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Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone Traced Back to Wisconsin

June 22, 2009

Baton Rouge, LA – There is an area off the coast of Louisiana and Texas that is so starved for oxygen it's called a "dead zone," or, in scientific terminology, a "hypoxic zone," where fish die if they can't leave the area.

The summer zone in the Gulf of Mexico is expected to grow to its largest size ever by July, covering almost 10,000 square miles. Eugene Turner with Louisiana State University just completed his yearly forecast of the growth of the dead zone, and says it comes from nitrogen run-off originating in places such as Wisconsin, where large amounts of fertilizer are applied to crops.

"We call it a dead zone because anything that can flee, which are shrimp and fish that live on the bottom, will flee. And if they can't, if they get trapped up against the shore with this low oxygen, they really can't breathe, and they will die."

Turner says what is particularly disturbing is that the size of the hypoxic zone is growing, even though the amount of nitrogen coming in isn't.

"It's growing; the size of the hypoxic zone is getting a little larger for the same amount of nitrogen loading every year, and it's on track to do that again this year."

Many experts say the run-off of nitrogen from farms could be decreased by using continuous living cover such as alfalfa and winter rye. Several area groups, including the Land Stewardship Project, have teamed up to study how much nitrogen is taken up by winter cover crops. They will also measure the best fall seeding times, and the effect cover crops have on the following year's corn or soybeans.

Turner says this isn't the only hypoxic zone in the world; there are now more than 400. The Gulf of Mexico zone is the largest in the western Atlantic.

The report is at www.gulfhypoxia.net

Glen Gardner, Public News Service - WI