A team of ocean scientists from six continents have made an urgent call for a global system to track the loss of oxygen from parts of the ocean and coastal waters that cause dead zones where almost nothing can live.
Ocean warming caused mainly by the burning of fossil fuels is exacerbating the problem, experts say, with serious consequences for communities, fisheries and ecosystems around the world.
Fifty-seven scientists from 45 institutions in 22 countries have presented the urgent need for a global monitoring system, which they say could help protect ecosystems like coral reefs and fisheries around the world.
Low-oxygen or no-oxygen dead zones can last from day to month in so-called hypoxic events that can kill fish, plants and crustaceans.
Coastal events are usually caused by additional nutrients flowing into estuaries and exacerbated by warming waters.
There are hundreds of hypoxia zones along coastlines around the world, with some evidence that oxygen levels in parts of the open ocean are also falling.
Prof. Karin Limburg, of New York State University, is one of the scientists calling for a global ocean oxygen monitoring system to be set up under the UN.
There is an urgent need to document and predict hypoxic episodes and low oxygen hotspots in order to take precautions for aquaculture, establish precautionary measures for affected fishing, and monitor the well-being of important fish stocks, Limburg said. .
Without this understanding, we are in the dark about the impacts that have major economic-ecological implications.
Prof. Jodie Rummer, from James Cook University, is one co-author of an article that will appear Sunday in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science paving the way for the monitoring system.
Everything needs oxygen in the water. Most life in the ocean is not tolerant of hypoxia, Rummer said.
These problems are getting worse because we are not solving the problems of nutrient leakage and our waters are still heating up.
We still do not know the long-term implications of these problems affecting the fisheries and aquaculture that feed the human population.
Rummer is coordinating a new project with Unesco to look at the impacts of lower oxygen levels on world sharks.
There is evidence emerging, she said, that corals in the tropics are also at risk from low-oxygen events.
There are already a range of devices that take oxygen measurements in the ocean, including submarines, free-floating instruments and sensors.
But there needs to be more and the data are not open or standardized, scientists say, making global assessments and research more difficult at a time when the problem is becoming urgent.
Prof Marilaure Grgoire, from the University of Lige in Belgium, and lead author of the article, said: Currently, the quality and availability of oxygen data in international databases do not allow accurate estimates of long-term oxygen depletion.
One of the most popular areas with low oxygen levels is the vast area that now forms every summer in the Gulf of Mexico. which stretches from the mouth of the Mississippi River. The largest dead area was formed in 2017 at 23,000 square kilometers.
The addition of nutrients to coastal waters feeds oxygen-consuming bacteria, causing levels to drop. But warmer waters also increase the metabolic rate of living things, which means they need more oxygen to survive. Moreover, with increasing water temperatures, the amount of oxygen available decreases.
Australia has experienced many hypoxic events, caused by nutrients and pollution from degraded lands, roads and farms leading to estuaries after heavy rains.
Supplemental nutrients can cause an increase in bacteria in the water, removing oxygen. In some cases, fresh water forms a layer on the surface that stops the water from mixing, creating dead zones below.
Almost all living things in the oceans, lakes and waterways need oxygen, said Prof. Perran Cook, of Monash University in Melbourne.
What controls oxygen is temperature, said Cook, who was not one of the authors of the paper, but said he fully agreed with the need for a global monitoring system.
He said: “There is a very real concern that oxygen is depleting in our waters and this has negative effects on fish health and ecosystems.
In the same way that we invest in climate change monitoring to help us understand what is happening, it is really important to know that waters are changing because of human impact.
A study has found that waters in estuaries along more than 1,100 km of the New South Wales coastline were heated by more than 2C between 2007 and 2019.
He said areas north of New South Wales and southwest Victoria, such as Gippsland Lakes and the Anglesea River estuary, had seen hypoxic events, but the causes were not always the same. The Derwent River estuary areas in Tasmania also regularly experience hypoxia.
Aquatic ecologist Dr James Tweedley, of Murdoch University in Perth, has studied the effects of low oxygen on the estuary, including a quarterly event in 2010 at the Swan Canning estuary after a storm.
He said hypoxic events at the estuary could have serious aggravating effects because they were nurseries for crabs and fish and their larvae find it difficult to escape when oxygen levels fall.
We now have technology that can record what happens in the ocean, he said.
Having [a global system] it would be really valuable because it is essential for modeling climate change and global change. We need to understand this on a global scale.
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