Larger-than-Predicted Gulf Dead Zone Signals Continued Failure to Stem Excess Nitrogen Runoff

Statement by Rebecca Boehm, Union of Concerned Scientists

Published Aug 3, 2021

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) today released the annual measurement of the Gulf of Mexico “dead zone,” a low oxygen area caused in large part by nitrogen runoff from Midwestern farms. The dead zone kills fish, disrupts fisheries and damages marine habitats, at an average annual cost of $2.4 billion, according to an analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

According to NOAA, the 2021 dead zone is approximately 6,334 square miles, the size of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie combined, or 10 times the size of New Orleans’ Lake Pontchartrain. The 2021 dead zone is larger than NOAA initially forecasted in June.

Below is a statement by Rebecca Boehm, an economist with the UCS Food and Environment Program.

“The dead zone’s impact extends well beyond 6,334 square miles in the Gulf of Mexico. It harms fishers and shrimpers trying to make a living; communities that rely on healthy Gulf waters for their livelihoods and cultural traditions; and restaurants that provide jobs and feed people from across the country the Gulf’s distinctive cuisine.

“The dead zone also extends upstream, where nitrogen runoff is contaminating water in Midwestern communities and saddling small rural communities with huge cleanup costs.

“Without a significant, concentrated effort to reduce nitrogen runoff from farms and livestock operations, Gulf Coast communities will continue to bear the costs of the dead zone. The dead zone has not meaningfully shrunk in the last 30 years, and we are no closer to the goals set by the Hypoxia Task Force. Policymakers need to rethink their strategy, or we will find ourselves back here next year with the same bad news. Legislation like the Agriculture Resilience Act offers farmers the tools to build healthy soil that holds more water and keeps nutrients from washing off farms into waterways that feed into the Gulf of Mexico.”