2020 NOAA Dead Zone prediction, what it means for your community

Lingering at the base of the Mississippi River watershed, a staggeringly large hypoxic zone, known as the Gulf of Mexico’s ‘Dead Zone’, has begun suppressing aquatic life and livelihoods within coastal communities. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) is forecasting the 2020 Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone to be 6,700 square miles, which is larger than the long-term average of 5,387 square miles. Nicole LeBoeuf, acting director of NOAA’s National Ocean Service, stated, “not only does the dead zone hurt marine life, but it also harms commercial and recreational fisheries and the communities they support”.

Hypoxic zones pose a significant threat to benthic invertebrates, such as shrimp, crab, mussels, and starfish, as they are less mobile than other aquatic species, such as pelagic fish or aquatic mammals, who can often migrate away from the depleted oxygen waters. During hypoxic spells, benthic invertebrates will begin to shift their behavior patterns by reducing their feeding, decline in reproduction, and can become widely throughout the ocean floor. If there is a decrease in communities of benthic invertebrates, it will lead to a decline of other marine species due to simple science, the lack of food in the web.

“Not only have commercial/recreational fishing began to suffer, but tourism within coastal communities as well. Hotels, restaurants/bars, watercraft recreation, etc. are all feeling the brunt of the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico” -Louisiana shrimp farmer, Thomas Olander

A Louisiana shrimp farmer, Thomas Olander, has observed the decline of benthic populations firsthand. In an interview with Travis Lux from New Orleans Public Radio, Olander states, “we’re not catching no large shrimp; there’s no explaining this here other than it’s something’s wrong with our water.” Jumbo shrimp are the most highly sought and has the highest market prices. This proves an issue to not only benthic communities but the livelihood of commercial fishermen such as Olander. Thomas Olander also captured pictures on his phone for others to observe the toxic algal blooms lingering at the surface of the dead zone where he normally would fish. Martin Smith, an environmental economist at Duke University, states, “the stress of fleeing can stunt the growth of shrimp; the dead zone causes the average price of shrimp to drop – which means shrimpers like Olander make less money.” Not only have commercial/recreational fishing began to suffer, but tourism within coastal communities as well. Hotels, restaurants/bars, watercraft recreation, etc. are all feeling the brunt of the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, with the lack of tourists. The hypoxic waters can be toxic to humans and our pets, which is why it is advisable to avoid the algal blooms.

Stephanie Joyce, author of “The Dead Zones: Oxygen-Starved Coastal Waters” observes that hypoxic zones naturally occur throughout the world, in places such as the northern Adriatic Sea, the Baltic Sea, and the Black Sea, but the Gulf of Mexico has become a dead zone due to a decline in water quality, population increase, and coastal development. Joyce states, “scientists attribute the Gulf of Mexico hypoxic zone largely to nutrient runoff from agriculture in the enormous Mississippi basin, which releases 1.6 million metric tons of nitrogen annually”.

 “During the warm months, these nutrients fuel eutrophication, which causes excessive algal blooms that can degrade aquatic habitats by reducing light levels, destroying habitats (including fragile systems such as coral reefs), and harming marine life by producing toxins, some of which also harm humans” – Stephanie Joyce, Author

Agriculture may be one culprit creating the dead zone, but it is certainly linked to other human activities happening within the watershed as well. Other forms of human activities include, but are not limited to: “land transformation, ground-water drainage, urban stormwater runoff, sewage treatment, or atmospheric emissions through fossil fuel burning and volatilization of agricultural waste.” By not adequately sustaining our activities as humans, we begin to see environmental disturbances, such as the dead zone.

Adapted from the USGS National Land Cover Dataset to show the three major aggregated land use categories across the Mississippi River Watershed: agriculture (yellow), developed (red), and natural (green).

As we have discovered, a majority of the nitrogen and phosphorus, contributing to the toxic algal blooms and leading to hypoxia within the Gulf of Mexico, is sourcing from agricultural and urban runoff. Nitrogen and phosphorus are primarily found within chemical fertilizers, detergents, and human/animal waste (EPA). Simple actions, such as:

  • Limiting our fertilizer use on farms and home gardens
  • Regularly maintaining sewage treatment facilities and septic tanks
  • Using biodegradable chemicals/soaps (detergents)
  • Increasing green infrastructure:
    • Buffer strips – trees, shrubs, or grasses placed on the edge of fields that border water bodies which absorb nutrients before they enter our waterways.
    • Wetlands/floodplains – absorb excessive nutrients, slowly releasing filtered water.

It is also essential that we continue to rely on our local and federal government agencies to provide policies that protect our waters as well. Humans can be problematic by exacerbating the dead zone, but they can also be the solution by limiting their nutrient load and conserving wetlands/floodplains.

 

– Kristen Mertz,

1 Mississippi IL/MO Outreach Coordinator

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sources:

NOAA: Larger-than-average ‘dead zone’ expected for Gulf of Mexico

The Dead Zones: Oxygen Starved Coastal Waters by Stephanie Joyce

Midwestern Farm Runoff Creates Headache for Louisiana Shrimpers by Travis Lux

EPA: Nutrient Pollution – Sources and Solutions

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River Citizen

Yes! The River can count on me!

I am committed to protecting the Mississippi River and will take at least three actions to care for this valuable resource. Please keep me informed about actions I can take to protect the Mississippi River as a River Citizen:

Step 1

Become a River Citizen

Yes! The River can count on me!

I am committed to protecting the Mississippi River and will take at least three actions to care for this valuable resource. Please keep me informed about actions I can take to protect the Mississippi River as a River Citizen:

 

Step 2

Educate Yourself

One goal for 1 Mississippi is to educate the public on the urgent problems facing the River. We are supported by the Mississippi River Network, a group of organizations that are experts in various areas concerning the River. Each section below is intended to provide some basic knowledge about these important issues and links to experts who can provide more detailed information. 

Nutrient pollution

Importance of floodplains and wetlands

Farm bill conservation programs

 

Step 3

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There are many ways you can take action. We have a list of 10 actions you can take now, You can volunteer and you can check our action center in order to see what bigger projects we are working on. Here we give you the information you need to call your congressman or sign onto proposals. You can also check out our events calendar to see what events are happening in your area.

10 actions you can take now!

The Action Center

Events Calendar

River Citizens are people who want to clean up and protect America's greatest River. 

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