Scientists researching the causes and impacts of the dead zone in the northern Gulf of Mexico have been awarded more than $2.4 million for the first year of an anticipated $12 million multi-year NOAA research investment. A total of five projects are funded through NOAA's Northern Gulf of Mexico Ecosystems and Hypoxia Assessment Program which supports coastal science research in support of the interagency Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force's Action Plan.
The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is caused by excessive nutrient runoff which stimulates an overgrowth of algae that sinks, decomposes, and consumes dissolved oxygen that is necessary to sustain valuable marine resources, and results in hypoxic, or low oxygen conditions. Although some dead zones occur naturally, human activities such as agriculture and other land use practices have greatly increased the frequency and severity of their occurrence in recent decades.
The Gulf of Mexico dead zone particularly threatens valuable commercial and recreational Gulf fisheries that generate about $2.8 billion annually. In 2009, the dead zone measured 3,000 square miles which was smaller than in past years but more severe, both in how low the oxygen levels got, and how far up from the bottom the hypoxic waters extended.
"We have sufficient scientific understanding to take action now to address the dead zone problem in the northern Gulf of Mexico," said Robert Magnien, director of NOAA's Center for Sponsored Coastal Ocean Research. "However, as we have worked to reduce damaging hypoxic zones in complex ecosystems, additional scientific questions have emerged which will be addressed by these new projects. We need to answer these questions, including when, where and how hypoxia develops at finer temporal and spatial scales and how this hypoxia affects Gulf fisheries in order to refine management and mitigation strategies for affected communities."
Scientists from two of the projects will collaborate closely to define more precisely when, where, and how hypoxia develops in response to nutrient loads and other factors. They will also develop forecasts to allow coastal managers and fishermen to know the size of the dead zone and where it will form up to six months ahead of time.
Three other research teams will address the impacts of Gulf of Mexico hypoxia on economically important Gulf fish populations including shrimp, Atlantic Croaker, Gulf menhaden, bay anchovy, Atlantic bumper and Spanish Bumper.
"These projects address high priority research needs identified by an expert panel advising the President's Ocean Policy Task Force on its management of the northern Gulf of Mexico dead zone," said Paul Sandifer, Ph.D., NOAA senior science advisor. "This research will position us well to review our interagency management strategies in five years while we continue to implement nutrient reduction practices in the interim."
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