DODGEVILLE, Wis. – A seafood dinner hosted by the Uplands Watershed Group at Folklore Village in Dodgeville has become an annual tradition. At the third-annual dinner, farmers welcomed shrimpers and fishers from the Gulf of Mexico to share their perspectives.

Ryan Bradley, an oysterman and director of Mississippi Commercial Fisheries United of Long Beach, Mississippi, has participated in the past two dinners. He’s interested in how farmers in the Uplands Watershed group are working to reduce nutrient runoff and erosion on their farms, he said.

That’s because farming practices in the Midwest contribute to hypoxia when excess nutrients run off land into waterways that flow into the Mississippi River and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico. Hypoxia is a condition in which oxygen supply is inadequate. Referred to as the “dead zone” in the gulf, hypoxia kills fish and other marine life. The Gulf of Mexico’s “dead zone” in 2017 measured 8,776 square miles – an area about the size of New Jersey.

The summer-2018 dead zone was significantly smaller. In late July scientists from the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium mapped an area of low oxygen that was 2,720 square miles – significantly smaller than the 5,770-square-mile average between 2014 and 2018. The smaller area was attributed to an earlier storm as well as sustained westerly winds that stirred the water. That mixed oxygen back into areas that may have been hypoxic.

Nancy Rabalais, a research professor at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium and professor at Louisiana State University, said continued efforts in nutrient mitigation are needed. The Mississippi River Nutrient/Hypoxia Task Force has a goal of a zone of 1,930 square miles.

Bradley said, “Although the dead zone did decrease this year, we had a freshwater diversion from the Bonnet Carre Spillway that sent Mississippi River water through Mississippi’s coastal system in late March and early April. The spillway opening killed the first crop of juvenile shrimp.”

River diversions send massive amounts of freshwater, silt and nutrients into Mississippi’s coastal environment. During such diversions, salinity is reduced to dangerously low levels for oysters and shrimp. Large fish and crab also migrate away from changes in salinity, he said.

Another problem caused by the diversions is the silting of oyster reefs. Excess sediment in diverted river water can cover and smother oyster reefs in the western Mississippi Sound, he said. An influx of nutrients in diverted waters contributes to algae blooms once waters reach ideal temperatures.

“As algae blooms die we tend to see prolonged periods of low oxygen,” Bradley said. “The low-oxygen events occur months after the opening of the spillway and can have an adverse impact on oyster, crab and shrimp populations.”

The 2018 oyster season didn’t open until Nov. 10 and would be open for just seven days due to oyster reefs being in poor condition. Normally, Bradley said, he would catch oysters throughout the winter but 2018 will be a very short season

“I don’t think our downstream problems should be blamed on the farmers; it has more to do with the levee system built along the Mississippi River,” he said. “That has impeded the land’s natural filtering ability. Until we can bulldoze all the levees along the river, we’re glad to see farmers working to reduce nutrient and soil run-off on their farms.

“We fishermen applaud the efforts of upstream farmers to increase conservation stewardship. During my visit to Wisconsin last year, I was amazed at all of the conservation strategies and steps the farmers were taking to reduce run off. I also was interested in the amount of capital investment that goes in these farms as far as land and equipment needed to be successful.”

Lance Nacio, owner of Anna Marie Shrimp of Montegut, Louisiana, also has participated in the past two years of Uplands Watershed Group dinners and field days. He said the shrimp business in 2018 has been a bit difficult. The dead zone varies year to year depending on rainfall and runoff. In years such as 2017, when the dead zone is large, shrimp boats must travel further east or west to find good shrimp areas. That translates to higher fuel costs and down time.

He said he appreciated the opportunity to share his story with Wisconsin farmers and to tell them how the conservation practices they use affect him and his fellow shrimpers and fishers.

“Our future depends on water quality,” Nacio said. “What comes down the Mississippi affects us every year.”

Margaret Krome, policy director of the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, has helped to coordinate activities for the Uplands Watershed Group. That has involved helping the group’s farmers to forge and maintain connections with shrimpers and fishers from the gulf. Those connections have become so strong that Bradley asked if it would help if he urged his congressional representatives to support more conservation funding in the farm bill.

A Mississippi fisherman interested in the farm bill?

Krome just smiled.

Lynn Grooms writes about the diversity of agriculture, including the industry’s newest ideas, research and technologies as a staff reporter for Agri-View based in Wisconsin. Email lgrooms@madison.com to contact her.