A Drop of Torah
This week's Torah Portion, Va'era, recounts the beginning of the Ten Plagues, which afflicted Egypt before the Exodus. These are the plagues we recount during the Passover Seder. The Torah text tells us how the first plague, the plague of blood, occurred:
"And the Lord said to Moses: 'Say to Aaron: Take your rod, and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt, over their rivers, over their streams, and over their pools, and over all their ponds of water, that they may turn to blood; and there will be blood throughout all the land of Egypt.' And Moses and Aaron did so, as the Lord commanded, and he (Aaron) lifted up the rod, and smote the waters that were in the river, in the sight of Pharaoh, and in the sight of his servants, and all the waters that were in the river were turned to blood. And the fish that were in the river died, and the river became foul and the Egyptians could not drink water from the river, and the blood was throughout all the land of Egypt." Exodus 7:19-21
From a Red River to Red Tide
When I read the words, "the fish that were in the river died, and the river became foul," my mind went to the red tide bloom, which we regularly experience in Tampa Bay, where I live. In 2021, a red tide exacerbated by excess fertilizer, warmer waters, and an environmental disaster of 215 million gallons of contaminated water spilling into the Bay, killed millions of fish. In my county alone, over 700 tons of dead fish were removed from our local beaches. 700 TONS! But it's not just in Florida. The recent storms and flooding in California saw 22 million tons of raw sewage released into San Francisco Bay. This story is repeated somewhere in the world almost every day.
There are places in the marine environment where no life can live. These are called "Dead Zones" (hypoxic areas), where the water doesn't contain enough oxygen to sustain life. The process by which dead zones develop is called eutrophication. It occurs when there is an overabundance of nutrients, like phosphorus and nitrogen, in the water from fertilizers, agriculture runoff, manure from livestock, human sewage, stormwater runoff, ocean acidification, and warming water temperatures.
Hypoxic areas occur primarily in coastal areas with large concentrations of human development. Current data is challenging to find, but a study in 2011 identified 762 coastal areas impacted by eutrophication or hypoxia. The largest dead zone in the world is in the Gulf of Oman and covers about 63,700 square miles. The Dead Zone in the Baltic Sea covers about 27,027 square miles. And the Gulf of Mexico's dead zone covers approximately 6,952 square miles. By comparison, the plague of blood in Egypt was a drop in the bucket. The difference, however, is that the Plague of Blood was (according to our tradition) brought about by God, while humans have brought about the current state of dead zones around the world. Yes, there are some natural causes for hypoxia, but the vast majority result from human action or inaction, as the case may be.
Don't Harden Your Heart
It's worth noting that the text says when Pharoah saw the water turn to blood and all the fish had died, "Pharaoh's heart was hardened, and he did not listen to them (to Moses & Aaron) as the LORD had spoken. And Pharaoh turned, went into his house and paid no heed." Exodus 7:22
Pharoah hardened his heart, leading to the next plague and the next, until his ultimate downfall. So, if we know that there are 762 hypoxic dead zones around the world and do not take heed but go back to our homes as if nothing is happening, do we not commit the same sin as Pharoah? And if we do, how can we correct the "sin" and make a difference?
What You Can Do
The problem of global dead zones might seem too great for any individual to make a difference, and indeed it is. But if everyone would do something, each individual action could contribute to a more positive situation. What can we do? Here are a few options:
Stop fertilizing your yard.
OK, your grass may not be as green as you would like, but if the grass is always greener on the other side, what difference does it make if you fertilize or not? The difference will be made in the Ocean.
When it's available, always buy organic produce.
It's more expensive, but it's worth the extra dollar to help Repair the Sea.
Reduce your consumption of meat.
The urine and manure from hundreds of billions of livestock and poultry are among the most significant contributors to marine dead zones. More often than not, they run off into rivers and streams, leading to the Ocean. By reducing your consumption of meat, you will be helping to mitigate this pollution.
Reduce or eliminate your consumption of fish.
The best way to combat dead zones is to ensure a healthy marine ecosystem. Overfishing is depleting the Ocean of fish, and an ocean without fish is not the Ocean we know and certainly not the Ocean we need to survive.
It might seem like a lot and feel overwhelming, but as Rabbi Tarfon said in Pirkei Avot: "You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it."