NAIROBI, Kenya — The number of “dead zones” in the world’s oceans may have increased by a third in just two years, threatening fish stocks and the people who depend on them, the U.N. Environment Program said on Thursday.
Fertilizers, sewage, fossil fuel burning and other pollutants have led to a doubling in the number of oxygen-deficient coastal areas every decade since the 1960s.
Now experts estimate there are 200 dead zones, compared with 149 two years ago.
“Some successes are being scored but in other areas -- like sewage, nutrients from fertilizer run off, animal wastes and atmospheric pollution; sediment mobilization and marine litter -- the problems are intensifying,” UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said in a statement.
The damage is caused by explosive blooms of tiny plants known as phytoplankton, which die and sink to the bottom, and then are eaten by bacteria which use up the oxygen in the water. Those blooms are triggered by too many nutrients — particularly phosphorous and nitrogen.
The first dead zones were found in northern latitudes like the Chesapeake Bay on the U.S. East Coast and the Scandinavian fjords.
Today, the best known is in the Gulf of Mexico, where fertilizers and other algae-multiplying nutrients are dumped by the Mississippi River.
Newly observed dead zones include ones in:
- Archipelago Sea, Finland
- Fosu Lagoon, Ghana
- Pearl River Estuary and Changjiang River, China
- Mersey Estuary, United Kingdom
- Elefsis Bay, Greece
- Paracas Bay, Peru
- Mondego River, Portugal
- Montevideo Bay, Uruguay
- Western Indian Shelf.
The UNEP, which is based in Nairobi, said that experts warn “these areas are fast becoming major threats to fish stocks and thus to the people who depend upon fisheries for food and livelihoods.”
Slideshow: Ocean threats Fertilizer-based nitrogen runoff into rivers and the seas are expected to rise globally by 14 percent by 2030 when compared with the mid 1990s, UNEP stated.
The full list is expected to be published early next year, but the preliminary findings were released on Thursday at an international marine pollution conference in Beijing, China, that gathered delegates from more than 100 nations.
Coral reefs and pollution
The meeting also heard some good news from scientists studying the recovery rates of coral reefs damaged by bleaching in the late 1990s by high sea temperatures.
Coral reefs get bleached when warm water forces out tiny algae that live in the coral, providing nutrients and giving reefs their vivid colors. Without the algae, corals whiten and eventually die.
Slideshow: Sewage stress “The new studies indicate healthy ecosystems exposed to minimal contamination are likely to recover and survive better than those stressed by pollution, dredging and other human-made impacts,” Steiner said.
UNEP said the overall findings were given even more urgency by new modeling that shows up to 90 percent of the world’s tropical coasts may be developed by 2030.
“Climate change, and the need to build resilience into habitats and ecosystems so they can cope with the anticipated increase in temperatures likely to come, now represents a further urgent reason to act,” Steiner added
Thursday’s meeting came just over two weeks before the start of global warming talks under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change due to begin in Nairobi on Nov. 6.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.