'Dead zone' in Gulf of Mexico smaller than predicted this year, but still in top 3

NEW ORLEANS— The oxygen-poor "dead zone'' off the
Louisiana and Texas coasts isn't quite as big as predicted this
year, but it is still the third-largest ever mapped, a scientist
said Saturday.

Crabs, eels and other creatures usually found on the bottom of
the Gulf of Mexico are swimming in crowds on the surface because
there is too little oxygen in their usual habitat, said Nancy
Rabalais, chief scientist for northern Gulf hypoxia studies.

"We very often see swarms of crabs, mostly blue crabs and their
close relatives, swimming at the surface when the oxygen is low,''
she wrote in an e-mail from a research ship as it returned to
Cocodrie from its annual measurement trip.

Eels, which live in sediments 60 to 70 feet below the water
surface, are an even less common sight, she said.

The 7,900-square-mile area with almost no oxygen, a condition
called hypoxia, is about the size of Connecticut and Delaware
together. The Louisiana-Texas dead zone is the world's
second-largest hypoxic area, she said.

This year's is about 7.5 percent smaller than what Eugene
Turner, Rabalais' husband and a professor of oceanography and
coastal sciences at Louisiana State University, had predicted,
judging by nitrogen content in the Mississippi River watershed.

He had predicted it would be about 8,540 square miles, which
would have made it the largest measured in at least 22 years. More
storms than normal may have reduced hypoxia by keeping the waters
roiled, Rabalais said.

Hypoxia occurs when fresh water pouring in from the Mississippi
River floats above the heavier salt water in the Gulf. Algae die
and fall to the bottom, where their decay uses oxygen faster than
it is brought down from the surface. Eventually, the lower layer
holds too little oxygen for fish and other aquatic life.

Nitrogen, from sources including fertilizer, erosion and sewage,
speeds up the process by feeding algae.

The dead zone was larger in 2002 and 2001, when it covered 8,500
and 8,006 square miles respectively, and was almost as big in 1999.
Scientists want to reduce the zone to about 2,500 square miles.