One of the first stories that I’ve covered since the very beginning of this blog is the threat to Louisiana seafood. It’s certainly an issue that I can relate to, as a New Orleans native who grew up eating the rich harvest from the nearby Gulf of Mexico. And needless to say, it was particularly heartbreaking in the early days to have to report in the early days of the BP Deepwater Horizon spill back in 2010 that government testers were ignoring cases of oil contamination in shrimp and other Gulf seafood. Seven years later, some fish stocks have not fully recovered from the impact of spilled oil, either because of the havoc that was wreaked upon the food chain, or wetlands erosion, or because much of the oil ended up on the Gulf floor where it affected shellfish and other species who live there.
But oil spills — and not just the massive BP disaster but the many other smaller spills that occur doing our current wave of increased offshore drilling — are just one of the significant factors affecting seafood populations in the Gulf. In recent years, the once-hearty stocks of marine life that live off the Louisiana coast have had to cope with the steady loss of wetland habitats, influxes of nutrients from farming and other onshore activities that can kill oxygen and create “dead zones,” changes in water patterns due in part because of post-Hurricane Katrina flood control, and the normal fluctuations on hot or cold weather. These changes to the ecology occasionally work to the benefit of marine life — but most of what’s happening is harmful.
This week comes a new report of yet another type of seafood that is suffering under the current conditions: The Louisiana blue crab. State officials just announced a 30-day ban on harvesting in a bid to replenish the population:
“We’ve had drier years recently, and that’s correlated with declines in crab population,” [Julie] Lively [associate professor and fisheries specialist at Louisiana State University AgCenter] said. “We don’t want hurricanes and haven’t had a big one since Gustav in 2008, but crab numbers do increase after a storm.” During hurricanes, baby crabs are pushed into bays where they’re protected from Gulf predators. In Lake Pontchartrain, the state’s second-largest, blue-crab habitat after Terrebonne Basin, landings reached a recent high in 2009.
Crabs inhabit the state’s estuarine basins—Terrebonne, Lake Pontchartrain, Barataria, and the Atchafalaya-Vermilion-Teche Rivers.
Conditions in Lake Pontchartrain have changed, however, since the MR-GO shipping lane was shut in late 2009 to prevent storm surge. The lake’s water is fresher or less saline now, Lively said. Crabs harvested there aren’t as large and plentiful as they once were.
And statewide, adult blue crabs were more abundant back in 1970 than they are now, according to the Audubon Nature Institute last year.
As local temperatures and sea levels rise, south Louisiana is losing wetland estuaries that nourish and protect young crabs. In 2010, BP oil spilled off the coast of Plaquemines Parish soiled wetlands.
Studies about the spill’s impact on blue crabs are inconclusive, however, Lively said. “
The state’s diversions of Mississippi River water to fend off oil from the BP spill, and separately as a way to rebuild wetlands, have pushed crab larvae and babies into the sea where predators loom, Lively said.
Not all of the factors that have caused the blue crab to decline are the result of bad environmental policy — but some of them clearly are. In particular, it appears that the steady loss of marshy wetlands has been quite detrimental to crabs, just as it’s been for other marine life. Louisiana is currently at the starting gate with an ambitious long-term $50 billion plan that would restore some — although not all — of the state’s lost wetlands. Now there are concerns that the program may get off to a slow start because of the state’s ongoing budget woes. Consider the plight of the Louisiana blue crab as one more reason for officials to act sooner rather than later.
Read more about the 30-day ban on harvesting the blue crab from Louisiana Weekly: http://www.louisianaweekly.com/louisianas-crab-bans-spurred-by-changes-in-climate-and-habitat/
Learn more about the need for worldwide action on fossil fuels in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America: http://shop.benbellabooks.com/crude-justice
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