We conducted a statistical analysis to discern the relative strengths of the loading of various forms of nitrogen, phosphorus, dissolved silicate and their molar ratios on the variance in the size of the summertime low oxygen zone found off the Mississippi River, northern Gulf of Mexico. A stable statistical model that included Year and riverine nitrate+nitrite loading for the 2 months prior to the measurement of hypoxic zone size described 82% of its variation in size from 1978 to 2004. The usefulness of the term Year is consistent with the documented increase in carbon stored in sediments after the 1970s, which is when the hypoxic zone is predicted to have become a regular feature on the shelf and to have expanded westward. The increased carbon storage is anticipated to cause a sedimentary respiratory demand influencing the size of the zone, and whose temporal influence is cumulative and transcends the annual variations in nitrogen loading. The variable Year is negatively correlated with the TN:TP ratio in a way that suggests N, not P, has become more important as a factor limiting phytoplankton growth in the last 20 years. Nitrogen, in particular nitrate+nitrite, and not phosphorus, dissolved silicate, or their molar ratios, appears to be the major driving factor influencing the size of the hypoxic zone on this shelf. This conclusion is consistent with cross-system analyses that conclude that the TN:TP ratio in the Mississippi River, currently fluctuating around 20:1, is indicative of nitrogen, not phosphorus, limitation of phytoplankton growth. Nutrient management that places stronger emphasis on reducing nitrogen loading as compared to phosphorus loading, is justified.