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Dead zones and Hypoxia are affecting the oxygen that fish all over the planet and your actions can affect them: both positively and negatively. 

What is a Dead Zone and What is Hypoxia? 

Simply put, hypoxia is when an aquatic ecosystem experiences a lack of oxygen. This is currently happening across the world in coastal and open ocean environments. This lack of oxygen has negative consequences for the aquatic life in the area. As the problem progresses, it is referred to as a “dead zone” as the marine life either dies or flees the ecosystem. The National Oceanic Service in the U.S. reports that although hypoxic zones can occur naturally, there is increasing concern about the areas that have been affected by human activities. According to the Nature Conservancy the Gulf of Mexico contains one of the largest dead zones in the world, an area around the size of the state of Connecticut. 

An easy parallel is to look at how hypoxia can affect humans. According to the Cleveland Clinic, if the human body goes too long with decreased oxygen supply to the brain there can be catastrophic consequences to the heart, lungs and brain. The rate of recovery depends on how long the body has been oxygen deprived. Consequently, depending on the amount of time aquatic life spends in these dead zones can affect their ability to recover. 

This scientific process identifies that as runoff from any number of human activities enters the water way, it causes an excess of nutrients that can cause an overgrowth of algae. The abundance, known as an algal bloom, consumes oxygen as it decomposes. This therefore depletes the oxygen needed for the aquatic life. 


What is Being Done About it? – Project Breathless

Project Breathless is a research project focused on the impacts of hypoxia. It brings together scientists, economists, communication scholars and students. The research team is focused on how these low oxygen levels can impact aquatic life. Notably, the fish, their habitats and food webs, which play into the ecosystem services and production of fisheries. Specifically, Project Breathless is studying several fish species in the Gulf of Mexico, Baltic Sea, and Lake Erie. The team is supported by a grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation to do this necessary work.


How Does This Affect You.. 

According to Project Breathless, the biggest concern is loss of fisheries production. This can affect citizens in a number of ways. Firstly, there is the object of diet. If you are a person who consumes fish, particularly seafood, your diet could be affected by the collapsing food chain. It has been recorded that this ecosystem provides almost 40 percent of all the seafood for the lower 48 states. As stated by Project Breathless, hypoxic exposure is harmful because it stunts the fish growth. This can lead to reduced commercial catches, and therefore lower availability of “affordable seafood.”

Secondly, there is recreation around water sources. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has reported that the biggest dead zones around the U.S. are around the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico. If you live around these areas, you might see a drop of tourism and recreation economies, specifically fisheries recreation. This can affect the aesthetic value of these ecosystems in biodiversity and quality of the environment. Mark Tercek, the President and CEO of the Nature Conservancy, wrote: “the dead zone poses a real threat to the Gulf’s seafood and tourism industry which generates more than 600,000 jobs and $9 billion in wages annually.” Most importantly, this loss of ecosystem services will cause negative consequences in these industries, as well as the American public in terms of income, food and abundant wildlife. 


How Do You Affect it and What Can You Do

Hypoxia and dead zones can happen naturally. However, it is agreed by scientists that the cause of the excessive amounts of these zones today are humans. Project Breathless credits urbanization, loss of land cover, fossil fuels, fertilizer run-off, and sewage that can seep into waterways. Therefore, the recent trends of warming water temperatures due to climate change only exacerbate these hypoxic events. For example, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is attributed to the historic floods in the Mississippi River region. These floods caused catastrophic run-off from farm land, lawns and sewage treatment plants. 

Despite the feeling of overwhelming dread that may be encompassing you, take comfort in knowing there are steps you can take to mitigate your impact. As per the recommendations of Project Breathless, some of these solutions are listed below:

  • Reducing emissions from the energy, transportation and food sectors
  • Revitalizing cities to be green and sustainable
  • Conserving natural landscapes
  • Using nature-based solutions for stormwater management
  • Using flood-proof wastewater infrastructure
  • Adopting sustainable agricultural practices

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