Growing “Dead Zone” Off Oregon Coast Worries Scientists and Fisherman Alike

Graphic by Annabel Driussi for ODP

by Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

A growing hypoxic “dead zone” off the coast of Oregon has environmentalists and experts worried about the future of marine life in the region.

  • Low-oxygen levels in a 7,700-square-mile stretch of the ocean are now suffocating sea life, leaving a trail of death along the ocean floor.

Experts say that growing dead zones are a direct symptom of climate change, warming waters, and pollution and that there may be no end in sight.

Why This Matters: The “hypoxic season” has become a startling new climate trend as global temperatures rise. Warming temperatures have caused a significant acceleration in ocean stratification, a process by which warming layers of surface water fail to mix with colder waters beneath, preventing the dissemination of oxygen in marine ecosystems.

Now, hypoxic dead zones are appearing across the globe, and many are growing in size each year. For coastal communities that rely on fishing for income and trade, hypoxic zones can be devastating. Scientists are still researching the long-term impacts of dead zones, but there is one thing they know for sure: without swift action to reduce global temperature rise, these zones will continue to grow, and many may become permanent.

Highway to the Dead Zone: It’s one of the horsemen of climate change in the sea,” Oregon State University researcher Francis Chan told The Washington Post. “And that’s because the water that we get is lower in dissolved oxygen than it used to be.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) tracks hypoxic zones and notes that their onset comes earlier, and they move closer to fisheries and coasts each year. Experts fear that by late August, usually the peak of the hypoxic season, the 7,700-square-mile area will have grown much more significant, potentially breaking the record of 8,776 square miles set by the Gulf of Mexico hypoxic zone 2017.

We’re still trying to figure out how large this is going to be,” said Richard Feely, senior scientist at the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory of NOAA. “Right now, we’re anticipating there could be impacts on crabs and fish that live at the bottom.”

Chan says the key to monitoring and mitigating hypoxic zones is partnering with local communities. He’s joined forces with crab fishers to place sensors in crabbing gear that can collect data on oxygen levels and notify fishers of danger to their catch. “The partnership between commercial fishermen and these researchers is the easy solution to getting that data,” said second-generation Oregon fisherman Aaron Ashdown. “We’re out there, if not every day, so we get to see things that most other people don’t get to see.” This year’s 12-million-pound crab haul has been below the usual average of 17 million pounds.

Experts hope that climate mitigation will protect the long-term health of fisheries and coastal communities. “It’s concerning because if we’re starting to see it earlier, then we’re starting to see it impact more of the catch, more of the landings for that particular season,” said Tim Novotny, the spokesman for the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission.

And if that’s a trend that is going to continue, we need to know about it. The more data we can get from research, the better we are to be prepared and dealing with these sorts of events.”

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