John Kerry's Dead Zone Warning: 'Nothing Lives There'

  • Dead zones, caused by pollution, are appearing all over the world due to human activities. Overfishing is also a major issue and is causing a decline in wildlife populations.
  • John Kerry, the U.S. special presidential envoy for climate, is set to take part in the Our Ocean Conference in Panama, which looks to bring threats facing the world's oceans to the fore.
  • The Our Ocean Conference will focus on sustainable tourism, ecological connectivity and solutions to marine pollution.
  • Kerry says to make a difference, more people need to be engaged and empowered to act. Leadership is needed to pull us back from the brink.

"The ocean is life itself. That life is being threatened because of the very reckless and careless activities of human beings without thinking about the impact and without taking into account that it is a living organism, a living system. And given the wrong inputs that system can be killed."

So says U.S. special presidential envoy for climate John Kerry. He is currently at the Our Ocean Conference in Panama, which aims to bring threats facing the world's oceans to the fore. Speaking exclusively to Newsweek ahead of the conference, the former secretary of state warned the impacts we are now seing are right on our doorstep—and these include dead zones "where nothing lives."

As climate change worsens, dead zones are appearing all over the world's oceans. These dead zones emerge when there is a lack of oxygen in the water due to nitrate pollution, a phenomenon known as hypoxia. Nitrates are natural chemicals found in the air, soil and water. They are also common components of fertilizers. Nitrates are essential to plant and animal growth. When concentrations increase, they can boost the growth of aquatic plants and algae, leading to excessive uptake of dissolved oxygen. The impact of this can be devastating to ecosystems as well as harming human health.

Nitrates can fall into the water from the runoff of fertilized soil, landfills, wastewater and urban drainage. All of these can make their way into the oceans.

A lack of oxygen causes most marine life to die.

"There is a huge nitrate overload that robs the oxygen from the water. Therefore you have over 400 dead zones around the planet, where nothing lives," Kerry told Newsweek. "In our case, in the mouth of the Mississippi River, there is a huge zone. Nothing lives in there. And this all comes from construction facilities on land. Gas stations overflow, the rains flow out into the water. Plastic, microplastics, they all cause an incredible amount of pollution in the ocean, which it just can't handle."

John Kerry’s Dead Zone Warning
Illustration by Newsweek. John Kerry is warning Americans and the world about ocean dead zones. Getty/Newsweek

This dead zone at the mouth of the Mississippi river is located in the northern Gulf of Mexico. It varies in size, but can reach up to 7,000 square miles.

The largest dead zone in the world is in the lower portion of the Black Sea. It occurs naturally, rather than being human-inflicted. Oxygen is only found in the upper portion of the sea. Dead zones have also been identified in the U.S. in the Pacific Northwest and the Elizabeth River in Virginia Beach.

A 2022 study led by scientists at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science was the first to link hypoxia with the bloom of red tides across Florida's west coast. Red tides are harmful algae blooms that can kill fish, birds and other marine animals.

Dead zones can occur naturally, stemming from various biological and chemical factors. But human activities are likely exacerbating the problem, with nutrient pollution the main culprit.

Climate change is inflicting numerous problems on the world's oceans, and dead zones are just one of them. The ocean absorbs about 90 percent of the earth's warming temperatures. This causes a multitude of issues, including melting sea ice in the Arctic and rising sea levels.

"There is a massive amount of climate change impact [in the oceans] because the entire chemistry of the ocean is being changed as a consequence of the heating ocean. That's as well as the particulates from the pollution that is greenhouse gases," Kerry said.

"When greenhouse gases pollute, they go up in the atmosphere, they travel around the planet. When it rains, they fall into the ocean. And that massive increase of acidity is literally changing the chemistry of the ocean. So you'll see that coral reefs are changing, you'll see the fisheries are changing."

Mississippi River
This picture shows the distribution pattern of muddy fresh water from the Mississippi River as it flows into the Gulf of Mexico. Elen11/Getty

If the ocean is in bad health, life on earth will suffer. Roughly half of all oxygen on earth comes from the ocean.

"My biggest concern is that human activities on a global basis are threatening the ocean. It's an ecosystem. And that ecosystem is completely under assault," Kerry said.

Overfishing is also a major issue. Fishing brings billions of dollars to the U.S. economy but there are problems in keeping it sustainable. Commercial fishing is one of the main causes of declining wildlife populations in the oceans, the WWF previously reported.

"There are fishing vessels all over the world, many of them illegal and they engage in illegal unreported fishing in areas that you're not supposed to fish in," Kerry said. "They use implements for that fishing like drift nets, for instance, which are outlawed and they just strip-by the ocean. Two-thirds of what they pull up in their notes they throw away and stocks of fish are being seriously challenged around the planet as a consequence of that."

Fishing net and fishing vessel in ocean
A stock photo shows a fishing net and a fishing vessel in the background. John Kerry is concerned about the impact overfishing has on the world's oceans. mgokalp/Getty

Globally, around 34.2 percent of fisheries are overfished, data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) previously reported.

Overfishing can destroy marine habitats and ecosystems. If large numbers of fish are taken away from the habitat, food webs can become disrupted, causing a lack of prey for other marine species. The oceans' ecosystems are balanced delicately, and can alter dramatically if fish are taken from the oceans faster than they can reproduce.

"There are unknowns but there's also a massive amount of information that tells us we are recklessly treating the ocean with it with a kind of abandon that threatens our own lives and life itself."

So how can things change?

A survey reported by The Economist in 2021 showed that 83 percent of the general public is concerned about the ocean, with 26 percent describing themselves as very concerned.

But there is still a long way to go in getting people to care enough to incite meaningful change.

"Getting people engaged, it's the same challenge that you face with almost any issue politically today," Kerry said. "First of all, people don't like politics. It's understandable why. Secondly, a lot of people don't feel they have time. Thirdly, they don't feel like they have any power and ability to change things. I think that's a mistake. I think people individually do have power. But there's just a feeling of helplessness in many cases."

Between the war in Ukraine, gasoline prices, bills and "all the other things that people face on a daily basis," Kerry said it remains hard for people to feel empowered.

There do remain some who are "seized on the issue." Kerry says it is "typically young folk" that engage in behavior trying to make a difference to the world's oceans: "We need that and a lot more of it. But in the end it is really going to take populations at large to save us from ourselves to pull us back from the brink. It takes leadership."

Students protesting climate change
Students are pictured at the Global Strike For Future in 2019, the general strike for the planet launched by 16-year-old Greta Thunberg. Simona Granati - Corbis / Contributor

And while some politicians take this role responsibly, "some don't."

"There's no other way to put it," Kerry said. "Some politicians avoid the public that elects them. And they sort of forget who sent them where they've gone. Others steadily stay at it and work very, very hard to keep in touch and be leaders. You can't generalize. There's a lot of good people who work very hard. There are a lot of folks who unfortunately lose their sense of purpose."

Despite this, Kerry believes initiatives like the Our Ocean Conference are genuinely making a difference to the world's oceans. This year's event will focus on sustainable tourism, ecological connectivity and solutions to marine pollution.

"The value of the Oceans conference that we're having is [that] it's not a talk fest. It's not where people just come together and blab down at Panama. This is action-oriented, and it demands action."

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