Last Modified: Saturday, July 30, 2016 2:50 PM
NEW ORLEANS -- Engine troubles aboard a federal research ship have forced the cancellation of this year's survey of the low-oxygen "dead zone" that forms each summer in the Gulf of Mexico.
It's the first time in 27 years that the mapping cruise has been canceled. The project began in 1985.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said in a news release Friday that no other ships were available to do the survey.
The Nancy Foster is one of 16 research ships in the federal agency's fleet. It and one other ship are docked for unscheduled repairs, and two more are sidelined for scheduled maintenance, a NOAA spokesman said.
Nola.com The Times-Picayune reports that the cruise was expected to determine whether researchers were accurate in June in estimating that this year's low oxygen area in the Gulf of Mexico would cover 5,898 to 6,824 square miles. That's the size of Connecticut and a bit larger than the 2015 area of hypoxia.
The low-oxygen area forms after nutrient-rich Mississippi River water feeds algae blooms in the Gulf of Mexico. The algae die, sink and rot. The decomposition uses up oxygen, starting from the sea floor.
Fish tend to avoid low-oxygen areas. Organisms that live in the bottom sediment are killed.
This would have been the first time that Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium scientist Nancy Rabalais and her team of hypoxia researchers were to use a NOAA ship for the cruise.
The federal agency made the ship's use a condition of continued funding of the mapping project.
The annual cruise is conducted through a partnership of the federal agency, the Northern Gulf Institute and marine consortium.
"Hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico is a real threat to the ecosystem and all that rely on it," Rabalais said. "We have to continue to focus on nutrient reductions if we are to have healthy and sustainable fisheries.
Matt Rota, senior policy director for Gulf Restoration Network, a New Orleans environmental group, blasted the cancellation of the cruise.
"This is yet another example of how state and federal agencies do not prioritize cleaning up the dead zone," Rota said in a statement. "Requiring researchers to use NOAA boats has jeopardized long-term measurements of toxic pollution in our Gulf."