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“Farmers of the Sea” Say Livelihood Dying from Midwest Ag Pollution

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Thomas Olander of Louisiana has been a shrimper and fisherman for about 40 years. He says his livelihood and way of life is dying out because of the growing dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

“The guys that drag across that area, they absolutely cannot catch anything alive,” he says. “Nothing lives in it.”


"We truly are farmers of the sea," says Thomas Olander.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, dead zones are caused by "excessive nutrient pollution from human activities coupled with other factors that deplete the oxygen required to support most marine life in bottom and near-bottom water.” This year, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico was measured as the largest it has ever been - 8,776 square miles - an area the size of New Jersey.


Olander catches shrimp inland from the dead zone, though he is directly impacted by hypoxia (low-oxygen) in the area. A few years ago, 12 to 20 shrimp would add up to a pound, whereas now, they’re averaging about 40 to 50 shrimp per pound, sometimes even 115 shrimp.


“Not only are we catching smaller shrimp but we’re catching less shrimp,” he says. “I’m almost to the point where I’m paying to fish now.”


On this edition of River to River, Ben Kieffer talks with Olander, as well as Donald Boesch, a professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.


Boesch studies both the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico as well as a smaller one in the Chesapeake Bay. In 2010, despite opposition from farmers, the federal government set mandatory limits on nutrient pollution entering the bay. State governments spent billions of dollars to meet those targets.


“There are mandatory limits that are placed on each state and it’s up to those states to achieve those reductions to those limits, and now we’re seeing the signs of improvement,” Boesch says. “Until you have those kinds of goals and targets, it’s going to be very difficult to actually achieve the agreement that the upper basin states and the federal government have to reduce the size of the dead zone in the Gulf.”


Boesch adds that, “We need to also use subsidies more effectively.”

Hear Ben Kieffer's interview with Douglas Brinkley - River to River

Later in the hour, Kieffer talks with Douglas Brinkley, a CNN presidential historian and professor at Rice University. Brinkley will be delivering tonight's Bucksbaum Lecture at Drake University in Des Moines. His newest book is called "Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America."

Ben Kieffer is the host of IPR's River to River