Death by Suffocation: The Effects and Impacts of Dead Zones on the Environment and Local Communities
Kansas City, MO
2018, High School, Prose
The people living in Cordova, Alaska, saw an oil spill off the coast of their town in the spring of 1989. This spill leaked 11 million gallons of crude oil into the ocean, the largest spill in American history at the time and created a sizeable dead zone off the coast of Alaska.1 One resident described the experience as “a kick in the stomach” and something that was a “turning point in life.”2 Furthermore, fishermen like Tom Anderson voiced their remorse for the ocean and the effects that the spill had not only on the wildlife, but also the people living near the ocean. He claimed that the spill changed the way of life for many people, referring to people like him who relied on fishing as a job. “You pretty much lived there — you got your clams and crabs and fish,” he says. “And then somebody come and dumped oil all over it, you know? That’s really hitting home.”3
Cordova stands as one example of an ever-growing problem globally. Dead zones, also known as hypoxic zones, have to do with deoxygenated waters, and exist worldwide.4 While varying widely in degree and intensity, dead zones occur naturally when different algae feed on abundant nutrients in the water and grow massively in size. These algal blooms deplete the oxygen in the waters when the algae decompose.5 Furthermore, a process called stratification causes less dense masses of water to essentially form a barrier between the less oxygenated waters and incoming waters rich in oxygen. This occurrence does not allow deep hypoxic zones to mix with the surface waters that have oxygen, and results in dead zones.6 Usually, naturally occurring hypoxic zones do not disturb their marine ecosystems to a great extent, but humans have altered this phenomenon drastically. A combination of sewage, animal wastes, fertilizers, and soil erosion that enters rivers and eventually the ocean bring large quantities of nitrogen and phosphorous for the algae to feed on. 7 These human-induced factors have caused dead zones globally, most notably in areas such as the Gulf of Mexico, Baltic Sea, Chesapeake Bay, Lake Erie, Gulf of Oman, and many more. 8
Dead zones deeply impact marine animals and plants, as they either have to leave the areas or eventually perish if subject too long to the decreased oxygen levels. Fish and invertebrates such as crabs or shrimps, for example, can move out of these zones, but animals or plants such as seagrass or clams cannot position themselves out of the deoxygenated areas easily.9
With dead zones scattered around the globe and near major port cities, there stands a socio-economic risk as “470 to 870 million people who cannot afford dramatic changes to their livelihoods live in areas where ocean goods and services could be compromised by substantial changes in ocean biogeochemistry.”10
With many anthropogenic factors involved for the creation of dead zones, climate change stands as a chief concern. Human-caused deforestation and industrialization have led to the rising of CO2 in the atmosphere. This has not only warmed the globe along with the oceans, but has shifted ocean currents. Furthermore, climate change has caused ocean acidity to rise, impacting marine organisms as they cannot adapt fast enough to the rapid restructuring of their ecosystem. Climate shifts have caused increased rainfall in areas such as the Midwest, which allows more nitrogen to drift off of fields and into rivers, which will eventually fuel algae.11 All these elements together exacerbate hypoxic zones and further work to increase their volume. Not only do nations need to solve the widespread flow of nitrogen and phosphorus-rich compounds into these bodies of water, they must work to reduce the strain climate change has on these dead zones. As mentioned previously with Cordova, dead zones have an everlasting effect on the communities living there as well as the marine ecosystem.12 If not dealt with, hypoxic zones will continue to increase in intensity as well as pop up near more cities worldwide.
On the other side of the world, in the Sea of Japan, the Japanese fishing industry has been devastated by the appearance of Nomura’s Jellyfish. Weighing up to 441 pounds, they can literally capsize a fishing boat. A ten-ton trawler’s crew had to be rescued after jellyfish-filled nets capsized their trawler in strong winds. “No matter how hard we try, the jellyfish keep coming and coming,” said Fumio Oma, a fisherman whose nets had been broken due to thousands of Nomura’s Jellyfish. It’s a symptom of an industry that loses nearly 30 billion Japanese Yen (273 million USD) each year.13
Jellyfish can survive in deoxygenated waters, which allows them to thrive in dead zones. They also have a mutualistic relationship with bacteria in the oceans, causing a closed food cycle that shuts out other marine organisms, such as fish, from eating.14 And since most of their main predators, such as the loggerhead sea turtles, have declined in recent decades, they face little to no competition. Jellyfish will continue to thrive in these dead zones and will continue to economically injure the livelihood of communities as they have already in countries such as Japan.15
Ryan Bradley, a fifth-generation fisherman, lives out of Long Beach, Mississippi. His family’s livelihood was based around speckled trout, red snapper, grouper, tuna, and even oysters and crabs. Decades of hard work had meant the family was able to expand to three fishing boats, but now due to growing dead zones and declining fish stocks, they own only one. Bradley explained, “Fish are able to swim away from an expanding dead zone, but their larvae can’t. We’re losing billions of larvae.”
Lance Nacio, a fourth-generation shrimper and small business owner in Montegut, Louisiana, adds that “the future of the shrimp industry [in the Gulf] is dire.” Shrimpers increasingly have to venture further out from shore, requiring more fuel for their Trawlers, adding concerns to a battered shrimping industry.16
Fishermen are not the only ones affected, however. The effects of dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico reverberate through economies across the nation. Hundreds of miles away in the Midwest, nitrate runoffs remain the number one contributor to dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico. Recent exchanges between farmers and fishermen have spurred changed. Delegations have traveled up and down the nation to learn more about the ecological relationship between the two regions. A recent push by the Nature Conservatory encouraged the conversion of farmland into wetlands, which can filter up to 64% of nitrates before it travels to a major body of water. And to a dead zone now the size of New Jersey, 64% can make a real impact on their expansion.17
These three stories all share the struggles of communities battling with systems that could have been avoided. The increased emission of greenhouse gases, overuse of fertilizers, poorly managed sewage systems, man made ecological disasters, and many more have all led to the creation of these dead zones. But luckily, there still stands many solutions to lessen the severity of these problems. Farming communities can limit the use of nitrogen-rich fertilizers or manage them in a way to stop excess from slipping into waterways.18 Furthermore, these communities can also monitor animal wastes so that they do not flow into these waters. Nations can improve their sewage systems to limit the dumping of nitrogen and phosphorous compounds.19 Lastly and most importantly, greenhouse gas emissions must decrease, and a switch to energy sources such as wind, solar, or hydroelectric must be implemented worldwide to lessen the effect climate change has on dead zones.
In order to prevent tragic stories like those mentioned previously from recurring, one can take a look at how their life and carbon footprint positively or negatively affects the oceans. Teach others about dead zones, climate change, and ways to solve these problems. Every individual, no matter how small their power, can contribute to save the ocean, whether through education, reducing one’s carbon footprint, or a multitude of other ways. All people can help to aid coastal communities and the marine life that suffer from hypoxic zones.
1 Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Timeline, last updated October 14, 2014, accessed June 15, 2018, https://web.archive.org/web/20131102105252/http://library.thinkquest.org/10867/spill/timeline.shtml
2 Marisa Penaloza and Debbie Eliott, “25 Years After Spill, Alaska Town Struggles Back From ‘Dead Zone,’” March 24, 2014, NPR, accessed June 15, 2018, https://www.npr.org/2014/03/24/292411071/25-years-after-spill-alaska-town-struggles-back-from-dead-zone
4 National Ocean Service, “What is A Dead Zone?,” accessed June 15, 2018, https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/deadzone.html
5 Microbial Life, “The Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone,” last modified May 25, 2018, accessed June 15, 2018, https://serc.carleton.edu/microbelife/topics/deadzone/index.html
6 Teach Ocean Science, “What is a Dead Zone?,” accessed June 15, 2018, http://www.teachoceanscience.net/teaching_resources/education_modules/dead_zones/learn_about/
7 Microbial Life, “The Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone,” https://serc.carleton.edu/microbelife/topics/deadzone/index.html
8 Teach Ocean Science, “What is a Dead Zone?,” http://www.teachoceanscience.net/teaching_resources/education_modules/dead_zones/learn_about/
10 Camilo Mora et al, “Biotic and Human Vulnerability to Projected Changes in Ocean Biogeochemistry over the 21st Century,” accessed June 15, 2018, http://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.1001682
11 Bob Berwyn, “How Climate Change Will Worsen Algae and Dead Zones,” July 27, 2017, Inside Climate News, accessed June 15, 2018, https://www.google.com/url?q=https://insideclimatenews.org/news/27072017/climate-change-nitrogen-runoff-algae-dead-zones-rivers-ocean-study&sa=D&ust=1529379122570000&usg=AFQjCNEULI_0bAyOVMOgQsoBr7imGRyOLg
12 Kate Spinner, “Are Jellyfish a Harbinger of Dying Seas?,” June 18, 2011, accessed June 15, 2018, https://gulfhypoxia.net/are-jellyfish-a-harbinger-of-dying-seas/.
13 Michael Casey, “Invading Jellyfish Put Hurt on Fishermen, Swimmers,” November 18, 2009, Japan Times, accessed June 15, 2018, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2009/11/18/national/invading-jellyfish-put-hurt-on-fishermen-swimmers/#.Wyhx5cTXerV
14 Kate Spinner, “Are Jellyfish a Harbinger of Dying Seas?,” June 18, 2011, accessed June 15, 2018, https://gulfhypoxia.net/are-jellyfish-a-harbinger-of-dying-seas/.
16 Lynn Grooms, “Farmers, Fishers Reconnect,” Agri-View, accessed June 15, 2018, https://www.agupdate.com/agriview/business/farmers-fishers-reconnect/article_23d7f302-80a1-58d4-a0be-63f162c654a4.html
17 Morgan Levey, “Can Farm Wetlands in Illinois Stop a Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico?,” June 5, 2018, Chicago Magazine, accessed June 15, 2018, http://www.chicagomag.com/city-life/June-2018/Can-Farm-Wetlands-in-Illinois-Stop-a-Dead-Zone-in-the-Gulf-of-Mexico/
18 Microbial Life, “The Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone,” https://serc.carleton.edu/microbelife/topics/deadzone/index.html
As students in Kansas City, we know we are a long way from any ocean. But through researching about dead zones and the effects climate change has on the marine ecosystems, we understand that nowhere is disconnected from the oceans. The Midwest serves as the main cause for abundant nutrients flowing into the Gulf of Mexico via the Mississippi River and other connected rivers or streams. These nutrients will eventually fuel algae and cause dead zones. We hope that by submitting to this Contest, others will be inspired to act and work to solve the problems that stand at the forefront of our generation. No matter how little our efforts are, they all will contribute to ocean awareness and hopefully to preserving and protecting the ocean.