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Growing Dead Zone Imperils Gulf of Mexico Shrimp Industry

Growing Dead Zone Imperils Gulf of Mexico Shrimp Industry

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By David E. Hubler
Contributor, EDM Digest

The annual dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico — an area of water with little to no oxygen that kills fish and other marine life — is predicted to reach near-record levels in the coming weeks.

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That forecast has U.S. scientists and shrimpers particularly worried, says Elizabeth Lee of the Voice of America. “Scientists cite an alarming trend that the number of dead zones in the world tends to double every 10 years,” she said.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that the 2019 Gulf dead zone will cover more than 20,277 square kilometers or a little more than five million square acres. That’s just short of the record of 22,700 square kilometers set in 2017 and much bigger than the five-year average of 14,944 square kilometers.

Main Cause of Dead Zones Is Fertilizers Creating Waterborne Pollution

Researchers say one of the main causes of a dead zone is farm fertilizers, which create nutrient pollution runoff into oceans. NOAA attributes this year’s near-record dead zone in part to flooding from high spring rainfall and subsequent river discharge into the Gulf.

“The annually recurring Gulf of Mexico hypoxic zone is primarily caused by excess nutrient pollution from human activities, such as urbanization and agriculture, occurring throughout the Mississippi River watershed,” NOAA explains.

Low Oxygen Levels Are Insufficient to Support Most Marine Life

“Once the excess nutrients reach the Gulf they stimulate an overgrowth of algae, which eventually die, then sink and decompose in the water,” NOAA adds. “The resulting low oxygen levels near the bottom are insufficient to support most marine life and have long-term impacts to living marine resources that are unable to leave the area.”

The dead zone in the Gulf is expected to peak in the middle of the summer. But it likely will have drastic long-term effects on the local economy, especially on the many shrimpers whose livelihood depends on catching the crustacean delicacy. They’ve seen shrimp populations decline in recent years.

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NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Data Management division found monthly shrimp catches at “historic lows” early in 2018. For example, in January, “more than 1.9 million pounds of shrimp was landed in the Gulf of Mexico. This total is less than half the prior sixteen-year historic average for January (4.1 million pounds) and is, by far, the lowest ever reported for a January in the historical data maintained by the Southern Shrimp Alliance going back to 2002.”

Trey Pearson runs J.B.S. Packing, Inc., a shrimp processing business in Port Arthur. Texas. He told VOA’s Lee that he is "very, very concerned as to what [the dead zone] will actually do and how bad it really will be."

Pearson expects that a lot of shrimp are going to die and a lot more shrimp are going to move away from the dead zone. “So it’s going to change the fishing quite drastically,” he said. "It makes it a lot more difficult to transit the product and it [also] changes the areas that the boats would normally fish in.”

David Hubler David E. Hubler brings a variety of government, journalism and teaching experience to his position as a Quality Assurance Editor at APUS. David’s professional background includes serving as a senior editor at CIA and the Voice of America. He has also been a managing editor for several business-to-business and business-to-government publishing companies. David has taught high school English in Connecticut and at Northern Virginia Community College. He has a master’s degree for Teachers of English from the University of New Hampshire and a B.A. in English from New York University. In March 2017, Rowman & Littlefield published the paperback edition of David’s latest book, "The Nats and the Grays, How Baseball in the Nation's Capital Survived WWII and Changed the Game Forever."