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Scientists: 2013 Gulf of Mexico "Dead Zone" potentially largest ever

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By Daniel Xu

Fishermen headed towards the Gulf of Mexico this summer might experience a lighter bite than usual, due to the phenomenon known as “dead zones.” Dead zones are low-oxygen waters caused by events such as algae die-offs, occurring near coasts and often a death warrant for the marine species living there. Scientists at the University of Michigan predict that the region will experience its largest dead zone this year, with high-end estimates placing the size of the oxygen-depleted waters at between 7,286 and 8,561 square miles. If the dead zone reaches the higher end of the estimate it would exceed the largest ever reported in the world, and be roughly the size of New Jersey.

This new and worrying prediction comes on the heels of last year’s near-record low dead zone. Due to drought conditions, 2012’s dead zone was the fourth smallest on record. Dead zones usually happen in high-nutrient waters that promote algae growth. As the algae dies, it sinks to the bottom of the ocean where bacteria can make a meal of it. Unfortunately, the bacteria also consumes large amounts of oxygen while eating the algae. Because of this, dead zones are most pronounced in deep, coastal waters.

Along with other marine life, fish and shellfish face a stark choice: leave or die. A large dead zone could spell disaster for commercial fishing or saltwater anglers. Commercial fishermen pump $629 million into the Gulf region annually and sport fisherman contribute even more. Three million anglers flock to the Gulf every year, spending upwards of $1 billion.