Man-made pollution is spreading a growing number of suffocating dead zones across the world's seas with disastrous consequences for marine life, scientists have warned.
The experts say the hundreds of regions of critically low oxygen now affect a combined area the size of New Zealand, and that they pose as great a threat to life in the world's oceans as overfishing and habitat loss.
The number of such seabed zones - caused when massive algal blooms feeding off pollutants such as fertiliser die and decay - has boomed in the last decade. There were some 405 recorded in coastal waters worldwide in 2007, up from 305 in 1995 and 162 in the 1980s.
Robert Diaz, an oceans expert at the US Virginia Institute of Marine Science, College of William and Mary, at Gloucester Point, said: "Dead zones were once rare. Now they're commonplace. There are more of them in more places."
Marine bacteria feed on the algae in the blooms after it has died and sunk to the bottom, and in doing so they use up all of the oxygen dissolved in the water. The resulting 'hypoxic' seabed zones can asphyxiate swathes of bottom dwelling organisms such as clams and worms, and disrupt fish populations.
Diaz and his colleague, Rutger Rosenberg of the department of marine ecology at the University of Gothenburg, call for more careful use of fertilisers to address the problem.
Writing in the journal Science, the researchers say the dead zones must be viewed as one of the "major global environmental problems". They say: "There is no other variable of such ecological importance to coastal marine ecosystems that has changed so drastically over such a short time."