Every year in late spring, researchers don their life jackets to measure a massive dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s been occurring for decades now–a vast area about the size of Connecticut where huge algae blooms caused by agricultural runoff disrupt the delicate balance of the region’s food chain. After looking at the year’s data, they make a prediction about the next year’s size. This year, the NOAA is predicting that the dead zone will increase by a staggering 57 percent because of excess wastewater and agricultural runoff. On average, it’s just over 5,000 square miles. This year, it’s expected to be over 8,000. I don’t know about you, but an area of ocean that’s so polluted nothing can live in it the size of New Hampshire is hard to wrap my head around. Let me shrink it down a little, by way of personal experience.
There’s a little creek that runs by my house. For a few years, because of the drought, it was just a dry, rocky creek bed. Then, it pissed rain for a few months straight and it started to flow again. At night, frogs sing from it. Nasturtiums line street and God damn it, the mosquitos are bad this year. During that rainy winter, a neighbor of mine hired a guy to do some renos. The guy (let’s call him Doug), was an ex-speed freak–good at his job, but a little off. He lived in a trailer on my neighbor’s property and, after a while, it became apparent that he was dumping his effluent into the creek. Not just shit, piss, and shower water, either. He was dumping paint thinner and concrete dust and pretty much everything in there. It became apparent because a deep section of the creek turned black and sludgy, a thick layer of mucousy green algae on top. Doug got run off the job, cursing the whole street for being upset at him for destroying the creek. Fuck Dead Zone Doug. Now, a few months later, after Dead Zone Doug stopped pouring his shit and old paint into the creek, it’s back, and it’s beautiful.
Those massive algae blooms in the Gulf of Mexico come mostly from nitrate and phosphorous-based agricultural materials. Phytoplankton, those tiny little creatures that are vastly important to the general health of the ocean, gorge on them. Their population explodes. You’d think, though, that larger populations of phytoplankton would be good–more food from the bottom of the food chain should lead to a sort of trickle UP effect–but you’d be wrong. Instead, the numbers are so high that huge chunks of the phytoplankton population die off, sinking to the bottom where the even tinier creatures that break them down use up way more dissolved oxygen than they should. That leads to oxygen-starved swathes of ocean where larger creatures can’t live, which, of course, is a dead zone.
“This year’s predicted large size is due mainly to heavy May stream flows, which were about 34 percent above the long-term average and carried higher-than-average nutrient loads,” the NOAA said in a press release. “The USGS estimates that 165,000 metric tons of nitrate – about 2,800 train cars of fertilizer – and 22,600 metric tons of phosphorus flowed down the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers into the Gulf of Mexico in May.”
“The oxygen-poor ‘dead zone’ in the Gulf of Mexico may be the biggest on record this year, nearly doubling in size to cover an area of ocean as large as Vermont, scientists at Louisiana State University estimate,” wrote Matt Smith for Live Science. “The dead zone develops when nitrogen-rich runoff from the Midwestern farm belt pours into rivers and out into the Gulf. That runoff is loaded with fertilizer, as well as nutrients from animal and human waste, and it fuels the growth of algae that die, sink, and decompose, depleting oxygen levels offshore. That drives away marine life in the zone — or kills species that can’t escape.”
So what’s being done to solve this problem that scientists have been aware of and tracking for years? Well, effectively nothing. And with the Trump administration’s odd aversion to scientific proof, the EPA that enforced regulations that stabilized the size of the dead zone has been crippled by massive funding cuts and an Administrator who sued the EPA more than a dozen times before he took the reins.
It’s not just about the environment, either. It’s a massive economic issue. Take Louisiana, for instance. The shrimping industry in Louisiana alone is responsible for about $1.3 billion annually. “We’ve known for a long time that the hypoxic zone reduces fish and shrimp habitat dramatically,” Alan Lewitus, a scientist with NOAA’s Center for Sponsored Coastal Ocean Research, told the Washington Post. “This is a real concrete, quantitative effect, which hits economies.”