Good news from the Gulf

By Thibodaux Daily Comet
Monday, July 27, 2009 at 11:01 a.m.

Just a few weeks ago, the news about the Gulf of Mexico’s annual dead zone was grim.

Researchers were predicting that the area of low oxygen and little life would be one of the largest ever. In fact, experts had said earlier this summer that the area would be around 8,000 square miles, or about the size of New Jersey.

But this week, we got some great news. The dead zone has actually grown to only about 3,000 square miles — less than half the predicted size.

The dead zone comes about each year fueled by nitrogen and phosphorus — much of it from fertilizer — that runs off into the Mississippi River and is washed downstream and into the Gulf.

The chemicals cause algae blooms in the Gulf. When the algae die and sink, they suck the oxygen out of the water, killing or forcing out most of the sealife.

Because the water flows were so high in the river earlier this year, the predictions were that the algae bloom and the dead zone would be larger than normal as well.

Fortunately, the predictions were wrong. The river flow slowed, and along with it the stream of chemicals.

“This was surprisingly small given the forecast to be among the largest ever and the expanse of the dead zone earlier this summer,” said Nancy Rabalais, director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, based in Cocodrie.

While the news is not nearly as bad as was once feared, the fact remains that thousands of square miles of the Gulf of Mexico are affected each summer by the dead zone.

This year, for instance, the dead zone is extremely close to the shore, causing massive counts of fish, crabs and shrimp to gather along the Louisiana coast.

That is dangerous because any substantial change to the delicate balance of our ecosystem could be disastrous for the species in the water and the humans who rely on them for their livelihood.

We have known for some time that the ultimate solution to this yearly curse is for the federal government to regulate the amount and types of agricultural chemicals used in the Mississippi valley, thus limiting those that ultimately find their way into the Gulf.

But action on that front has been slow to materialize.

The stress on the wildlife populations that have to flee the dead zone must eventually take its toll. In addition, the plant life is altered each year.

We hope that even when there is good news, the overriding concern is that there is a dead zone and that we must do what we must to demand a solution at the federal level.

Editorials represent the opinions of the newspaper, not of any individual.