Fisheries Conservation photo

Have you heard about the ever-expanding dead zone?

(OK, let’s get all the jokes out of the way right now. I’m not talking about Congress, the Jets offense, your teenage son’s tennis shoes, your mother-in-law’s heart, or your 401K.)

When you say “the dead zone” in conservation circles – especially fisheries circles – you’re talking about a huge expanse of the Gulf of Mexico off the Louisiana coast with so little dissolved oxygen, virtually nothing can live there.

This summer it was measured at 6,474 square miles – much larger than the 5,052 square miles it reached last year.

That’s about 4,500 square miles above the 2015 target of 1,900 square miles set four years ago by the Gulf of Mexico/Mississippi River Watershed Nutrient Task Force, a group of state and federal agencies charged with addressing the problem.

Now, solving the problem should be pretty simple, because the cause is not very complicated.

The Mississippi River, which drains about a third of the continent, carries a huge load of agricultural runoff (fertilizer and animal waste) as well as sewage products and other human effluvia into the Gulf. When Gulf water temperature heats up in the spring, all those nutrients provide ideal food for algae, which bloom across the region. But when those vast communities of algae die and decompose, they consume so much oxygen the result is what researchers call “hypoxia” – areas of low dissolved oxygen.

Everyone else calls them “dead zones” because most marine life needs more oxygen to live – so they leave, or die.

None of this is a mystery to fisheries managers, sportsmen’s groups – and farmers and municipal sewage system operators. They all know if we reduce the amount of nitrate-rich fertilizers being spread on farm fields, require better regulation of livestock runoff and human waste disposal, that dead zone could shrink in a hurry. That’s why the Task Force thought cutting it from 3,300 square miles back in 2011 to 1900 square miles this year was a reasonable goal.

Of course “reasonable” means different things to the polluter and the polluted.

Any suggestion of actual laws to stop farmers and cities from polluting public waters and turning vast areas of the Gulf into a dead zone got immediate push back from the industries affected. They have a lot more lobbying power (read $$$$) than fishermen and other conservationists.

There have been all kinds of ideas about voluntary compliance, such as nutrient mitigation credits, and some programs are actually up and running. But as this summer’s measurement shows, it hasn’t made a difference. Right now, the only way that dead zone dependably shrinks is when the mid-section of the continent undergoes a very dry winter and spring. Less runoff means a smaller dead zone.

Of course, the more sensible and reliable alternatives would be to make people stop pouring pollution into your water and mine.

In the meantime, expect that dead zone to keep growing.