Study to explore new low-oxygen zones impacting the nation's richest fisheries

November 2, 2023

More than $1.4 million has been awarded to the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) to study a newly recognized form of coastal hypoxia—or low-oxygen zones—found on the West Florida Shelf, home to one of the nation’s most diverse and productive fisheries.

The study will be led by Horn Point Laboratory Professor Ming Li, along with Professors Patricia Glibert and Elizabeth North, and Cynthia Heil, senior scientist and director of Mote Marine Laboratory’s Red Tide Institute in Florida. Their research is part of $20.1 million the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently announced to study harmful algal blooms (HABs) and hypoxia research projects and monitoring activities throughout U.S. coastal and Great Lakes waters. 

Professors Ming Li and Patricia Glibert will work with Elizabeth North (unavailable for photo) to study a newly recognized form of coastal hypoxia. (Photo courtesy Carin Starr)

Li and his team’s research will focus on a newly recognized form of hypoxia that is different from eutrophication, or nutrient-driven areas of low-oxygen found in the Chesapeake Bay and northern Gulf of Mexico, or upwelling-induced hypoxia found on the West Coast.

“We hypothesize this hypoxia it is related to warming waters, reduced solubility and stronger stratification due to changing climate as well as harmful algal blooms,” said Li. “We think this is a harbinger of emerging hypoxia in coastal oceans that are usually considered not to be at risk of hypoxia but will become so due to climate change and the capability of HAB species to bloom in regions without much nutrients.”

A recent analysis of water quality data on the West Florida Shelf revealed that hypoxia was present in five of the 16 years examined and was likely related to large harmful algal blooms of Karenia brevis that were sustained throughout summer. While much is unknown about the mechanisms driving the emerging hypoxia, there is little doubt that the combination of hypoxia, toxic K. brevis blooms, and warming will multiply the stress and pressure on marine species.

While data will be gathered in Florida, the team’s science may have larger scale impact for studying other coastal waters rich with marine life to help predict the emergence of this newly formed multi-stressor, the combination of hypoxia, harmful algal blooms, and warming waters.

The overarching goal of this project is to understand the mechanisms driving this new type of hypoxia and determine whether climate change will influence hypoxia formation on nutrient-poor continental shelves. The development of harmful algal bloom models will facilitate hypoxia prediction and  how multi-stressors (especially, hypoxia, harmful algal blooms, and warming) affect key fish species, particularly in important fishery habitat areas and marine protected areas.