Oxygen-starved “dead zones” in U.S. waters growing, report warns

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The number of “dead zones” in U.S. coastal waters — where oxygen is so depleted that it can harm marine life — has soared 30-fold over the last half century, according to a new White House report that warns the phenomenon poses both economic and environmental hazards.

The report by a task force of federal, state and private scientists assembled by the White House said the rise of hypoxia in ocean waters can be traced mostly to pollution, such as wastewater and fertilizer runoff. The nutrient-rich pollutants fuel blooms of algae and other bacteria that suck oxygen out of the water, the researchers said.

“If current practices are continued, the expansion of hypoxia in coastal waters will continue and increase in severity, leading to further impacts on marine habitats, living resources, economies, and coastal communities,” the report says.

Since 1960, the number of hypoxia-related dead spots has grown 10-fold globally. But in U.S. waters, dead zones have grown 30-fold and now 300 eco-systems have been impacted from the Pacific to the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, according to the report.

Hypoxia has been found stretching along the Atlantic coastline from Florida’s Biscayne Bay north to Boston Harbor. One of the largest dead zones is off the Texas and Louisiana shorelines in the Gulf of Mexico, where farm runoff from the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers is suspected as the cause, the report said.

Another 20 dead zones have been found off California, Oregon, and Washington state, and two also exist in the Great Lakes, it said.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief Jane Lubenko and Nancy Sutley, the chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, plan to use an event Wednesday in San Francisco to outline the Obama administration’s new ocean policies to address threats such as dead zones, acidification of ocean waters, excessive fishing and warming waters.

President Barack Obama in July signed an executive order creating a new National Oceans Council to steer policy toward improving conditions in oceans, coastal water ways and the Great Lakes. The executive order set nine major policy objectives, ranging from creating an ecosystem-based management of U.S. waterways to better mapping and monitoring of ocean conditions.

The dead zones report calls for better coordination between federal and state agencies in controlling and reducing the sources of nutrient-rich pollution, and warns the failure to act could harm the economies of many coastal communities.

Joseph Romm, a senior fellow specializing in climate change at the liberal Center for American Progress, said the report provides “just another piece in a very dire puzzle” about the future of marine life.

“Dead zones are very serious business,” Romm said in an interview with the Center for Public Integrity. “I think marine life is under a far graver threat than most Americans understand.”

Romm said he fears the administration has failed to adequately mount a campaign against global warming, noting the White House report did prominently mention climate change, even as it cited other causes of hypoxia such as fertilizer runoff pollution and wastewater.

“I was a bit puzzled by that,” Romm said, noting that global warming is cited by scientists as contributing to the rapid growth of algae blooms believed to suck oxygen from ocean waters where dead zones form

“It is not possible to mount a serious effort to stop the destruction of the oceans, let alone reverse and start to heal them, if you don’t take on greenhouse gases seriously,” he said. “And the administration has failed to explain to the public what’s going on. I think there needs to be a serious education campaign.”

The ocean policy order signed by Obama on July 19 includes an education component to “improve our understanding and awareness of changing environmental conditions, trends, and their causes, and of human activities taking place in ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes waters.”

UPDATE — 9/7/10: In a separate report by the National Incident Command Joint Analysis Group, which is monitoring the BP oil spill area in the Gulf of Mexico, scientists disclosed on Tuesday that oxygen levels have dropped by about 20 percent from their long-term average, but the decreases are not enough to create additional dead zones. In fact, the report portrays the development as good news and evidence that microbes are consuming oxygen to consume the oil from the accident. Members of the group include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The group's data was collected from May 8 through August 9, 2010, and its full report can be viewed here.

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