While I was on vacation in Clearwater, Florida years ago, I almost learned how to fish. A friend of mine adored the sport. He sat for hours on the dock every day, roasting in the sun, watching the water. He showed me how to bait the hook and throw the line, and laughed when I got too impatient. Fishing brought him peace. He always seemed to appreciate the skill it required and the value it held.
He passed away a couple of years later. This week, on the anniversary of his death, I found myself thinking about fishing, and the people that dedicate their lives to it — whether it’s for fun, for sport, or as a career. I thought about those who love it because of the joy it brings, and those who do it to survive. As a vegetarian in a landlocked state, I must admit that the livelihoods of fishermen and women — the risks they take, their fluctuating incomes, the nuances of the industry — don’t often cross my mind.
It should, because fishing is integral to the South’s economy, culture, and environment. The most recent NOAA data shows the U.S. fishing industry generated more than $200 billion in 2015 and supported over a million jobs. Florida alone had nearly $29 billion of that; Georgia contributed more than $1 billion. The Gulf of Mexico supplies more than 40 percent of the nation’s domestic seafood. One in every 70 jobs in Louisiana is related to the industry.
It’s also integral to the region’s culture, especially along the coasts and near wetlands. Seafood and fishing-related tourism gives many people and places in this region their cultural identity. That identity is starting to be challenged as extreme weather events and rising temperatures severely impact the fishing business, and the rapid growth of oil and gas pipelines and offshore drilling efforts threaten to harm this way of life.
People who live and breathe this industry know that. In Louisiana, an unlikely alliance has formed between Cajun crawfishers and environmental activists trying to stop the Bayou Bridge Pipeline from being developed in the Atchafalaya Basin, where millions of pounds of crawfish are harvested each year (construction of the pipeline in the swamp has been temporarily halted). Mississippi River flooding is affecting the fish and crab stock near New Orleans. In South Carolina, shellfish harvesters are having to find second jobs to supplement their incomes, since more seafood like clams and crabs are being farm-raised and ocean fish populations have dropped because of warming waters and overfishing. Still, as the industry declines, some of those in the fishing industry are open to drilling off the coast of North Carolina and other states.
Recreational fishing is facing hardships, as well. The industry supports more than 400,000jobs, and some of the biggest markets are in Mississippi and South Carolina. Last year, Hurricane Irma rattled the Florida Keys’ fishing and tourism industries, though they’re beginning to pick back up as islands rebuild. Algal blooms and warming waters are causing aquatic life die-offs in rivers, lakes and along the coasts. Scientists in Florida recently found high levels of algae growth in some lagoons, and there are massive dead zones, or low-oxygen areas, in the Gulf because of nutrient runoff from the Midwest.
On the whole, Southeastern fishery managers are being pretty proactive about dealing with the multitude of challenges they’re up against. A network of managers recently announced plans to address issues that affect entire marine ecosystems rather than one species of fish at a time; they’re also studying where fish populations are moving in response to warming waters so as to better inform fishing regulations.
I didn’t realize it then, those years ago when I was sitting on the dock with my friend, but profound shifts were taking place in the water and for the communities and businesses who rely on it. The people who spend time in these ecosystems, who make their living in the bayous and in the depths of the oceans, along mountain streams and at busy ports on the coast, could see this coming before the rest of us. It would behoove us all to take more seriously their economic, social, and political concerns and listen to their ideas about how to protect what’s left.
On that note: Do you work in the fishing industry? Know anyone who does? If you do, or if you live in a community impacted by changes to the fishing/seafood industry and have ideas about how to address them, tell me about it at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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