Update: This article has been updated to include a statement from Tyson Foods.
According to new research funded by NOAA, and led by the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMC), 8,776 square miles of water in the northern Gulf of Mexico is in a state of hypoxia. This means that the water has so little oxygen that sea life becomes smaller, less fertile, or is forced to migrate because there's not enough oxygen for respiration—the equivalent of breathing.
While the Gulf of Mexico dead zone appears naturally on a seasonal basis, it's never been this bad before.
I spoke to Nancy Rabalais, who lead the LUMC survey of this dead zone. She said that even from her survey ship, there were noticeable symptoms of sea life struggling to breathe.
"When we're on the ship and oxygen is very low at the bottom, you see animals swimming at the surface that don't usually swim near the surface, like crabs and eels and shrimp," she said. "It means there's not enough oxygen at the bottom. We saw a lot of that behavior."
Why is this year's dead zone so bad? Research suggests the meat industry could be to blame.
A Mighty Earth, a project from the non-profit organization Center for International Policy, examined 2016 data from the Environmental Protection Agency and the US Geological Survey (USGA). It found that pollution by Tyson Foods food and meat processing facilities along the Mississippi River watershed, are the largest contributors to the Gulf of Mexico dead zone. Tyson Foods subsidies include Jimmy Dean and Hillshire Farm, and it's one of the meat suppliers to McDonald's.
The Mississippi River feeds into the Gulf of Mexico, so polluting the river with waste from fertilizer, food and meat processing facilities, and other human sources brings too much nitrogen to the Gulf of Mexico. An excess of nitrogen causes algal blooms—or the rapid accumulation of algae in an area. When this algae dies, its decomposition drains oxygen from the surrounding water. This creates the state of hypoxia.
We've known that human activities makes dead zones grow and threaten ocean ecosystems for decades. A multi-billion dollar economy also depends on a thriving Gulf ecosystem—the seafood industry in the Gulf region alone reels in almost $40 billion annually.
I corresponded with Tyson Foods Spoke Caroline Ahn via email and asked about Mighty Earth's research as it relates to Tyson Foods. She provided a statement on behalf of Tyson Foods.
"We don't agree with [Mighty Earth's] characterization of our company but share its interest in protecting the environment," she said. "That's why we publicly disclose our environmental efforts and recently announced that we're collaborating with the World Resources Institute to develop goals for improving our environmental footprint."
Meanwhile, Rabalais pointed out that bodies of water attached to the Mississippi River are also suffering from high nitrates and algal blooms. These are both consequences of fertilizer pollution. "It's not just a Gulf problem," she said. "It's a continuum of problems from the upper end of the Mississippi River out into the Gulf of Mexico."
NOAA has been monitoring the Gulf of Mexico dead zone since 1985 with the goal of shrinking it below 2000 square miles. It met this goal once in the year 2001, only to measure a 8,497 square mile dead zone the size of Massachusetts in 2002—the second largest dead zone up until this year.
Rabalais said that there have been decreases in the abundance and biodiversity of sea life in the northern Gulf of Mexico, but it's unclear if these effects will be permanent.
"People who live thousands and thousands of miles away don't understand that their activities and their lifestyles affect the Gulf," she said.
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