Hypoxia can start when fertilizer or sewage spills into coastal waters, carrying nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients. Often fueled by warm temperatures and a lack of circulation, this nutrient rush can cause algae blooms. When the algae dies, it sinks to the bottom, where it is consumed by bacteria ?along with dissolved oxygen. This is what happened in Narragansett Bay in the summer of 2001 and again in the summer of 2003.
Mussels, however, can help control nutrient overload and hypoxia by consuming phytoplankton, which reduces bottom-dwelling bacteria. "When we lose mussels, we may be losing the ability to prevent future dead zones from forming," Altieri said. "So these sorts of extinctions may trigger a downward spiral, with coastal zones less able to handle environmental degradation."
According to a 2004 United Nations Environment Program report, the number of areas hit by hypoxia worldwide has doubled since 1990. "Dead zones" can be found along the east coast of the United States, in the seas of Europe, as well off Australia, Brazil, and Japan. One of the biggest "dead zones" is in the Gulf of Mexico, where it has grown to an area as big as New Jersey.
Altieri and Witman said lessons from Narragansett Bay could be applied to other "dead zones."
"When you lose a foundation species such as mussels ?which filter water and provide food and habitat for other organisms ?you see a large and lasting effect on the ecosystem," Witman said. Added Altieri: "We've already seen this in Chesapeake Bay and other coastal estuaries, where loss of filter-feeding oysters has led to runaway effects of pollution and hypoxia and prevented restoration of these shellfish."