Today researchers announced the size of the Gulf of Mexico dead zone, the official measurement NOAA uses to track its size year over year. This comes on the heels of bad news from another NOAA report indicating that the volume of Gulf shrimp landings in June 2020 was the lowest ever recorded.
Researchers found that the dead zone measured 5,048 square kilometers, slightly larger than the state of Rhode Island. This year’s dead zone is much smaller than predicted, not because nitrogen pollution flowing into the Gulf was lower, but because Hurricane Hanna dispersed it at the time it was measured.
Hurricanes have dispersed the dead zone in previous years, causing its size to be smaller than expected given data on nitrogen pollution flowing into the Gulf in the same year. In fact, earlier this year Louisiana University and NOAA researchers predicted, assuming no hurricane, that nitrogen loading levels in the Gulf would cause a dead zone that was 20,000 square kilometers, which is about the size of New Hampshire.
On its face, this may seem like a silver lining. But these hurricanes will likely make tracking the dead zone size even more challenging in the years ahead. And with climate change expected to increase hurricane size and intensity in the Gulf between now and the end of the century, it’s clear that there are long-term challenges to measuring the Gulf dead zone. To make matters worse hurricanes have a negative impact on Gulf fishing industries, too.
Despite Hurricane Hanna’s effect, this year’s dead zone is still larger than the Environmental Protection Agency’s Hypoxia Task Force long-term goal for reduction. So there really isn’t much to celebrate this year.
Why it’s time to revive the Gulf dead zone
The Gulf of Mexico dead zone—an area so depleted of oxygen that it harms and kills marine organisms and hurts fishers and fishery workers that rely on them for their livelihoods—is the result of nitrogen pollution flowing down the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers. A large share of this nitrogen pollution originates from agriculture upstream. Of this, a substantial source is the synthetic nitrogen fertilizer that is applied in large quantities to farmland all across the Mississippi and Atchafalaya river basins. Earlier this year UCS released a report describing the magnitude of this problem and how widespread adoption of healthy-soil practices in the Midwest could help revive the dead zone and support farmers and farming communities at the same time.
The nitrogen pollution from agriculture that causes the Gulf dead zone is what economists call a negative externality. Externalities are costs of an economic activity incurred by a third party. In the case of the Gulf dead zone caused by nitrogen pollution, costs accrue to coastal communities, tourist-dependent businesses, and people who catch and eat shrimp and other Gulf seafood. This is because the dead zone, as our report explains, can cause commercial fishers to catch less or poorer quality seafood or force recreational fishers to take their tourism dollars elsewhere.
Moreover, the costs incurred by these third parties are not currently factored into the price of corn and other crops produced upstream, even though growing them is a major contributor to the dead zone in the first place.
This year, the effects of the dead zone on the Gulf fishing industry will be exacerbated by the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic. That means that the external costs of the dead zone may be even higher than typical for Gulf coast communities.
The COVID-19 pandemic has upended Gulf seafood markets
The pandemic has already hurt seafood markets in the region. In Louisiana, widespread restaurant closures due to the virus have significantly reduced demand for seafood and shrimp caught in Gulf waters. The same is true in Texas, which also has a large commercial fishing industry that relies on the Gulf of Mexico having plentiful amounts of shrimp and other commercial species.
Seafood and shrimp processors, the middleman between restaurants and fishers, have also been impacted by COVID-19. They won’t buy what fisherman catch because there are few or no customers to sell to. Even worse, COVID-19 outbreaks have occurred in seafood and shrimp processing plants. Similar to meatpacking workers, seafood processors (many of whom are migrants with only temporary visas) work in close quarters with few health and safety protections or access to healthcare, putting them at greater risk of contracting or becoming seriously ill from the virus. In Louisiana, a COVID-19 outbreak in a crawfish plant caused dozens of infections, which could have been prevented had workers had adequate health protections.
As our report from earlier this year describes, the Gulf Coast shrimp industry was already struggling due to cheap imported shrimp and other pressures such as climate change and the dead zone.
Solutions to COVID-19 and the dead zone are in plain sight
Science tells us to reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19, even for workers in jobs that are high risk: wear masks and other protective equipment, wash hands frequently, social distance as much as possible, and ensure that employers offer paid sick leave and access to good healthcare. We can and should provide all these protections to essential food workers, which will reduce community spread of COVID-19 while preventing severe damage to our economies.
The same is true for the Gulf dead zone. Science tells us that this problem, which has recurred for over thirty years, can be solved if farmers upstream adopt practices that reduce the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer and keep what is used on farm fields instead of in waterways that empty into the Gulf. What is more, these practices can protect farm soils and help farmers adapt to a changing climate, allowing farming to continue on for generations.
When policymakers act to address COVID-19 and the dead zone, they must look to the science and make evidence-based decisions. In doing so they will put the public interest above special interests, protecting our health and safety, while preserving our natural resources and ensuring a profitable farming and food system for the future.