Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Turning shrimp into gasoline

What makes more sense, eating prime Gulf of Mexico shrimp or turning them into gasoline? If midwestern farmers have their way, we'll be turning shrimp into gasoline.

If you burn a gallon of corn-based ethanol in your car, you're pouring nitrogen onto a field in the midwest, and the runoff from that field runs down to the Gulf of Mexico where it adds to the dead zone. So instead of shrimp from the Gulf, you have ethanol from the Mississippi watershed.

How do you feel about putting lovely shrimp into your car? I'm not too happy about it. Growing shrimp is a higher and better use for the Gulf of Mexico than serving as a waste receptacle for corn-growing ethanol makers.

We need some way to tie the two problems together, so that we can make the proper judgments about what to do.


Anonymous said...

Interesting take on the Ethanol question? I am also surprised there is no mention of the inefficiency of transferring corn (or other crops) into ethanol and the inability of it to meet even a double digit percentage of our need.

Mark Powell said...

There are many problems with corn to ethanol, this seems like a new ocean-specific angle worthy of note.

Tracy Rouleau said...

Funny funny - I am working on the Biofuels workgroup and Hypoxia Task Force, writing a dissertation on how hypoxia will affect the shrimp industry in the Gulf, and it's my birthday (or was on Tues) - I guess that's the perfect storm...

Mark Powell said...

Tracy, please let me know your thoughts on how hypoxia will affect the shrimp industry. I can only guess.

Tracy Rouleau said...

Hi Mark,

Right now we don't really know a lot about how hypoxia is affecting the shrimp industry - it's pretty much all guessing at this point - which of course makes it a ripe topic for a dissertation.

We do know three main things:

1) Profitability is declining in the Gulf Shrimp fishery - although most data indicates that this decline is primarily linked to increasing fuel prices, and reduced shrimp prices (due to increased imports) - there is evidence that the CPUE for Gulf shrimp has been declining for decades.
2) There is a negative correlation between the size of the hypoxic zone and shrimp landings (as the hypoxic zone grows, landings decrease) - but it's complicated, brown shrimp are affected (not white) in TX alone, and LA and TX combined, but not in LA alone (the primary area of the zone). My suspicion is that shrimp landings in LA don't suffer because the fishermen have learned that the shrimp migrate to the edge of the hypoxic zone during the months of July and August and simply fish there.
3) There is great interannual variability in the shrimp harvest and that makes it extremely difficult to tease out the effects of any one variable. O'Connor and Whitall (2007)(source of the correlations above) suggest that less than 1/3 of the variations in catch can be explained by differences in the size of the zone.

How hypoxia will affect the shrimp industry is not hard to guess - it's the questions of when, and how much, and what can we do about it that have to be answered. I'll be working on the first two questions, which can hopefully lead to some answers for the third.

The biofuels question is trickier, rising corn prices and the new energy bill are obviously in conflict with attempts to reduce the zone, it will take billions and billions of dollars (and that's a quote), coupled with some really strong will throughout the Upper Midwest to implement all the BMP and conservation practices that will be necessary to stop the flood of Nitrogen and Phosphorus to the Gulf.

Not impossible, but the tide may be turning, there's been a lot of pressure on EPA to improve water quality and improvements in biofuels technology may eventually result in increased use of alternative crops. One things for sure, I'll be able to work on it for a while...