Nothing Here Gets Out Alive: Avoiding catastrophe from the Gulf of Mexico 'dead zone' requires pressure on states by the federal government.

AuthorJohnson, Christopher

Christopher Johnson writes about the environment from the Chicago area. He's the author of This Grand and Magnificent Place: The Wilderness Heritage of the White Mountains and other books.

With an easy drawl, Dean Blanchard, the owner of Dean Blanchard Seafood in the barrier-island town of Grand Isle, Louisiana, makes an understated observation: "There's a reason they call it a dead zone. When the dead zone comes, everything's dead. We can't catch dead stuff. We're in the live stuff business."

What Blanchard is talking about is the Gulf of Mexico "dead zone," an enormous area in which, every spring, an overgrowth of algae and other vegetation absorbs dissolved oxygen from the water and kills all animal life. The dead zone is staggeringly large, covering an average of 5,380 square miles. In 2017, the zone mushroomed to an astonishing 8,776 square miles--as big as the state of New Jersey. In that area, no aquatic life can survive.

"This year," Blanchard says, "we had shrimp jumping on the beach, committing suicide, trying to get out of the water because there's no oxygen."

The result is an economic disaster. To find live shrimp, fishers have to ply their boats as far as fifty miles from shore. "With the price of fuel, you don't want to go too far," Blanchard says. His company's annual haul has declined from twelve million pounds of shrimp a year to under five million. He used to employ sixty workers--now he's down to thirty.

Blanchard's woes are far from unique. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, "Harmful algal blooms and hypoxia cost the U.S. seafood and tourism industries approximately $82 million per year."

Two nutrients are primarily responsible for creating the dead zone: nitrogen and phosphorus. They run off from farm fields in enormous quantities into the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers and their numerous tributaries, and flow into the Gulf. The result is eutrophication, an excessive amount of nutrients that stimulate rapid and dense growth of plant life. As plant life decays, it sinks deeper into the Gulf and bacteria consume the plants. As the bacteria do so, they draw dissolved oxygen from the water causing hypoxia, or a low level of oxygen, making it impossible for animal life to survive.

The result? Environmental and economic disasters--not only in the Gulf but also throughout the Mississippi River Basin. Matt Rota, senior policy director for Healthy Gulf in New Orleans, explains: "Because of this nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, you have increased levels of toxic algae--blue-green algae [also known as harmful algal blooms]--in some of these areas. That's a problem we see throughout the Mississippi River Basin, because this much pollution leads to constant algae blooms, which can cause aesthetic issues, drinking water issues, and toxicity."

Rota continues, "For example, there have been studies on the Atlantic croaker in the Gulf, and when they get into these areas of low oxygen, this causes problems with reproduction...

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