What Does the ‘Dead Zone’ in the Gulf of Mexico Mean for Texas?

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Tony Maples Photography


Recently, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico has grown to 8,776 square miles and is now encompassing an area of the Gulf of Mexico roughly the size of New Jersey. What is this “dead zone” and how did it happen?

What Is The “Dead Zone?”

Gulf of Mexico dead zone

Photo: Flickr/Reinhard Link

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration describes the dead zone as an area of low oxygen that can kill fish and marine life. It is caused by the runoff of nitrogen and phosphorus flowing into the water from farmers using nutrients on crops as fertilizer. Those nutrients are getting washed into streams and rivers by rain. Once the nutrients get to the Gulf of Mexico, they stimulate the growth of algae. The algae then sinks to the bottom of the ocean and bacteria start decomposing the organic matter in the algae. That process uses oxygen, drawing it from the water.

The dead zone grows to its biggest size in the summer. This is when there’s more fresh water sitting on top of cold saltwater, blocking oxygen from the atmosphere from mixing with the water underneath. Dead zones then recede as the fall and winter approach.

A Hard Hit for the Shrimping Industry


Photo: Flickr/NOAA

The dead zone effects the Gulf of Mexico greatly – its reach stretching far and wide. Marine life, such as shrimp, avoid the area, even if their life cycle would normally put them in it. This causes shrimp to be smaller and less valuable to fishermen. As for the recreational fishermen, the “dead zone” forces them to go farther out in the Gulf – beyond the dead zone – to find fish.

Preventing the Dead Zone

shrimp boat

Photo: Flickr/Danny Clark

The Environmental Protection Agency currently has a task force working on this problem. Experts suggested greater monitoring of agricultural practices to reduce the amount of nitrogen flowing into the water.

The EPA has proposed that the Gulf of Mexico get the same kind of federal protection as the Chesapeake Bay, where a dead zone problem got markedly better after the EPA set limits on nutrient pollution in 2010, despite strong objections from farmers.