World’s oceans could become “soupy swill”By Elaine O’Connor
September 13, 2008; The Province, Vancouver, BC
B.C. not immune to algae bloom outbreaks
Saltspring Island resident Sally Cole got home from a sailing trip in August looking forward to a hot shower. But when she turned on her taps, all she got was slime.
"It was almost biblical. It was blood-red," says the Ganges resident. "I turned on the tap and it just flooped. Just a bit of viscous gloop came out. It was really horrible."
Otherwise, the taps were dry. "I thought it was a biological disaster or something infectious. We were really quite terrified."
The culprit was an algae bloom on Maxwell Lake that choked the water pipes of hundreds of residents. It took three days to clear it.
The experience made Cole realize how dependent we are on our fragile water systems.
"It was a real shock how fast our standard of living went down
without water," she says.
The Saltspring incident is a local example of a global crisis in the Earth’s lakes and oceans.
Our seas are suffocating under a layer of slime.
That slime – algae feasting on pollutants and fertilizers and starving the ocean of oxygen – is growing rapaciously and killing off sea life at an alarming rate.
These toxic "dead zones" have been spreading up the Pacific Northwest coast.
Since 2002, Oregon’s waters have seen yearly species die-offs due to hypoxia (low-oxygen) and anoxia (no-oxygen) conditions from nutrients in currents and algae blooms.
A new study published in August reveals the world’s dead zones have doubled in size every decade since 1960. Coastal waters with once rich marine life – Chesapeake Bay, the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea and off Peru, Chile and Namibia – are rapidly losing species.
According to the report by two U.S. scientists, Spreading Dead Zones and Consequence for Marine Ecosystems, there are 405 asphyxiating dead zones in our oceans. At this rate, one B.C. scientist says, all that will be left for the next generation to harvest from the sea is "plankton soup."
The crisis is of our own making. The cause, predictably, is pollution. The culprits are fertilizer runoff in estuaries, sewage, global warming, overfishing and industrial waste.
Millions of tonnes of "nutrient pollution" – chemical fertilizer that adds phosphates and nitrogen to the water – feed algae blooms.
In the Gulf of Mexico, the shrimp- and crab-killing blooms are fed by
95,000 metric tonnes of nitrogen fertilizer that flows down the Mississippi River each year.
When the algae dies and sinks, it fuels a bacteria boom, which consumes oxygen and smothers life.
Deoxygenation can occur naturally in stagnant water. Some oceans, like the northern Indian Ocean, have lower oxygen levels because there’s less wind to stir the water. But man has spread the disease.
Some zones are vast: the Baltic Sea’s 70,000-square-kilometre aquatic graveyard is the largest on Earth. The Gulf of Mexico harbours North America’s giant dead zone: a 22,000-sq-km sea morgue the size of New Jersey.
Other dead zones have been discovered off California, in Lake Erie, around the Florida Keys, in North and South Carolina creeks and in Washington’s Puget Sound. Together, they have turned 246,048 sq km of the seas – an area the equivalent of all five of the Great Lakes – into marine wastelands.
Robert Diaz, a Virginia Institute of Marine Science professor and
co-author of the dead-zone study, says the problem is already evident in Canadian waters.
In B.C., a dead zone was first spotted in the Saanich Inlet in 1960. Dead zones have been recorded in P.E.I. fish-farming bays in 2000 and in a 1,300-sq-km area in the St. Lawrence estuary, where oxygen levels have declined to nearly nil.
If fish swim into a dead zone, they often fall unconscious before they can escape. Shellfish and bottom-dwellers move too slowly to escape, leaving a stew of rotting marine life.
Even when fish survive in low-oxygen water, research shows their reproduction suffers, which could jeopardize wild fish stocks.
Diaz calls the trend a "widespread deleterious anthropogenic influence on . . . marine environments" that "rank