Hypoxia Hype in the Gulf of Mexico

By Michael Fumento

The Washington Times, November 12, 1999
Copyright 1999 the Washington Times

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They call it the "Dead Zone." The term appears in headlines in Newsweek, the New York Times, the Washington Post and in virtually piece on the subject. In Science, it’s "death by suffocation."

The articles are about fertilizer runoff that flushes down the Mississippi River basin, giving rise to algae blooms in the Gulf. When these die and decay, they suck the oxygen out of the ocean water allegedly killing fish. This lack of oxygen is called hypoxia.

The proposed solution: Drastic cuts in nitrate fertilizer on farms and converting many farms into swampland. Yet it may accomplish nothing in the Gulf and will cost a fortune.

The Committee on Environment & Natural Resources (CENR), appointed by the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy, has just released the final part of a report urging draconian actions: a 20% cutback on fertilizer use by perhaps half of all American farms, along with converting 5 million acres of farmland to wetlands. The cost? About $4.9 billion a year.

The fertilizer fingerers who have utterly mesmerized the media and the CENR are marine biologist Nancy Rabalais, with the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium in Chauvin, La., and her husband, R. Eugene Turner, a coastal ecologist at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Environmentalist darlings, they are winners of the San Diego Foundation’s $250,000 1999 Blasker Award for environmental science and engineering.

The problem is, the researchers’ numbers or more importantly their dates just don’t add up.

Fertilizer runoff clearly contributes to the Gulf hypoxia. The problem, says Jonathan Pennock, an associate professor of oceanography at the University of Alabama and co-author of a study commissioned by the Fertilizer Institute, is that since 1950 there has been a tremendous increase in nitrate concentrations in the Mississippi, and there has been an increase in hypoxia in the Gulf.

The only real threat to fish in the Gulf of Mexico are fishermen and other fish.

But since 1985, while the hypoxia zone was growing the most, the amount of fertilizer going into it has gone down. (Please see related graphic.)

Another curiosity. The area of the zone increased tremendously in 1993 following a massive flood in the Midwest. This summer it was the largest size ever measured by far, about 7,500 square miles. Is that because the flood washed nitrates from fields into rivers flowing into the Gulf.

Maybe? But then why did the zone last year finally fall back to essentially its pre-flood level in 1998, only to balloon to its largest size ever in 1999?

How can that be traced to the flood? "To me it points to the multiple factors that go into affecting the hypoxic zone," says Pennock, "and shows it’s not a simple problem with any one cause."

Though direct measurements of the Gulf’s oxygen content only began in the 1970s, apparently it has historically varied dramatically. Sediment analyses indicate hypoxia became more severe in the 18th and 19th centuries, long before the widespread use of chemical fertilizers.

Further, Derek Winstanley, chief of the Illinois State Water Survey in Champaign, notes that the hypoxic zone is off to the west of the Mississippi, "but when you look at the satellite photos from 1993 you see the flood debris do an immediate U-turn, go east, and are taken up into the Gulf Stream past the Carolinas." Why would fertilizer nitrates follow an opposite path?

You also rarely hear that hypoxia zones are common throughout the world, usually where fertilizer couldn’t be a problem. "There are millions of square miles of ocean that are naturally hypoxic," says Winstanley, "including the whole of the Pacific Ocean offshore from the Canadian-American border to Chile."

"The Dead Zone."

Nonetheless, Rabalais’ Rules make it even into major media headlines, like AP’s "Dead Zone in Gulf Traced to Fertilizer Use by Farmers."

Causes and contributors aside, the underlying current of the fuss is fish. They’re "suffocating" and fishermen are suffering, right? Wrong. Apparently the simply avoid the hypoxic area, such that fishermen working the edge of the zone pull up net-ripping catches.

"Fisheries data failed to detect effects attributable to hypoxia," the CENR report admits. It even concedes that if there IS a problem, past efforts to reduce nitrogen run-off into hypoxic zones have "failed to show direct effects."

Translation: We could be tossing five million acres and almost $5 billion annually at alligators and egrets, without touching a problem that may not even exist.

Still, says the report, if the zone grows larger, it may eventually affect the industry, so it’s worth the chance. Further, nitrate spillage into the Gulf might worsen, it says, because as our population increases, "it may be difficult to meet food demand without increased use of nitrate fertilizer."

Doesn’t that argue against submerging prime farm land? Or perhaps we can start importing food from Somalia?

"Ah, but never mind all this," says the report in essence. "Let’s spend and submerge, and see what happens."

Being a federal creature, the CENR can’t imagine alternatives requiring less than iron-fisted regulation and vast expenditures. But farmers have already begun employing high-tech solutions to reduce both fertilizer use and runoff. They use satellites to determine which acres might need less fertilizer.

New crops are also under development that need less nitrogen fertilizer. One wheat strain developed at the University of Florida may allow the same yield with a third less fertilizer. Such crops could be blanketing the country faster than the Army Corps of Engineers could put into gear a scheme to convert some of America’s most productive farmland into muskrat metropolises.

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