Every year runoff carried by the Mississippi River creates a “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico – and this year it is expected to triple in size, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Larry McKinney, executive director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, blames ethanol for the expansion of these low-oxygen waters, which threaten 18 percent of the country’s commercial seafood production.
McKinney told NOLA.com that the price of corn has soared since the federal ethanol mandate, prompting farmers to clear land to plant as much of it as possible. Trouble is, these crops require a lot of fertilizer. Last year the drought kept Midwest runoff from reaching the Gulf of Mexico, so the dead zone was the smallest it had been in years at 2,889 square miles. This year, because of the heavy rains, NOAA projects that the hypoxic zone will mushroom to 8,561 square miles.
“This is not just a Louisiana problem,” McKinney said.
“You guys have been dealing with this for many years off your coast, but as I try to explain to folks, the expansion of this hypoxic zone is not like a balloon that expands on all sides. The currents are going to drive it right into Texas, so if these zones continue to expand — and it looks like they will — we could see times when the entire upper coast of Texas is in these hypoxic zones as well.”
Fish escape these dead zones, forcing fishermen to go further out to sea in order to catch them, but the dead zone wipes out clams, crabs and shrimp after algae blooms die, sink to the bottom and sap the water’s oxygen.
Lead image via NOAA