Researchers discover direct link between agricultural runoff and massive algal blooms in the sea

Scientists have found the first direct evidence linking large-scale coastal farming to massive blooms of marine algae that are potentially harmful to ocean life and fisheries.

Researchers from Stanford University's School of Earth Sciences made the discovery by analyzing satellite images of Mexico's Sea of Cortez, also known as the Gulf of California-a narrow, 700-mile-long stretch of the Pacific Ocean that separates the Mexican mainland from the Baja California Peninsula. Immortalized in the 1941 book Sea of Cortez, by writer John Steinbeck and marine biologist Edward Ricketts, the region remains a hotspot of marine biodiversity and one of Mexico's most important commercial fishing centers.

The results of the Stanford study will be presented at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco on Dec. 13.

Algal blooms

Algal blooms occur naturally when cold-water upwellings bring from the seafloor to the surface nutrients that stimulate the rapid reproduction and growth of microscopic algae, also known as phytoplankton. These events often benefit marine ecosystems by generating tons of algae that are consumed by larger organisms.

But several phytoplankton species produce harmful blooms, known as red or brown tides, which release toxins in the water that can poison mollusks and fish. Excessively large blooms can also overwhelm a marine ecosystem by creating oxygen-depleted "dead zones" in the ocean. Scientists have long suspected that many harmful blooms are fueled by fertilizer runoff from farming operations, which in many regions pour tons of excess nitrogen and other nutrients into rivers that eventually flow into coastal waters. However, some agricultural industry groups contend that there is not enough evidence to link farm runoff to red tides or dead zones.

Satellite imagery

To assess the impact of agriculture on marine algae, Stanford scientists turned their attenti

Contact: Mark Shwartz
Stanford University

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