To get an idea of how American coastal waters might look just before they succumb to all the degradations they have suffered these past five centuries, it would be worth taking a July trip to Mobile Bay, an Alabama inlet that feeds into the Gulf of Mexico. If the air is still and hot, an event may occur that Gulf Coast residents call a “jubilee.” The bottom-dwelling flounder will be among its first victims, growing agitated as each successive gulp of water brings less and less oxygen across their gills.
In a panic, the fish will head shoreward toward the only breathable water they can find — the tiny oxygenated riffle the sea makes as it bumps lazily against the beach. At the shoreline, they will find humans waiting for them armed with “gigs,” crude sticks with nails protruding. With an easy stab, each gigger will impale a suffocating fish, sometimes two at a time. Wading out farther, the fishermen will find sluggish pods of blue crab and brown shrimp. As the bay slowly asphyxiates and the free-for-all reaches its climax, the human whoops coming from the darkness will give the impression of a happy time—a celebration of the ocean’s seemingly endless gifts.
But make no mistake. The Mobile Bay jubilee, while generally accepted as a naturally occurring phenomenon, is no cause for celebration. It is, in fact, a harbinger of a much larger unnatural jubilee occurring next door in the Gulf of Mexico. At least since the 1970s, an oxygen-depleted “dead zone,” orders of magnitude larger than the Mobile event, has been forming and growing in the Gulf to the point where it now averages 5,700 square miles, bigger than the state of Connecticut. Nancy Rabalais, the executive director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium and the dead zone’s leading researcher, likens the phenomenon to the equivalent of “stretching a sheet of plastic wrap from the mouth of the Mississippi River west to Galveston, Texas, and sucking out all the air.”
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