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Lisa Suatoni

Lisa Suatoni

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Alexandra Adams

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Sarah Chasis

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Lisa Speer

Director, International Oceans Program

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THE LOCATION: Gulf of Mexico

THE STORY: Fishing in a Dead Zone

Donny Waters fishes in the Gulf of Mexico for red snapper, which eat shrimp, crab and other shelled creatures that could fare poorly as seawater becomes more acidic. As carbon dioxide emissions rise from the burning of fossil fuels, our nation's seas are growing more acidic.

Donny Waters with his catch of red snapper.

Photo: Donna Mackey Donny Waters with his catch of red snapper.

For Waters, the changing ocean chemistry definitely has his attention. Unfortunately, not everyone has tuned in yet. In the Gulf of Mexico and eastern Florida, the seafood industry generates $10 billion in annual sales, but right now there's a lack of basic information needed to assess the threat of ocean acidification.

"Please don't ignore the scientists. Please spend a little bit of money to find out the truth," Waters pleads. "The last thing we need is to have our recovery threatened by something we didn't see coming."

Survival of the Fittest

Some creatures will do just fine in more acidic seas. Others will struggle or die. In laboratory studies, tiny sea butterflies have dissolved, baby oysters have died, sea urchins have grown deformed, fish have become confused, and krill have failed to reproduce. If acidification harms species that are important to the Gulf's food web, the effect could jeopardize the region's seafood industry, which is not only vital locally, but nationally as well.

But the harm may not end there. Tourism could also suffer. Florida and Texas rank among the top five destinations in the nation for Americans who swim, fish, dive and enjoy coastal resources like beaches and wetlands. Healthy ocean resources are an integral part of the Gulf Coast economy.


Nutrient pollution from America's breadbasket has created a "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico, larger than some U.S. states. Once these excess nutrients reach the ocean, they fuel algae blooms that add to fossil fuel emissions, increasing acidity.

Scientists believe the combination of this pollution and global fossil fuel emissions is causing the region's waters to become more acidic faster than expected. The double-dose of carbon dioxide creates a one-two punch, leading to more damage than either problem would cause on its own.

Coral Sensitivity

Corals, which provide an important habitat for the Gulf of Mexico's valuable reef fisheries, show that they are particularly sensitive to ocean acidification in lab studies.

Dead Zone

Pollution from fertilizers used in the Mississippi River Basin cause the second largest dead zone in the world. The excess algae sink, decay and contribute to local acidity.

Acidification Hotspot

Credit: Illustrations of sea life © B. Guild Gillespie / www.chartingnature.com


illustration of ocean pink shrimp

Credit: Illustration © B. Guild Gillespie /

The Gulf of Mexico seafood industry at a glance:

The Gulf of Mexico tourism industry at a glance:

  • 620,000+ jobs created by tourism and recreation
  • $8.3 billion to $32.4 billion in annual economic value for water-based recreational activities
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