How Human Activity Can Cause "Dead Zones" in the Gulf of Mexico

Leading conservationists and officials representing all the states bordering the Gulf of Mexico have been attending a special conference in Houston.

It is being put on by the Harte Research Institute at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. The idea is to discuss ways to improve the environmental and economic health of the Gulf of Mexico.

"People don't realize the activities that they undertake in the watershed can affect the Gulf, so far away," said Dr. Nancy Rabalais of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium.

Rabalais is talking about hypoxia. It may sound like a foreign word, but its meaning can have an impact close to home. They are called dead zones, which result in a lack of life in the ocean.

"The hypoxia zone that's off the Mississippi River is the second largest in the world," said Dr. Larry McKinney, director of the Harte Research Institute at TAMUCC. "It comes from the Mississippi River, which drains most of the United States, everything between the Rockies and the Appalachians, and comes to the Gulf of Mexico."
Hypoxia, or dead zones, can originate hundreds of miles away from the coast. Take the Mississippi River, for example -- there's a lot of agriculture along that body of water. Nutrients and fertilizers are used to grow crops and they have to go somewhere, so they travel down the river and enter to the Gulf of Mexico. At the mouth of the Mississippi, those nutrients end up depleting oxygen levels and thus, the dead zones.

"In the Gulf of Mexico it's been caused by human activities, and those activities are in the Mississippi River basin, way away from the Gulf of Mexico," Dr. Rabalais said.

Not only does hypoxia affect sea life, its presence is felt throughout the Gulf Coast community.

"We could see at times that the upper Texas coast would have waters offshore that would have little or no oxygen in it, and that can have a huge economic impact from tourism, fisheries and all those things, and that's the concern," Dr. McKinney said.


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