My Trip to the Dead Zone

By Justin Martin
Point of Vue, Houma; May 2008

I woke, and the bed was rocking. When my feet found the floor in the absolute darkness, I realized it wasn’t just the bed; the whole room was rocking. There was a slow, steady roll under the floor, and I didn’t know why.I couldn’t figure out where I was in the haze of half-awakedness, but I knew it wasn’t my apartment — this place smelled too clean. Then I heard water splash, and it all came back to me.

The brass at PoV thought it would be a fun story idea to send a writer to ride on the Pelican, the 115-foot offshore research vessel for the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON). My job was to accompany the half-dozen or so scientists, graduate students and lab technicians (read: all people smarter than me) on a sample collecting trip and see what I could learn about the oxygen-poor “dead zone” which appears in the Gulf of Mexico each spring.

My photographer and I arrived at LUMCON’s Cocodrie laboratory around 10 p.m. the night before and boarded the ship. We met the six-man crew first. (I figured it best to make friends with these guys. You know, them being responsible for my safety and all.) Then, we made our way to the labs to meet the brains of the operations. It was not hard to tell the researchers from the boat crew. The average crewman was large and weathered. The average researcher was, well, not that.

I learned quickly inside the lab is no place to make small talk with a researcher — tunnel vision is at its finest. So I waited until a few trickled into the galley to get names and jobs. I learned their jobs ranged from measuring water currents to collecting samples of mud from the sea floor.

By the time I had made my acquaintances with most on board, it was time to head to the bunks. After all, we had a full day of work ahead of us. That meant 12 designated stops to collect samples before we made it back to LUMCON late the next night. As I lay in my bunk, I heard the engines turn over, and the Pelican started its 30-mile trek to the first sample station.

By the time I made it on deck the next morning (barely finding my sealegs), we were at our first stop. The back deck of the vessel was alive with science. Everyone had a job to do, and everyone was in full research mode. Several researchers used a crane to lower the CTD into the Gulf waters. Roughly the size of a Yugo, the CTD is made of 12 water-collecting cylinders, each sampling at designated depths. Other researchers were utilizing another crane to lower a bucket to the sea floor to collect mud samples. Still, other researchers were using a bucket to collect top water samples. Even more researchers were measuring water currents with a sonar device floating off the port side. I did the best I could to just stay out the way. Once all samples were taken, the researchers retired to the lab to begin collecting data.

This was my first trip this far out, so I stayed on deck to take in the views. The day was overcast (we were praying the rain would hold off), and the Pelican was moving at about 10 knots. The only way I can describe what I saw from the back deck: lots and lots of water.

By the first stop following lunch, I had the hang of walking on the boat and felt confident enough to begin asking questions. I found the biggest brain on the ship and leader of this expedition, LUMCON Executive Director Nancy Rabalais, to get some information on the dead zone and what this trip had to do with it all. The Ph.D.-carrying

Rabalais is pretty well known in the world of biological research. She has published more papers on topics ranging from the early life stages of coastal invertebrates to mercury in marine fish than I have made trips to the dentist.

Rabalais explained to me the dead zone is all about hypoxia, or low oxygen levels. Every spring, runoff from farming communities along the Mississippi River fills the river water with nutrients. Freshwater and nutrients from the Mississippi reach the Gulf and lead to the formation of phytoplankton (microscopic plants that live in the ocean). As the phytoplankton die, they sink to the bottom where they are decomposed by bacteria, which uses up the oxygen. Organisms that rely on those usually oxygen-rich waters to live either leave the hypoxia waters or die.

The purpose of the trip was to learn the extent of the dead zone. LUMCON collects samples once a month during the dead zone season. Each year the dead zone averages about 8,500 square miles. The samples we were collecting would tell us if this year would
be the same.

After more sample collecting and data readings, I was able to get more pieces of information about the causes and effects of hypoxia in the Gulf from Rabalais and her team.

Increasing nutrient loads beginning in the 1950s are responsible for worsening oxygen conditions, resulting in disastrous consequences
for commercial and recreational fisheries. Today, the coastal water found in the Gulf of Mexico adjacent to the Mississippi River contains the second-largest human-caused zone of hypoxia in the world.

By the time the sun was setting behind the numerous rigs that dot the Gulf’s landscape, we had one more stop to make. To be honest, I was ready to get off of that boat and walk on solid ground. I packed my things and headed back on deck to see the lights of LUMCON in the distance.

I walked off the Pelican and thought about what I had learned and who I had met in the past 24 hours. I learned researchers are some of the most focused and driven people on the planet. (I did not see one fishing line in the water the whole time.) I learned how sensitive our ecosystem really is. I also learned how actions can unknowingly and detrimentally affect organisms hundreds of miles away.

When I returned to the comfortable confines of my office, I e-mailed Rabalais. I had forgotten to ask her what was being done, if anything, to stymie hypoxia.

She said the greatest improvements could be made with several methods, but changes in agricultural management practices to reduce the amount of runoff are the most important.

She continued to explain that although there is a state and federal task force with a Hypoxia Action Plan for discerning ways to reduce nutrients, there is no funding for the plan. Thus, all actions are voluntary, and there is very little action. PoV