This is not the food poisoning story you’d expect from the word “buffet” in the headline. I’m referring to all-you-can-eat phytoplankton buffets, also known as phytoplankton blooms, which cause massive oxygen-depleted “dead zones” in the Gulf of Mexico. NOAA predicts this summer’s will be the biggest ever.
Why is this year’s dead zone predicted to be the biggest ever? According to NOAA, flooding along the Mississippi will increase the amount of pollution that makes its way down to the gulf. The short video below does a pretty good job explaining how dead zones are created, though I thought it was a bit tongue-in-cheek, considering the scary levels of pollution we’re talking about here. But it’s worth watching for the explanations, colorful visuals, and numbers that you need to press pause for a moment to take in when you hear them.
The biggest number of them all is 1.7 million tons: that’s the amount of phosphoros and nitrogen — mostly from agricultural runoff — the Mississippi dumps into the Gulf of Mexico each year. That creates food for phytoplankton. They gobble it and turn into big masses of phytoplankton blooms. As the video explains, those blooms become an all-you-can-eat buffet, attracting a high concentration of predators that create a high concentration of waste.
The dead zone arrives after bacteria that eats up the waste uses up oxygen in the water. The biggest ever reported was 8,481 square miles in 2002. NOAA predicts this year’s will be between 7,286 and 8,561 square miles.
The frightening part to me is ALL of it, of course. But I’ll try to narrow it down to my biggest concerns. First of all, the video explains the zones get stirred up by winds from summer to fall and conditions return to normal. Nice solution. Those in the fishing industry have already learned that the ocean is not some bottomless sink. Not all problems go away.
We can see the huge dead zones when they happen, which are bad enough, but what else is the pollution doing out there? When stocks go down or sea turtles die, many fingers point to the fishing industry, which must carefully monitor and adjust its catch and byctach. But nobody seems accountable for the dead zone. Why isn’t anything being done to stop or at least minimize it?