The following illustrates how elements of the environment and economy are interconnected. It underscores how important America’s WETLAND is to our personal well-being in ways that we don’t always know.
"I live in Montana. Why should I care about Louisiana's coastal erosion?" "I'm a teacher in Ohio. Why should I care?" "Yeah, I'm a car dealer in Helena, Arkansas. It doesn't affect me!"
WRONG! It does affect you, but I'm not surprised that you didn't know. As a matter of fact, few Louisianians have been apprized of their dependence on our coastal wetlands – America’s WETLAND.
Assuming that, if you are reading this, you would be interested in being a member of the "in crowd", let me tell you a story that mixes biology, ecology, and a little economics along the way.
Our story begins with a non-descript fish called a menhaden. Locally, it is most often referred to as a "pogie." If you've never heard of it, maybe you've smelled it. Have you ever noticed that a drive through Pascagoula, Empire, or Cameron may be a genuinely malodorous experience (the locals call it the "smell of Money!")? This is the smell of pogie being changed from being fish to being another very important product, but we'll get to that a little later.
Pogie are small, schooling fish that are about five inches long as adults (the largest are about ten inches) and shiny silver in color. They swim in schools of oodles of millions (that's a "M" word) of fish and they represent the largest single fisheries in the United States. Certainly in tonnage they are Number One. That alone makes them very important, but there's more . . .
Remember what a "food web" is? It is basically a "who eats whom" list with arrows connecting each eater to one or more eatees. Pogie, that tremendously important commercial fisheries crop, eat plankton - tiny little critters and plants that exist as free floating life forms in the water column. On the other hand, pogie are eaten by most flesh eaters of the sea - redfish, trout, sharks, mackerel, tuna, cobia, bluefish, and more. So far I haven't found even a Louisianan who has a good recipe for pogie, but I'm sure someone out there does!
As important as pogie are in the food web of the Gulf, they are most important to humans as the basis for an extensive "economic web." An economic web is a list of all the ways people make money from products with arrows pointing the way between those that affect others (a graphic presentation similar to the food web). The basic part of the pogie economic web is obvious. Pogie fishermen buy boats, nets, gasoline, white rubber boots, clothes, cars, food, electricity, insurance, sunglasses, Dixie beer, brooms, ice, and so forth They hire many people: to dry-dock their boats, to work as deck hands, to haul supplies, etc. And don't forget what all these people and vendors do with the money they get from pogie fishermen - they spend it in many of the same ways!
Now the pogie boat reaches its home base with a load of fish. The fish are rendered into oils and fish meal at a "pogie plant." Most of the oil goes to Europe where it is used in cosmetics, as glazing on pastries, and to make margarine (the FDA won't yet let us produce these products in America). The primary use of the meal is in making chicken (and catfish) food. It must be shipped to another plant (What does the trucker do with his money?), then many other suppliers and handlers are involved to get it to a chicken farm. Now the chicken rancher hires lots of people and spends lots of money to raise chickens. The rancher then ships them to a poultry processing plant (the trucker stops along the way to gas up, eat a burger, play a pinball machine, spend the night in a Motel 6, etc.) where lots of people are employed and lot of businesses receive lots of money for services rendered. Be sure you don't forget all those folks who work at the utility company supplying the electricity to the plant, and the guys at the ice plant, and the preacher at the church where the employees attend, and the person who fills the candy machine, and the people at the Chamber of Commerce, and . . . Do you think this could go on forever?
Now the processed chicken leaves and some goes to a grocery store, some to a restaurant, and some to Popeye's Fried Chicken. Many people now choose chicken as their main protein source because it is relatively cheap, but many others are required for health reasons to eat chicken. What would happen if they had no chicken? Oh, my gosh! Did you realize that we listed Popeye's? Without Popeye's, there would be no Mardi Gras!!! You can't watch a parade without eating fried chicken! The total economy of New Orleans would fail! And to think, it all started with pogie. Or, did it?
We mentioned earlier that pogie feed on plankton, so on what do plankton feed? Most get their energy from nutrients that float in the water. Off Louisiana's coast, these nutrients largely come from organic matter that washes from coastal marshes with each tidal flow. If the marshes did not exist, there would be no food for the pogie to eat. Additionally, pogie (as most other commercially important species from the sea) must spend a portion of their lives in coastal estuaries. Without coastal wetlands, there would be no place for pogie to complete their life cycle.
No marsh, no pogie . . . No marsh, no economic web. How will we replace the economic web if we lose our coastal wetlands?
The next time you have a meal of delicious chicken or pond-raised catfish, remember that you are enjoying the fine taste of processed Louisiana marsh!