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Altered Oceans: A Primeval Tide of Toxins

Monday, July 31, 2006


This week the LA Times brings us Altered Oceans, a five-part multimedia expose on the crisis in our seas, and the implications of being at a "tipping point" in marine history.

Part 1, A Primeval Tide of Toxins, opens with a descripition of the poisonous "fireweed" (Lyngbya majuscula), responsible for severe rashes and respiratory distress of watermen and scientists who've had contact with it:

When fishermen touched it, their skin broke out in searing welts. Their lips blistered and peeled. Their eyes burned and swelled shut. Water that splashed from their nets spread the inflammation to their legs and torsos.

"It comes up like little boils," said Randolph Van Dyk, a fisherman whose powerful legs are pocked with scars. "At nighttime, you can feel them burning. I tried everything to get rid of them. Nothing worked."

As the weed blanketed miles of the bay over the last decade, it stained fishing nets a dark purple and left them coated with a powdery residue. When fishermen tried to shake it off the webbing, their throats constricted and they gasped for air.

After one man bit a fishing line in two, his mouth and tongue swelled so badly that he couldn't eat solid food for a week. Others made an even more painful mistake, neglecting to wash the residue from their hands before relieving themselves over the sides of their boats.

This poisonous sludge is able to thrive because of the excessive nutrient loading from sewage effluent and agricultural runoff:

Industrial society is overdosing the oceans with basic nutrients — the nitrogen, carbon, iron and phosphorous compounds that curl out of smokestacks and tailpipes, wash into the sea from fertilized lawns and cropland, seep out of septic tanks and gush from sewer pipes.

Modern industry and agriculture produce more fixed nitrogen — fertilizer, essentially — than all natural processes on land. Millions of tons of carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide, produced by burning fossil fuels, enter the ocean every day.

Weiss, the author, forecasts that as overfishing and pollution burden the seafood industry, jellyfish will become a staple of our diet:

Jellyfish populations are growing because they can. The fish that used to compete with them for food have become scarce because of overfishing. The sea turtles that once preyed on them are nearly gone. And the plankton they love to eat are growing explosively.


Pauly, 60, predicts that future generations will see nothing odd or unappetizing about a plateful of these gelatinous blobs.

"My kids," Pauly said, "will tell their children: Eat your jellyfish."

Nancy Rabalais, of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, describes the effect of farm runoff from the Mississippi:

The cause of death is decaying algae. Fed by millions of tons of fertilizer, human and animal waste, and other farm runoff racing down the Mississippi River, tiny marine plants run riot, die and drift to the bottom. Bacteria then take over. In the process of breaking down the plant matter, they suck the oxygen out of seawater, leaving little or none for fish or other marine life.

Years ago, Rabalais popularized a term for this broad area off the Louisiana coast: the "dead zone." In fact, dead zones aren't really dead. They are teeming with life — most of it bacteria and other ancient creatures that evolved in an ocean without oxygen and that need little to survive.

The dead zone off Louisiana, the second largest after one in the Baltic Sea, is a testament to the unintended consequences of manufacturing nitrogen fertilizer on a giant scale to support American agriculture. The runoff from Midwestern farms is part of a slurry of wastewater that flows down the Mississippi, which drains 40% of the continental United States.

The same forces at work in the mouth of the Mississippi have helped create 150 dead zones around the world, including parts of the Chesapeake Bay and waters off the Oregon and Washington coasts.

Check out the Altered Oceans website for amazing photos, video, and other graphics, as well as the message board where you leave or read feedback on the series.

Great Lakes Radio Consortium's series, Pollution in the Heartland, looks at the impact of farming practices on the water supply of the Great Lakes region and what some people are doing about it.

Read Dead in the Water: an Environmental Working Group analysis of government and industry data which shows that reforms of wasteful federal farm programs could lead the way to restoration of America's most valuable fishery.

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