The March meeting of the Gulf Coastal Plains & Ozarks LCC Advisory Council welcomed three new participants: the Southeast Partners in Amphibian and Repile Conservation, the Southeastern Bat Diversity Network, and the Gulf of Mexico Alliance. These new partners bring new opportunities and raise new ways of looking at the GCPOLCC landscape.
I have worked closely with the Gulf of Mexico Alliance since its formation and look forward to their participation on the GCPOLCC Advisory Council. The Gulf of Mexico Alliance is a partnership, initiated in 2004 by the states of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, to significantly increase regional collaboration and enhance the ecological and economic health of the Gulf of Mexico. The Alliance has identified six priority issues that are regionally significant and can be effectively addressed through increased collaboration. In addition to welcoming Phil Bass, the Gulf of Mexico Alliance Acting Director, the Advisory Council discussed several important issues for the Gulf of Mexico region.
An important part of the Advisory Council's discussion focused on the role of the Mississippi River within the Gulf Coastal Plains & Ozarks landscape. Not only is the Mississippi River the largest river system in the U.S., it is the dominant source of freshwater and nutrients to the Northern Gulf of Mexico. Prior to alterations to control flooding, the Mississippi River also replenished the Mississippi Delta and its rich system of coastal wetlands.
In addition to bringing critical freshwater and wetland-building sediments, the Mississippi River delivers nutrients (Nitrogen and Phosphorus) to the Gulf of Mexico. As a result of excess nutrient levels and seasonal water stratification (layering of warmer, fresh water on top of cooler, saline water), a hypoxic zone forms every summer off the coast of Louisiana and Texas.
Hypoxia occurs when waters are depleted of the dissolved oxygen available to organisms. Although hypoxia occurs in many locations, the hypoxic zone in the Northern Gulf of Mexico is the second largest on earth. Over the past 5 years, the average size of the Gulf hypoxic zone has been 17,000 square kilometers. The Gulf hypoxic zone not only kills less mobile animals such as mussels and crabs, but limits habitat availability for fish, shellfish, and other important species. Fishing in the Gulf is also impacted by the Gulf hypoxic zone, with vessels avoiding this 'dead zone'. Studies are currently underway to better understand both the ecological and economic impacts of the Gulf hypoxic zone.
The Gulf of Mexico Alliance, through the Nutrients & Nutrient Impacts Priority Issue Team, is also actively addressing the Gulf hypoxic zone through several initiatives such as state nutrient reduction strategies and increased technical outreach through the Nutrient Reduction Toolbox. The Nutrients Team also works closely with the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Nutrient Reduction Task Force (often referred to as the Hypoxia Task Force). The Hypoxia Task Force was formed in 1997 to better understand and collectively address the Gulf hypoxic zone. It consists of state and federal members and is organized into 3 sub-basin committees. The Hypoxia Task Force works to implement an Action Plan towards 3 goals, including reducing the 5-year average size of the Gulf hypoxic zone to less than 5,000 square kilometers. The U.S. Geological Survey has also been instrumental in the work of the Hypoxia Task Force, including the development of the SPARROW model. SPARROW is an important tool that can be used to prioritize watersheds that contribute the highest load of nutrients to the Mississippi River and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico. The work of all these organizations has provided a framework to prioritize and effectively address nutrient reduction actions. For example, the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative, led by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, is working with agricultural producers in selected watersheds to voluntarily implement nutrient reduction conservation practices.
The goals of implementing conservation practices that reduce excess nutrient levels and improve water quality are also well-known strategies for the conservation of aquatic communities and the wildlife, such as migratory birds, that depend on healthy aquatic ecosystems. I look forward to helping to identify opportunities where partnerships focused on addressing Gulf hypoxia and partnerships focused on habitat conservation along the Mississippi River can work together through the GCPOLCC.