"Fish and oysters, crabs — whatever we needed we could always get something to eat somehow," she said. "Plus it was fun to get them."
Her lifelong affinity and stewardship for the marine environment was recognized this fall when she received one of 23 MacArthur Foundation fellowships, colloquially known as genius grants. It comes with $500,000 and no strings attached — no reporting requirements, no grant writing and no pressure.
The foundation created the exclusive fellowships to allow highly motivated creative people to pursue their interests without bureaucratic hassles. Recipients don’t apply; they must be nominated. The fellows cover diverse fields that are often hard to define. This year’s class includes artists, writers, scientists, a social worker and a violin bowmaker.
Rabalais, 62, a marine ecologist and executive director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, received the fellowship for her work documenting so-called "dead zones" — low-oxygen areas — of the Gulf of Mexico.
They’ve existed throughout geologic time as natural phenomena, but Rabalais and fellow researchers established a link between the dead zone off the Louisiana coast and agricultural and urban runoff as far upstream as the Midwest. She’s been mapping the scale of the Gulf of Mexico hypoxic region since 1985.
The work has been instrumental in triggering policy changes aimed at reducing nutrient-laden runoff. Although the measures have seen limited effectiveness so far, Rabalais and her colleagues have overcome the first hurdle: getting widespread acknowledgment that human causes are behind the low oxygen levels.
She has testified before Congress, worked with governments on an action plan to improve water quality in the Mississippi River basin and worked with farmers to develop sustainable methods — passions she shares with her husband and fellow scientist R. Eugene Turner of Louisiana State University.
DEAD ZONE IMPACTS
Flooding in 2002 led to the largest recorded Gulf dead zone at 8,500 square miles. This summer it spanned 2,889 square miles, about 15 times the area of Corpus Christi Bay.
Nutrients in the runoff, mainly nitrogen and phosphorous, feed rapid growth of algae, just as lawn fertilizers lead to lush green grass. That can be good for the food chain that depends on these tiny organisms, but eventually there’s a massive die-off. As the dead algae sink, bacteria in the lower half of the water column break it down, consuming oxygen in the process.
Animals that can swim move out of the area; other organisms die. But the zones aren’t completely devoid of life. The low oxygen areas affect only the lower half of the water column. Natural events such as hurricanes can restore life by mixing oxygen-rich upper layers with the waters beneath.
Researchers are still studying the environmental and economic consequences of the dead zones, but it is clear they affect fisheries.
"There’s loss of potential production in the Gulf of Mexico because organisms don’t have complete access to suitable habitat, and the brown shrimp are being prevented from migrating further offshore," Rabalais said.
That can mean fewer and smaller shrimp.
The low oxygen is affecting fish in other ways. Rabalais said a colleague, Peter Thomas at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute, has shown that the croaker, a bottom-dwelling fish, has its hormones disrupted by low oxygen so that females become males, reducing reproductive capacity.
The five-year, $500,000 fellowship comes at critical time for Rabalais, who felt the sting of budget cuts amid the recession. The budget for the fourth year of her five-year grant was cut 43 percent, dealing a major blow to her ability to rent vessels for research.
"You can’t do what I’m doing if you can’t have a ship offshore or the people to do the work," she said.
She will still have to make budget and staff cuts, but the grant will support her research and that of her students and other researchers at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium.
In that role she also oversees research under a $12 million grant related to the effects of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill on coastal ecosystems.
She was living and working at the Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas in 1979 when the other major Gulf of Mexico spill happened at the Ixtoc I rig off the Mexican coast, sending plumes of oil to the Coastal Bend and beyond.
COASTAL BEND ROOTS
Rabalais attended Hamlin Middle School and Carroll High School in Corpus Christi. An eighth-grade biology teacher drew her into the subject. She continued her education at Del Mar College and Texas A&I University, now known as Texas A&M-Kingsville.
She cut her diving teeth around the jetties at Port Aransas and around offshore platforms off Padre Island National Seashore, where she worked as a naturalist in the summer after earning her bachelor’s degree. She participated in the first release of endangered Kemp’s ridley turtles at the seashore in 1976.
Her journey developing respect and care for life and the environment — born in the Coastal Bend and carried out today from her laboratory in Cocodrie, La. — also coalesced into spiritual discovery.
"I just didn’t know there was a name for it and a real church until I moved to Baton Rouge," she said.
Now, her Unitarian faith informs her work and her work informs her faith. Each year, she participates in a ceremony at her church, usually at the end of the summer. It’s a kind of water rite, where people are encouraged to bring small water samples from their summer travels or vacations. Rabalais brings hers from 65 feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico.
"I always rededicate my effort to work for improved water quality," she said.
Nancy Rabalais and the MacArthur Fellows: www.macfound.org
Gulf of Mexico low-oxygen zones: www.gulfhypoxia.net
Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium: www.lumcon.edu