digger ferried bucketloads of ice between the freezer and shrimp storage bins, pushing its way through insulation curtains, orange headlights cutting through mist.

Chauvin’s wife, Kim, was frantic — one of their four shrimp trawlers was caught on a sand bar on Grand Isle, near Dean Blanchard’s place, 70 miles east. Switching from cell phone to cell phone, she tried to compile information and mount a rescue plan for a worst-case scenario.

“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.”

Kim has met with farming groups keen to help clean up the Gulf Coast. She found that local and family-owned farmers were sympathetic to the plight of shrimpers and recognized their role in the chain of pollution. “I don’t blame the mom and pops,” she said. “It’s usually big corporations who think they don’t have to change.”

Big or small, farmers are largely free to do what they want, because federal regulations don’t require them to curb fertilizer runoff. Oversight mostly falls to state agencies that are often keen on voluntary efforts in place of enforcing rules. Kim would like to see strict federal limits on agricultural pollution entering the Mississippi, backed by fines for non-compliance and reparations for historical damage to Louisiana’s shrimping industry.

Federal agencies have launched efforts to attack the problem. The USDA has granted millions of dollars to agricultural and conservation groups for the development of nutrient reduction strategies. And in 1997, the EPA organized what is now called the Hypoxia Task Force, which later pledged to shrink the dead zone by three quarters before 2015.

But at the end of 2014, with no progress in sight, the task force extended its deadline to 2035, with a new pledge to hit a 20-percent reduction by 2025.

Small family farms, local conservationists, universities, and some local governments have been experimenting with methods to curtail fertilizer runoff. State officials, including Brad Redlin, a manager for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s water-quality program, are trying to nudge farmers into better practices with incentives. They’ve started initiatives in which farmers and local governments split the costs of creating wetland filtration systems, and supported new markets for harvested cover crops so that farmers can recoup some of the cost of planting.

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

In 2012, Redlin designed a voluntary certification program for farmers in Minnesota, in partnership with the USDA and EPA, that established standards for agricultural water quality. When farmers sign up, the state studies their farms using software that highlights bad practices. Redlin’s program suggests alternative methods to farmers to run their operations cleaner and more efficiently — the reduction of overall fertilizer use, the planting of cover crops, and limiting soil tilling, which leads to erosion.

Brad Redlin of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture designed a voluntary program to analyze farmer’s operations and suggest ways to make them more efficient. Spike Johnson

In 2016, his network of 15 state certifiers began walking across Minnesota’s farmland, field by field, to begin assessments. The process appeals to farmers who want an assessment of the health of their whole farm. If the farm is not up to par, the farmer might have to plant cover crops or build buffers designed to interrupt the flow of runoff. Redlin now has 731 producers certified 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 cuts. Every farm is a little bit leaky and the cumulative result is a dead zone in the Gulf.”

Mike Naig, Iowa’s secretary of agriculture, smoothed his navy-blue suit jacket as he sat at a polished wood conference table preparing to co-chair the 2019 meeting of the Hypoxia Task Force in Baton Rouge. Naig comes from a long line of farmers and still travels back to his parent’s farm in northern Iowa to help work the land.

“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 works as an intermediary between farmers, the USDA, the EPA, and Congress, drumming up support for agricultural conservation projects through funding, policy changes, and permitting. He helps public and private interests collaborate — farmers, fertilizer sellers, environmental scientists, and governments — lining up access to equipment, technical assistance, and financial aid for nutrient-reduction projects. Naig has 14 watershed demonstration projects across the state, which show how cover crops, bioreactors, and wetlands can reduce nutrient runoff on working farmland on a small scale.

According to Naig’s department, his efforts have led to 1 million acres of cover crops planted and 88 completed wetlands, with another 30 under development across Iowa.

Naig thinks federal regulations to curtail runoff would backfire. If it was a regulatory obligation, he argued, the dynamic between farmers and government would breed bitterness. Top-down structures for conservation, enforced federally, he said, would mean flip-flopping on industrial and environmental goals every time a new president landed in the White House.

“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.”

Iowa Department of Ag Instagram post
In a 2017 Instagram post, the Iowa Department of Agriculture boasted that farmers in the state planted “an estimated 760,000 acres of cover crops.” Iowa Department of Agriculture

Iowa’s 2013 Nutrient Reduction Strategy, a state government initiative to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, promised a 45 percent decrease in fertilizer runoff by 2035, but despite Naig’s efforts there’s been no change yet. Experts say large-scale crop producers have yet to make adaptations to their methods of growing.

For shrimpers living along the Delta like Dean Blanchard and Kim Chauvin, patience is wearing thin. “On a congressional level we need to say enough is enough,” she said. “We need to list annual goals for change, and stick to the plan.”

She said that shrimpers want face-to-face meetings with large-scale commercial farmers and fertilizer companies. They want to show the consequences of current methods of farming on those who live and fish on the coasts. They want fines and regulation for offending agricultural operations and a return to healthier waters.

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

Written and photographed by Spike Johnson with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. This story was published in partnership between Grist, the Center for Public Integrity — a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom that investigates betrayals of public trust — and The World, a radio program that crosses borders and time zones to bring home the stories that matter.

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