Growing Number of Dead Zones and What We Can Do To Help

dead zone Murray darling

After marching with the children last month for the School Strike for Climate Change, I felt hopeful for our next generation because they are so passionate, and when you look deeper, we have incredible solutions – if we implement them…Watch 2040 if you need a reminder!

I also felt flat. Really flat. When researching the damage that we have done and are continuing to do it becomes depressing. But feeling flat doesn’t help and I do not share this information to depress us, but to urge us to choose differently. 

 It could be easier to turn the other way, as seems our politicians want to. 

Again, not helpful. 

Firstly, when looking at anything to make changes, we have to first acknowledge there is a problem. If you don’t realise eating McDonalds is making you feel overweight and tired, then you are likely to keep eating it. If we don’t realise there is a connection between how we are farming, and who we are farming, and the impact this is having on our environment, we probably will keep on doing what we are doing and demanding the farmers grow what we are eating.

Luckily, science is now confirming our practises are causing damage to our planet, and this includes killing our water ways; both our oceans and rivers.

Not that this is great news. It is really shit news. Cry-worthy news…. but because it is confirmed ( I mean it was already pretty obvious), that means we can address it. We can rewrite the stories ending. 

But first we need to know about it. Yes, even us as consumers. Not just the scientists. That can then help us change our actions to be part of the solution. And the thing is with marine environments, unless you have direct interaction with them, it can be easy to live ignorantly in the city without realising we are contributing to the problem.

Damage to our Marine Homes

Here in my home state of New South Wales, our Murray-Darling river system is showing alarming ecological signs to the point of collapse. Last year over a million native fishes perished, in an unprecedented die-off, because of the dire situation with the management of the water system. The mass death was devastating enough to get the attention that has been really required for many years previously but ignored. Now this year, with the drought continuing, as well as the manner in which we are using the water, we can predict what will happen again this year. 

Will this be enough to make significant changes? I hope so. 

The government is looking at relocating the fish that are there now to avoid them dying off again this year, this is perhaps a better outcome than death for the fish, but this is not a long-term solution to the problem. (I also can’t help look at the irony of in this case us wanting to save these fish, but then in other fisheries us taking them and killing them until total collapses….)

We must look further up the chain. I don’t pretend to be a scientist but the research they have found is that we are taking too much water from the Murray Darling to the farms – and science has confirmed dairy farming and cotton farming, some of the farms serviced by the Murray Darling - to be some of the most water demanding farming in the world. Then run-off, including fertiliser, pesticides and manure, from farms pollutes the water, and in turn, heats the water in the river system. This is on top of the high temperatures we already have in Australia. 

We are not alone in managing our rivers like this, nor are we alone in the catastrophic results of doing so. 

When water loses its ability to have any living beings in it and these zones are called dead zones, and a study in 2008 found there are 405 worldwide and this number is growing. Dead zones are caused by an increase in nutrients, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus that are found in fertilisers and run-off from animal farms, leech into the water and prompt an algal bloom. As the algae decomposes, the bacteria that feeds on it consumes oxygen in the water, creating areas of low oxygen. With low oxygen most marine animals can no longer survive. 

Some dead zones are permanent, some are temporary, some are seasonal. Fortunately, dead zones are reversible if their causes are reduced or eliminated. 

dead zone gulf of Mexico

Above; Dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico

There are small degrees of difference with how we are causing dead zones, but they are not so different – of course climate change is a huge issue and then it comes down to farming and industrial practises and their management. One example is where the Mississippi River empties, there is the world’s second biggest dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, which is twice the size of Sydney city, and is being predicted that this year it could be one of the largest in recorded history. The Mississippi River catches the run off of chemicals, faeces and blood from slaughter houses and factory farms, as well as pesticides from mono-crops of soy and corn that feed the animals in factory farms.

Back home in Australia it is not only the Murray Darling that is suffering. Intensive agriculture in the Great Barrier Reef catchment has resulted increase in warming of the waters and coral bleaching and die-off in the Great Barrier Reef.  The government has been buying back cattle farms in attempts to decrease the run-off ending up in the Reef, but it continues to increase, and studies show it is doubtful that current management actions are sufficient to reach Reef Plan targets.

It is not only how we farm on land that is killing our water ways, ironically it is also the way we now farm fish. And I am not talking about the obvious, of fishing to total collapse of fish populations. I am talking about aquaculture and its effects. 

Sick Salmon fish farms

Above; Salmon on Salmon Farm Near Scotland sick with lice and sores

A great example is what has happened in numerus places around the globe where they have salmon farms, particularly off the coast of Scotland and Chile and in Tasmania we are heading (or already there) that way too. They are pumped with antibiotics, that do not just stay in the fish in the farms, while huge amounts of waste in the form of faeces and uneaten food pellets end up on the seabed. In addition, there are additional pressures on any wild marine life posed by outbreaks of sea lice and farmed fish escaping into the wild. The temperatures around the farms are heated to try to control the lice outbreak and pumped full of more chemicals. And unfortunately these pollutants move with the tides of the oceans and end up affecting marine life and water quality not only near the farms.

Of course, it is not only what we eat that is affecting out marine environments. We see in third world countries the lack of processing done to chemicals in the fashion and industrial industry as they are dumped directly into water ways. The rivers in China and Bangladesh are prime examples of what happens, as they are completely dead – not only terrible for the animals but also the people who rely on the water from them.

It can no longer be out of sight out of mind. 

What to do to help these sad situations? 

Again, there is no point going to cry on our beds. What can we do!?  

  • If we buy from farms with more sustainable management, we can encourage the spread of that way of farming. Organic farming can help by maintaining soil health by rotating crops, using less fertilizer, less pesticides and having a mix of crops. So, head to the local farmers markets if you can and buy some organic vegetables! 

  •  We can avoid factory farmed fish. Why not avoid fish altogether?  You can also speak up against these farms. The resistance to the expansion of salmon farms along the Chilean coast has led to an important victory in the fight to protect a pristine fjord in southern Patagonia, home to indigenous groups and an array of stunning wildlife. We too can do this. We can speak out about how they are running their farms now – there has been push back even from Greenpeace and Sustainable Sea Food Guide around how Tasmania Salmon Farms have been causing damage to the environment. 

This is not about making the farmers wrong. It is about working together to protect what we have left. About education and about implementing the solutions we know. 

  • We can go plant-based and reduce the number of cows needing water (they drink a LOT) and feeding and reduce the waste they create that ends up leaking into our water ways. At the least we can avoid factory farmed products.

  • We can become conscious consumers of fashion and “things”. Buy from companies with visibility and accountability of their impact on the environment. Buy less.

  • We also have to reduce climate change. Yes, climate change – the warming of our earth and our waters, will obviously make the issues worse. Hotter water, more dead zones. Hotter planet, more droughts. Less water.  The irony is our oceans health impacts climate change greatly. The oceans regulate the global climate; they mediate temperature and drive the weather, determining rainfall, droughts, and floods. They are the world’s largest store of carbon, where an estimated 83% of the global carbon cycle is circulated through marine waters.

    So we can do our part to be a voice for our home by reducing our own personal carbon emissions and voting for those in power to do the same on a larger scale.

  • Part of this will also be about bringing in laws to protect areas, like the Great Barrier Reef from coal mines, to make the Antarctic a protected environment, even better to expand marine protected areas across the globe.


There is no one solution. But I know I don’t want to see Dead Zones as common and acceptable as traffic jams. I feel sick seeing the sight of millions of fish dead. I also believe it to be a warning - a pretty loud one - so we can all do what we can to support our marine environments and urge those with more power to do more too.