Time for action on dead zone

By Daily Comet
Monday, June 22, 2009

Each year, we hear predictions about the size of the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. And after each summer, scientists tell us how big the dead zone got to be.

Unfortunately, we have never gotten to the point when we hear the concerted effort the nation is going to put toward decreasing the dead zone, which has dire effects on the offshore — and even the inshore — fishing industry.

Scientists this year are predicting that the dead zone will reach the size of New Jersey, which would make it the largest recorded.

The zone, an area of low oxygen that makes much of the plant and animal life in the water unsustainable, is formed when giant algae blooms die and decompose, removing the oxygen from the water.

The algae blooms, in turn, are caused by nitrogen and phosphorous washed into the Mississippi River and then the Gulf. Those chemicals are, in large part, the result of farming practices that produce massive runoff which has huge consequences downstream.

The end result is that the fish in the dead zone must flee to oxygen-rich waters, meaning fishermen who depend on them must travel farther to find their catches.

The worst news is that the problem seems to be getting worse, the experts say.

“These offshore areas are getting more and more sensitive to the same amount of nitrogen because there’s a carryover effect from one year to the next,” said LSU scientist Gene Turner. “That’s the scary part. It’s steadily increasing.”

While that goes a long way toward explaining what is happening and why, it doesn’t do much to explain the inertia that keeps anything from being done about it.

For an understanding of that, we must look at the political realm. The problem spans all the states that border the Mississippi River, and what each state allows to be washed from farms into the river.

The effects of that runoff are out of sight to the people who are using the chemicals.

The cause and effect are so separated that neither end of the equation can be expected to know much about the other.

That is why the government must undertake an effort at the federal level to regulate what can be put in the water that eventually finds its way off our shores.

Although there have been some attempts at regulation, they have so far resulted in no changes.

So we are faced with another summer, another few months that sees a growing dead zone and increased difficulties for Gulf fishermen — difficulties that because of fuel prices further complicate their already-difficult positions.

We hope that this summer, the people in Washington, D.C., who will ultimately have to decide to become involved are watching. If the problem gets much bigger, it may be too late to try to fix it.

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