It’s not just oil spills: Our oceans are under more stress than they can handle


I saw on the news today that a new tropical storm is forming in the Gulf of Mexico. When you’re from New Orleans, that always grabs your attention. It looks like the Crescent City will be spared — models show the storm more likely drifting east toward Florida — but on the other hand it seems certain that one of these days another hurricane will bear down on Louisiana. And when it does, there’s a good chance it will be every bit as powerful as Katrina, maybe stronger. That’s because the water temperatures in the Gulf region — the key factor for determining how deadly a tropical storm becomes — have generally risen in recent years. And the likely cause is global warming.

Coincidentally, there’s a new report on Al Jazeera — which, odd as it sounds, is doing some of the best environmental reporting in North America right now. It highlights how pollution, overfishing, and climate change have created a crisis for the world’s oceans greater than humankind has seen before. And it includes particularly alarming information about the Gulf of Mexico. It notes:

A drumbeat of recent scientific studies emphases an increasingly alarming convergence of crises for Earth’s oceans. The amount of plastic floating in the Pacific Gyre — a massive swirling vortex of rubbish — has increased 100-fold in the past four decades, phytoplankton counts are dropping, over-fishing is causing dramatic decreases in fish populations, decreasing ocean salinity is intensifying weather extremes, and warming oceans are speeding up Antarctic melting.

The story devotes considerable attention to the crisis of “dead zones” in the Gulf:

The excessive use by industrial agriculture of chemical fertilizers containing phosphorus and nitrogen is the other key factor, since these chemicals encourage the increased development of algae — starving other marine life of oxygen.

The world’s second-largest and most heavily studied human-caused coastal dead zone is in the Gulf of Mexico, a zone caused by massive amounts of the aforementioned chemicals, along with other sources of nitrogen from animal feed, sewage treatment plants, and urban runoff from the Mississippi River flowing into the Gulf. “

All this pollution flows down and in the summer causes huge algae blooms,” Matt Rota, Science and Water Policy Director for the Gulf Restoration Network, told Al Jazeera. “These algae then die and sink to the bottom, where bacteria eat them and deplete the water of oxygen.  And the water can’t mix to get more oxygen into it, so sea life suffocates and dies if it’s unable to swim away.”

I want to add a couple of thoughts. For one thing, it adds even more urgency to our campaign to also address the nightmare of the massive Deepwater Horizon spill. The problems caused by the unchecked gusher of oil — depleted oyster beds, deformed fish and shrimp, major changes in microbiology — didn’t happen in a vacuum. They took place at a time when one of America’s most treasured natural resources was already under a full-blown assault. It makes the inadequate response to the BP catastrophe even more troubling.

But the message ties into our broader fight. One reason why we’ve called for the feds to take over the inadequate and ineffective Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality is that its failure to regulate polluters upstream has very real consequences for the Gulf. Beyond that, our addiction to oil and other fossil fuels has dire consequences not just for the Gulf but for all of the world’s oceans. Even small changes in temperature and chemical balance  can have large impacts on such a delicate ecology. This piece reminds us that while our fight with BP may not be over, it’s just one battle in a war for the survival of the world’s oceans — a war that is very much intertwined with the future of human life on this planet.

To read the al-Jazeera piece about oceans under stress, go to:

To see my May 21 blog post seeking a federal takeover of DEQ, please read:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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