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Hypoxia and Nutrient Pollution Accomplishments

NCCOS has been funding Hypoxia research (waters with too little oxygen to support most marine life, or “dead zones”) for nearly 25 years. The goal of CSCOR hypoxia research programs are to provide timely and actionable scientific results for use by natural resource managers in an effort to restore and protect coastal ecosystems. The main accomplishments include:

Scientific Basis for Adaptive Management of Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia

Management actions strategies to reduce the size of the dead zone in the northern Gulf of Mexico are developed through the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force (Hypoxia Task Force, HTF). NOAA supported research during the 1990’s provided the foundation for an Integrated Assessment completed in 2000 that examined the distribution, dynamics and causes of the hypoxic zone. This scientific assessment provided the basis for the development of the Hypoxia Task Force’s 2001 Action Plan to reduce, mitigate, and control the hypoxic zone. NCCOS has met many of the science needs outlined in the 2000 Integrated Assessment and 2001 Action Plan through its Gulf of Mexico Ecosystems & Hypoxia Assessment (NGOMEX) program. Accomplishments from the NGOMEX program, including model development, forecasting, and monitoring research that is used to advance understanding of the causes and impacts of the hypoxic zone form the basis for scientific reassessments of the HTF Action Plan (e.g. the 2008 Gulf Hypoxia Action Plan). More information.

Quantifying the Impacts of Hypoxia to Living Resources

Understanding the impacts of hypoxia on living resources is an important focus of NCCOS-funded research in the Gulf of Mexico and other U.S. coastal waters. Although questions remain, this research has found the displacement of shrimp and fish from important habitat in the Gulf of Mexico as well as displacement and reductions in growth of fish from Delaware Inland Bays. Research on plankton, which forms the basis of the food chain, in Lake Erie, Chesapeake Bay, and the Gulf of Mexico, has found alterations to the relationship between plankton and predators that rely on them for food. Other NCCOS-funded scientists have found sub-lethal impacts to reproduction in fish using new molecular techniques, applied economic models to assess the socioeconomics of hypoxia impacts, and found reduced growth in shrimp exposed to hypoxia. An understanding of the impacts of hypoxia is critical to the development of effective management strategies. More information.

Model Development and Forecasting the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico

NCCOS has funded the development of several Gulf of Mexico models evaluating the causes of the Gulf of Mexico dead zone. These models in addition to others developed by EPA have been used to determine the percent reduction in nutrient loads (45% reduction in both nitrogen and phosphorus) needed to reduce the size of the dead zone to the HTF mitigation goal (5,000 km2). Since 2003, several of these models have forecasted the size of the dead zone in the Northern Gulf of Mexico. This prediction helps managers, policy makers, and the public better understand the relationship between Mississippi River nutrient loading and the magnitude of the dead zone. More information.

Measuring the Size of the Dead Zone

Every July since 1985, Nancy Rabalais of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON) with funding support from NOAA (COP, NCCOS), has mapped the size of the dead zone. Monitoring the size and geographic coordinates of the dead zone provide critical information both for measuring effectiveness of management strategies to reduce it but also as input to models being developed to explain the causes and forecast its ebb and flow over the course of the season. More information.

Modeling and Forecasting Hypoxia in the rest of U.S. Coastal Waters

The number of areas in coastal waters with dead zones has greatly increased since the 1960s. Four hundred systems worldwide, including 166 in US waters, now have documented dead zones. A review paper (SCIENCE Aug. 15, 2008) by NCCOS Coastal Hypoxia Research Program (CHRP)-funded researcher Robert Diaz of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and Rutger Rosenberg of the University of Gothenburg, attributes this dramatic trend to increasing nutrient pollution and the burning of fossil fuels.

NCCOS-funded projects include hypoxia model development for Chesapeake Bay/Delaware Inland Bays, Narragansett Bay, and Green Bay, and one major watershed hypoxia project for Atlantic and Gulf coast estuaries. The project scientists are working closely with coastal resource managers to cater the model outcomes to information needed for coastal zone and nutrient management decisions. More information on the Coastal Hypoxia Research Program (CHRP).