Reviving the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico

The Gulf of Mexico is expected to get hit by one of the largest “dead zones” on record this July.

A dead zone is a low-to-no oxygen area of water often created by human pollution. Without oxygen, most marine life dies and the entire food web spirals into disarray.   

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Unlike the blatant damage the BP oil spill caused almost a decade ago, this is a death by a thousand cuts, each one coming from a farm along the largest river in the world: the Mississippi. Synthetic fertilizers discharge nutrients, mainly nitrogen and phosphorus, that are poisonous in excess. Runoff is then carried by the river into the Gulf, triggering algal blooms that explode, die off, then use up most– sometimes all– of the oxygen in the process of decomposition.

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This can happen so fast that fish suffocate while trying to escape. The slower creatures, such as crustaceans, are doomed to die in a state of hypoxia, or lack of oxygen. In addition, the accumulated layers of algae block the sun from photosynthetic phytoplankton– the beings that provide half of the Earth's oxygen. Thus, waters once teeming with life, become void, except for a few resilient microorganisms.

Human Pollution

Dead zones have increased more than tenfold in the last century. Since the 1950s, the presence of nitrogen has tripled and the amount of phosphorus in the water has doubled. This correlates with a rise in human activity, and more specifically, with the proliferation of the meat industry.

In 2017, meat conglomerates Tyson and Smithfield were accused of spawning the largest Gulf dead zone ever recorded. As the industry has expanded to meet the demand of corporations like McDonald’s and Walmart, they’ve plowed vast plots of America’s heartland to make room for soy and corn fields that feed farm animals. Their facilities have changed the surrounding environment for the worse.  

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Studies have shown that the highest levels of nitrate pollution in our waterways can be traced back to these meat suppliers. So, not only does the booming meat industry poison the air, it destroys marine life and even infects our drinking water. The good news is that these companies have been responsive to customer feedback, as was exemplified when Tyson announced a new vegan product. The better news is that dead zones can be reversed.

Turning the Tides

The Black Sea in the Balkans was previously the largest dead zone in the world. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, chemical fertilizers became too expensive, and as farming declined over the next decade, the dead zone shrank. Even though the reversal was unintentional, there are places where deliberate action delivered positive results.

New York was once a favorable stop along the annual migration trail of Humpback Whales, but overfishing and pollution drove them away in the ’70s. In an effort to clean up the Hudson River, government officials implemented new runoff rules and fishing regulations. Cleaner waters brought life back to New York, starting with the little guys like phytoplankton, and then the rest of the food chain– including whales. These majestic creatures have returned in droves over the last decade, after a hiatus that lasted nearly half a century.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in conjunction with farmers in middle America, hope to achieve a similar restoration in the Gulf and the rivers that lead there. Companies like Cargill are building embankments that reduce harmful runoff and protect wildlife habitats. Farmers are also planting more sustainable crops like wheat, which withhold nutrients and increase biodiversity.

This is not just a problem for the Mississippi River or the Gulf of Mexico. Some of America’s largest Rivers, from the Missouri to the Arkansas, all lead to the Mississippi. The effects of pollution extend much farther than a droplet of contamination, but so do the ripples of our actions. We can turn the tides, for better or for worse.