LUMCON gets $4 million for dead-zone research

By Nikki Buskey , Staff Writer
Saturday, October 31, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.

The LUMCON marine-research center in Cocodrie has been awarded the money as part of a $12 million, five-year grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to better understand the dead zone, an area of low-to-no oxygen that occurs each summer off the Louisiana coast.

It’s caused by pollution and farm fertilizer that runs into in the Mississippi River and heads downstream. The pollutants encourage algae blooms that die, sink and decompose on the Gulf bottom, depleting the oxygen and causing marine life in the area to flee or die.

One effect is that shrimpers have to travel farther into the Gulf to find their catches, wasting time and fuel, said Nancy Rabalais, director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium and a top dead-zone researcher.

The Gulf dead zone threatens commercial and recreational Gulf fisheries that generate about $2.8 billion annually, NOAA estimates.

In 2009, the dead zone measured 3,000 square miles, smaller than in past years but more severe, both in how low the oxygen levels got and how close to the surface the affected waters were.

“We have sufficient scientific understanding to take action now to address the dead-zone problem in the northern Gulf of Mexico,” said Robert Magnien, director of NOAA’s Center for Sponsored Coastal Ocean Research.

However, he said, as work begins, questions remain, and new research by LUMCON and others will help answer questions such as when, where and how the dead zone develops and how it affects fisheries. That may lead to better strategies to curb the pollution at its source.

The dead-zone research team, headed Rabalais, Eugene Turner of LSU and Don Scavia of the University of Michigan, working with Texas A&M University, aim to refine the forecasting models used now to predict the dead zone’s size.

Three other research teams will address the impacts of the dead zone on economically important Gulf fish populations including shrimp, Atlantic croaker, Gulf menhaden, bay anchovy, Atlantic bumper and Spanish bumper.

The projects address research needs identified by the President’s Ocean Policy Task Force, said Paul Sandifer, NOAA senior science advisor.

Nikki Buskey can be reached at 857-2205 or