In March 2017, an area in the western Arabian Sea off the coast of Oman – equivalent to the size of Mexico – was blanketed with green swirls extending down to India. It was a striking scene, visible from space. The slimy green mass in this outbreak was Noctiluca scintillans, a single-celled dinoflallegate, which “short-circuited” the marine food chain.

Normally, this species is not seen here but over the past two decades this winter bloom has become a regular phenomenon triggered by low-oxygen waters – dubbed as “dead zones.” A new review study notes that these zones are growing in area globally, as the oceans and seas – including the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal – are losing more oxygen and endangering marine life. In the open ocean, 2% of oxygen has been lost over the past 50 years and coastal dead zones have shot up more than tenfold since 1950, thanks to climate change and increasing nutrient pollution.

Large blooms of Noctiluca scintillans, a dinoflagellate not normally seen in the northwestern Arabian Sea, have become a regular occurrence in the winter caused by growing low-oxygen zones. This image shows the green swirls of Noctiluca scintillans captured on 3 February 2016 with the coast of Oman on the left, Iran and Pakistan on the top, and India on the right. Photo credit: MODIS-Aqua / NASA Ocean Color Image Gallery.

Why does this happen?

In the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal, there are two types of dead zones. In the open ocean, these zones are naturally present, known as oxygen-minimum zones, ranging in depth from the upper layers (100m-150m) to the lower boundaries (400m-1,000m), and arise mainly from poor vertical mixing, explains SWA Naqvi, a scientist and co-author of the paper, and formerly the director of the National Institute of Oceanography.

In shallower coastal waters, seasonal dead zones form when the summer southwest monsoon winds churn up deep nutrient-rich, oxygen-poor waters to the surface – a process known as upwelling. The surge in nutrients spurs the growth of phytoplankton, microscopic photosynthetic algae at the base of the marine food chain, as seen in blooms.

More snowmelt in the Himalayas has resulted in warmer land temperatures that have strengthened the summer monsoon winds. This leads to more intense upwelling in the western Arabian Sea, stimulating phytoplankton blooms in larger areas along the coastal waters of Somalia, Oman, and Yemen. Towards the end of the season when the phytoplankton dies and sinks, microorganisms that decompose them drain oxygen from the waters. In the long term, this can expand the natural oxygen-minimum zones both in area and in depth.

Will the lack of oxygen in the Arabian Sea affect the catch for these fishermen in the Mumbai coast? Photo credit: S. Gopikrishna Warrier.

Warmer waters, increasing sewage inflow

Another culprit: rising ocean temperatures. Oxygen is less soluble in warmer waters, which accounts for a 15% drop in total global loss of oxygen in the upper 1000 m of the ocean. The remaining loss may be because of warmer, less dense surface layers reducing the transport of surface oxygenated water into the ocean’s interior. Also, the metabolic rate of organisms is higher in warmer waters, increasing their demand for oxygen.

Besides, exploding population growth in cities such as Karachi and Mumbai means the coasts are bombarded with unprecedented levels of nitrogen and phosphorus discharged from agricultural runoff and human sewage on a daily basis. In the monsoon season, more fertilisers are washed into the Arabian Sea.

During the summer months, severe oxygen consumption in the Arabian Sea makes it the largest dead zone by area in the world, said Naqvi. “Winter blooms of Noctiluca are increasing annually with their extent more southerly than in the past,” observed, Helga do Rosario Gomes, a biological oceanographer at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, although there is no published data.

The map shows coastal sites where nutrients released from humans have worsened or caused oxygen declines to <2 mg O2 l-1 (<63µmol O2 l-1) (red dots) and ocean oxygen-minimum zones at 300 m of depth (blue shaded regions). Photo credit: Declining oxygen in the global ocean and coastal waters, Science

Effects of low-oxygen zones on marine life

Bottom-sea fish have evolved adaptations to low-oxygen, but when levels drop too low, they can suffocate and die. Even short-lived oxygen deprivation can stunt the growth of marine animals, impair reproduction, and increase susceptibility to disease.

While growth of phytoplankton means more food for fish, and fisheries may benefit from a higher concentration of bottom-sea fish in a confined area as they escape from the dead zones, over time this may lead to overfishing and is unsustainable.

If the already low oxygen levels on India’s west coast fall further, fisheries can be negatively impacted, said Naqvi. Fish can suffocate and die. In 2001, oxygen levels plunged substantially in the west coast and he found that landing of fish from the bottom of the sea had fallen drastically.

Blooms of unusual phytoplankton can adversely impact the food chain affecting fisheries. Noctiluca has been able to thrive in the low-oxygen waters because it has a dual-feeding advantage over the diatoms that originally formed the base of the food chain, explains Gomes. Not only does it voraciously consume other smaller phytoplankton, said Gomes, it also gets food from large populations of photosynthesising organisms living inside it that are more efficient at fixing carbon in low oxygen than other phytoplankton.

Fish being loaded for transport in Kerala. Photo credit: S. Gopikrishna Warrier.

What’s concerning is that only jellyfish, salps, and turtles prefer to eat Noctiluca but larger organisms do not have a taste for these, reducing their food availability. This may harm fisheries affecting 120 million people living on the coasts of the Arabian Sea.

Another issue is that some harmful algae produce toxins that can accumulate in marine life. “The most recent threat to fisheries on the west coast of India is ciguatoxins” caused by “algae associated with coral reefs and hence this problem applies to fish caught outside the immediate coastal zone,” said Anna Godhe, a marine ecologist at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. She points out that in October 2016, more than 100 people in Mangaluru fell ill after consuming kingfish and snapper.

Halting oxygen decline

Tackling the main causes such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions and nutrient discharges per person will be the key. In addition, establishing marine protected areas in well-oxygenated areas used by fish can protect their populations.

Artisanal fisheries provide livelihoods for millions of people on the coast. Photo credit: S. Gopikrishna Warrier.

Greater investment in sewage treatment facilities by coastal cities in the Arabian Sea will reduce much of the raw sewage dumped into the sea. Also, India needs more effective management of fertiliser application on crops, said Naqvi. Fertiliser consumption more than doubled from 1990 to 2015. He notes that “application of fertilisers by farmers may sometimes not be need-based” and stresses the importance of educating farmers on the optimal use of fertilisers including the harmful effects of overuse.

Greater monitoring of oxygen levels with real-time data will reveal which regions in the world are most vulnerable to low-oxygen and enable rapid intervention.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.