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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Health of the Gulf

Air Date: Week of

The toxic gumbo emptying out of New Orleans into Lake Pontchartrain could eventually funnel out into the Gulf of Mexico, a body of water that's been the bread and butter for corporate and local fishermen alike. Host Steve Curwood talks with scientist George Crozier about the possible effects of this toxic stream on fisheries.


CURWOOD: Crab bisque, crawfish pie and oyster po boys – not to mention fried shrimp, stuffed shrimp, shrimp gumbo and shrimp on the Barby – these are the dishes that give the Gulf Coast its unmistakable flavor. But it could be a while before Creole kitchens have adequate local seafood stocks. Hurricane Katrina has devastated fishing and shrimping fleets all along the coast, and the long-term consequences for the health of the Gulf and its fisheries is yet unknown.

George Crozier has been studying the Gulf of Mexico's fishing industry and environment for years. He's executive director of the Dauphin Island Sealab--that’s a marine research center located on one of the Barrier Islands of Alabama in the Gulf. Mr. Crozier, hello!

CROZIER: Hi, how are you today, Steve?

CURWOOD: Well, not too bad. Yourself?


CURWOOD: We’re hearing some accounts that the fisheries might have a very hard time recovering from Hurricane Katrina, not just from its immediate damage but also from what might be soon emptying into the Gulf. I’m thinking of, that is, whatever refuse, the toxins and pollutants that will come tumbling out of New Orleans. What are the major fisheries that are at risk here?

CROZIER: Well, the largest cash crop, and the one people are perhaps used to, in a funny way, is actually menhaden in cat food. But as far as people are concerned it’s the shrimp. That is an enormous issue for the north-central Gulf Coast. And the intriguing thing about this is that the impact on fisheries from hurricanes is normally minor to beneficial. That’s kind of conventional wisdom. The rainfall is generally good and the infusion of nutrients has frequently stimulated fisheries’ production in the Gulf of Mexico. But this is not a situation that is going to be conventional, and I think a lot of us are quite concerned.

Although there’s certainly nothing else to do at this point. I mean, the waste from the city, and I am a native of New Orleans, has got to be moved out, and so it’s going to be pumped out. My information is that it’s going into Lake Pontchartrain which then will lead into the Gulf of Mexico through a huge estuary system. And I think the dangers of the impact in that estuary, and then eventually the Gulf of Mexico, is probably very severe.

CURWOOD: What specifically are the dangers? What’s at risk?

CROZIER: The problem is going to be one of toxins that are almost of unknown mixture. They keep talking about it as a toxic gumbo. It’s wastewater, it’s sewage, it’s decomposing animal flesh of all kinds that we don’t even like to think about it. And the residue in the estuary itself is likely to be quite long life.

The problem that I foresee is a residence time in the estuaries where it, in fact, negatively impacts the habitat that larval forms of shrimp and an awful lot of fin fish take advantage of that area for protection and for nursery services, basically. They feed there, they are protected there, and they grow through some critical life stages before they reemerge in the Gulf of Mexico.

And the impact that this discharge is going to have is extraordinarily difficult for us to predict. We don’t understand the system as well as we should, and this is a almost unique circumstance. We’ve certainly never experienced anything like this before, and it’s going to be a difficult learning situation for the marine science community.

CURWOOD: George Crozier is executive director of the Dauphin Islands Sea Lab. That’s a marine research center located in one of the barrier islands in the Gulf of Mexico, off Alabama. Mr. Crozier, thanks for taking this time with me.

CROZIER: Thank you for the opportunity, Steve.



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