Q and A: Tracking a Worrisome Dead ZoneBy RACHEL NUWER, Green Blog, NY Times
15 October 20012
John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
For over a quarter-century, the marine ecologist Nancy Rabalais, the executive director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, has worked to understand and to spread awareness of the so-called dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.
Shrimpers trawling the Gulf of Mexico first began noticing a decline in their catch rates in the 1950’s. By the time Dr. Rabalais entered the scene in 1985, fishermen and scientists knew that marine life there was suffering recurring, devastating bouts of death by suffocation but had only a spotty understanding of the process and what might be done to mitigate it. Dr. Rabalais helped fill in the gaps, and in recognition for her research and policy campaigns, she recently received a $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship.
We spoke with Dr. Rabalais about her work and her plans for using the grant money. Following are excerpts, edited for brevity and clarity.
What is a dead zone?
These are areas in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere around the world where there is insufficient oxygen for most marine life that we would readily recognize — like fish, shrimp, crabs — to live. I don’t know why they call them dead zones because not everything is dead. There’s some bacteria that thrives in low-oxygen environments, and there’s usually plenty of fish at the surface because it typically affects just the lower half of the water column.
The dead zones that form in coastal areas are usually the result of human activity in the watershed that drains through the coastal water. In our case it’s the Mississippi River; changes primarily include increases in nitrogen and phosphorous in the river over the last four decades. The flux of nitrate and the size of the low-oxygen area are directly proportional to agricultural activities in the watershed that generate nitrogen and phosphorous. Some does come from cities, some is atmospheric, but the bulk of it is from agricultural practices, particularly row crops and corn and soybean rotations.
How did you first get involved in dead zone research?
Well, I was a budding young scientist at Lumcon