Gulf Gems - Marine Conservation Institute

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Gulf Gems:
Treasured Places in Troubled Waters
“Protecting vital sources of renewal—unscathed
marshes, healthy reefs, and deep-sea gardens—will
provide hope for the future of the Gulf, and for all
of us.”
—Sylvia Earle
On The Cover: The Gulf of Mexico as seen from space, Credit NASA.
Inside Cover: Life in Madison Swanson, Credit NOAA.
Gulf Gems: Treasured Places in Troubled Waters
Katelin L. P. Shugart-Schmidt
Elizabeth O. Ruff
Michael Z. Gravitz
Suggested Citation:
Shugart-Schmidt, K. L. P., E. O. Ruff, and M. Z. Gravitz. 2014.
Gulf Gems: Treasured Places in Troubled Waters. 32 pp.
Marine Conservation Institute. Seattle, WA.
About Marine Conservation Institute
Marine Conservation Institute is a team of highlyexperienced marine scientists and environmental-policy
advocates dedicated to saving ocean life for us and future
generations. The organization’s goal is to help the world
create an urgently-needed worldwide system of strongly
protected areas—the Global Ocean Refuge System
(GLORES)—a strategic, cost-effective way to ensure the
future diversity and abundance of marine life. Founded in
1996, Marine Conservation Institute is a US-based nonprofit
organization with offices in Seattle, near San Francisco, and
in Washington DC.
We are deeply indebted to Thomas Shirley, Charles Fisher,
Erik Cordes, Harriet Nash, Tim Jones, and Sandra Brooke for
providing valuable insights and constructive
comments, and to Beth Pike for her mapping work,
Stacey Harter for providing images, Lance Morgan for his
thoughtful review, and Carolina La Rotta Dratva for the
design and layout. We would like to thank the Herbert W.
Hoover Foundation for supporting Marine Conservation
Institute on the Gulf Gems report and many other
important projects over the years.
For more information visit
Table Of Contents
Introduction ......................................................... 1
Key Terms ............................................................ 2
Pulley Ridge ......................................................... 3
Madison Swanson, Steamboat Lumps, & The Edges ..... 5
Big Bend .............................................................. 7
The Pinnacles ..................................................... 9
Map of the Gulf ................................................... 11
South Texas Banks .............................................. 13
West Florida Slope Lithoherms ............................. 15
Horseshoe Bank .................................................. 17
Florida Keys ......................................................... 19
Viosca Knolls ....................................................... 21
Florida Middle Grounds ...................................... 23
References ........................................................ 25
Image Credit: NOAA
Americans, by and large, have three different
images of the Gulf of Mexico. The first is of idyllic
white sand beaches and palm trees that line the
west coast of Florida and Alabama; the second is
of vast marshlands off the coast of Louisiana filled
with birds and other wildlife; and the last is of the
2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster with oil gushing
out of the underwater pipe and oiled birds and
turtles floating lifeless on the surface of the water.
These conflicting images, especially the last, have
thrust the pollution and health of the Gulf of
Mexico into the public consciousness in a way and
at a scale that has never happened before.
Significantly, the last image of the blowout
preventor spewing oil into the water column,
onto the surface of the water, and in the marshes
showed people that the Gulf is more than just a
collection of sparkling waves and beaches. These
events illustrated that the Gulf has depth and is
One way of mitigating or compensating for this
home to ecosystems as varied and dynamic as
long lasting damage is to protect comparable
wafting sea grass beds, coastal marshes, open
ecosystems in undamaged locations. But these
ocean spawning areas, and near-lightless coral
relatively undamaged places face threats besides
oil pollution, such as climate change, destructive
fishing methods, and water pollution that can be
The Deepwater Horizon spill damaged many rich,
controlled or moderated by other measures.
unique ecosystems of the Gulf. Unfortunately,
restoring quite a few of these sites to undamaged
Recognizing this, Marine Conservation Institute
condition will be difficult, if not impossible. Also,
wanted to highlight ten (out of hundreds) of the
the cumulative and long term effects of the oil
most spectacular areas found in the US region
and dispersants may not be fully known for many
of the Gulf of Mexico that remain undamaged
years. Sites that were deep underwater close to
by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill but could use
the outpouring of oil, coastal waters where oil
protection from other threats. The “Gulf Gems”
mats formed and sank, and marshes that were
we chose range in depth from just a few feet to
heavily coated with oil will take a very, very long
hundreds of feet, and contain hundreds of species
time to regain health, if ever.
which need clean water and protection from
extractive activities.
Key Terms
Our Gulf Gems span the breadth of the Gulf, from
Texas to Louisiana to the Florida Keys. While not
intended to represent the full span of important
ecosystems across the Gulf, they do showcase
some of its places that are still untouched
enough to contain incredible ecosystems worth
We believe that protecting sites is important,
whether from destructive bottom trawl fishing,
extractive oil and gas activities, or coastal
pollution from nutrients or sediments. In most
cases, there are several ways to protect each one
of our Gulf Gem sites, ranging from critical habitat
status designation under the Magnuson-Stevens
fishery law (e.g. Habitat Areas of Particular
Concern), to national marine sanctuary or
national monument status, or simply limitations
on nearby oil and gas exploration.
These suggestions are just that – initial ideas
that will require much more detailed analysis
and balancing. While we have tried to suggest
a specific enhanced protective status for each
Gulf Gem, we ask the reader to focus not so
much on that but on the wonderful places, rich
biodiversity, and unique ecosystems represented
in our selected Gulf Gems.
We hope that you will agree that our underwater
Gulf Gems are every bit as spectacular and
worthy of care as the beautiful beaches, bayous,
and bays with which most people are familiar.
Our aim is to inspire efforts to protect these
underwater places much as citizens around
the Gulf have worked to protect their marshes,
beaches, and bays.
Essential Fish Habitat (EFH): specific waters
and substrates that are necessary to fish life
Habitat Areas of Particular Concern
(HAPC): subgroups of rare EFH that are of
ecological importance and are especially
susceptible to anthropogenic damage
National Marine Sanctuary (NMS): areas
protected under the U.S. National Marine
Sanctuary Act that do not exclude extractive
uses, however, activities that take place
within these allocated areas are regulated by
the Secretary of Commerce
Marine Protected Area (MPA): a clearly
defined marine space recognized and
managed by law or other effective means to
protect and conserve local flora and fauna
as well as historical and cultural features; a
no-take zone refers to a specific designation
of MPA where extractive uses of any kind are
strictly and totally prohibited
Aquatic Preserve: specific area
implemented for the protection of localized
marine habitats and organisms
Mesophotic Coral Ecosystem (MCE): lightdependent coral communities that occur in
the deepest half of the photic (light-receiving)
zone in tropical or sub-tropical waters
Lithoherms: short for “lithified bioherm”; a
deep-water carbonate mound
Remotely Operated underwater Vehicle
(ROV): unoccupied, highly maneuverable
vessels used in deep water exploration
Bureau of Ocean Energy Management
(BOEM): U.S. agency that manages oil, gas,
and renewable energy-related activities
including resource evaluation, planning, and
Image Credit: Pete Markham,
Pulley Ridge
In the zone between where SCUBA divers delight
in sunlit waters and where Remote Operated
Vehicles explore the darkest depths, one coral
reef lies right at the edge of what is possible. When
descending two hundred feet under the surface
of the ocean, over a hundred pounds of pressure
fall on each square inch of a diver’s body and
special mixes of breathing gas are required as a
regular oxygen mix becomes toxic. But if we took
the plunge, we would arrive at Pulley Ridge – the
deepest known photosynthetic coral reef off of
the continental United States.
Reef-building (or hermatypic) corals are rarely
found below 150 feet, but Pulley Ridge is a riot in
color, dominated by blue-purple and tan-brown
stony corals and dotted with neon-bright splashes
of orange, yellow, and green. A particularly striking
macro algae is also prevalent along the substrate,
giving the ridge the appearance of being covered
by fields of green lettuce. While fish are not
particularly dense along the ridge, it is inhabited
by more than 60 species, including commercially
important species such as red grouper. Many of
the species found at Pulley Ridge are also found
in much shallower reef ecosystems, but these
shallower areas face greater threats, mainly due
to their proximity to human activities and effects.
Current Status and Threats
Although many coral reefs have faced declining
health in recent years from ocean warming,
overfishing, or land-based pollution, Pulley Ridge
seems to be an exception to the rule. Scientists
are unsure if it’s the warm current, nutrient rich
waters, or simply that the depth of the ridge better
protects it from human influence, but Pulley Ridge
may be so healthy that it even supplies new fish
and coral larvae to shallower water coral sites
surrounding the Florida Keys.
In 2005, a section of Pulley Ridge was designated
as Habitat Area of Particular Concern (HAPC),
which prohibited bottom anchoring by fishing
vessels, bottom trawling, bottom longlines, buoy
gear, and all trap/pot use in the area. However,
HAPC status does not regulate activities (such as
anchoring) by vessels not engaged in fishing, nor
does it regulate other non-extractive uses (such as
diving). Additionally, only a portion of the ridge is
currently protected.
Species Spotlight
Future and Recommended Protection
Both the uniqueness and vulnerability of Pulley
Ridge highlight its need for increased protection
from damaging activities. An expansion of the
nearby Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary
could extend key protections to the Ridge,
including prohibitions on anchoring, discharging
and dumping, and resource extraction. In the
meantime, enlarging HAPC coverage would be a
good first step to ensuring that the corals of Pulley
Ridge not only continue to thrive, but continue to
act as a genetic reservoir protecting against the
consequences of ocean change.
Roughtongue bass
(Protonogrammus martinicensis)
This colorful fish likes to live in the depths of
the United States’ deepest photosynthetic
coral reef, preferring depths of 215-750
feet. Like red grouper and parrotfish,
roughtongue bass are protogynous
hermaphrodites, which means they are
born as females but convert to males
during their lifespan.
At a maximum length around 8 inches,
these small fish serve as a crucial link in
the food chain between zooplankton and
large secondary consumers such as red
snapper and grouper. Due to its bright
color and small size roughtongue bass
are popular among aquarium enthusiasts.
populations in the Pulley Ridge area and
other regions of the Gulf of Mexico.
Image Credit: Opposite Page from Left to Right, John Reed using the University of North Carolina
at Wilmington Super Phantom S2 ROV; Current Page from Left to Right, Brian Cousin at Florida
Atlantic University Harbor Branch, NOAA, NOAA; Current Page Center, USGS
Madison Swanson, Steamboat Lumps, & The Edges
Implemented over a decade ago as experimental
“no-take” sites, Madison-Swanson and Steamboat
Lumps Marine Reserves are now established MPAs.
They are closed year-round to reef fish fishing (i.e.
bottom fishing) and seasonally for non-reef fish
species. To go along with their interesting names,
these two reserves provide necessary habitat for a
plethora of fascinating marine organisms.
corkscrew sea whips, and Oculina coral are just of
few of the countless species that call the reserves
home. The topography of the seafloor in these
areas varies as much as the species that reside
there. Limestone cliffs, rocky outcrops, and sandy
fields can be found throughout these sites.
While Madison-Swanson and Steamboat Lumps
do not permit reef fishing at any time of the year,
The Edges is seasonally open to all fishing from
May through December.
Large male groupers
are often targeted during this open season, which
can be problematic as declines in their numbers
negatively impact the reproduction cycle of
Arrow crabs, hermit crabs, basket stars, sea fans,
Current Status and Threats
especially the gag grouper, prompted the initial
design of these two areas. With the addition of
The Edges during seasonal closures, MadisonSwanson and Steamboat Lumps cover 600 square
miles of the Gulf, but research has suggested that
spatially larger MPAs are needed for full recovery.
localized populations.
Additionally, abandoned
longlines left by reef fishers during this open
season continue to “fish” the waters even after the
close of the season.
Future and Recommended Protection
Year-round restrictions on fishing are optimal for
the linked ecosystems that make up MadisonSwanson, Steamboat Lumps, and the Edges.
Research shows that grouper in Madison-Swanson
and Steamboat Lumps, where reef fishing is
prohibited year-round, are both larger in size
and number than those found in the surrounding
fished waters. Fully connecting the three areas
completely protect vulnerable species and help to
ensure vibrant populations into the future.
Species Spotlight
Gag Grouper (Mycteroperca microlepis)
Often confused with the black grouper due
to similar spot patterns, the gag grouper
is smaller than most grouper species,
varying between 2-4 feet in length and 1020 pounds in weight. Like most species
of grouper, the Gag is slow to mature and
takes longer to reproduce which makes
populations vulnerable to overfishing.
These fish like the deep seas, choosing to
dwell on the ocean bottom in water over
60 feet deep and feed on fish (sometimes
their own young), crabs, shrimps, and
crustaceans. The gag grouper are also
protogynous hermaphrodites, starting
their lives as females before transitioning
to males later in life. Populations of gag
grouper are plentiful in the southeast,
but overfishing and a large algal bloom in
2005 caused a significant decline in Gulf of
Mexico numbers.
Image Credit: Opposite Page from Left to Right, NMFS/SEFSC, NMFS/SEFSC; This page from Left
to Right NOAA, NMFS/SEFSC; Bottom Center, NMFS/SEFSC
Big Bend Seagrasses Aquatic Preserve
your way along the Florida gulf coast,
north from Tampa or south from Destin, and
divots and cuts left in the seagrass beds by boat
propellers slicing through too-shallow water.
you’ll find yourself suddenly in a world without
parking garages or apartment buildings. You’ll
arrive instead at the Big Bend Seagrasses Aquatic
Preserve – an almost million acre wilderness and
vestige of natural Florida. Take a boat out from
shore, and you’ll find shoal grass, turtle grass,
star grass, and manatee grass. Amidst the waving
green, you’ll encounter bay scallops, dolphins, sea
One of the major challenges facing the Big Bend
area is the increasing fragmentation of the
continuous seagrass beds into patchy zones. Not
only is this a troubling sign of possible large-scale
problems from increased pollution, it also results
turtles, and more.
in reduced habitat availability for resident species.
Established in 1985 by the state of Florida, Big Bend
associated with identifying and surveying seagrass
protects an ecosystem no longer common along
the Gulf Coast. Coastal development, commercial
fishing operations, and environmental changes
have reduced seagrass beds, and that trend is
continuing. But here in Big Bend, seagrasses
still reign. They provide habitat and homes for a
huge variety of species, including more than 50
which are threatened or endangered (including
manatees, sea turtles, birds, fish, reptiles, and
Compounding this challenge is the difficulty
beds found in the deeper water around the edges
of the preserve.
Researchers believe that the beds extend past state
waters (i.e., beyond nine miles) and into federal
waters, but funding difficulties have prevented
surveys of these areas, and their current status
is unknown. However, there is reason to suspect
that these seagrasses (primarily paddle grass)
plants, as well as others).
may be heavily impacted by commercial trawling
Big Bend is also well known for its population
crucial habitat for a number of fish species. Gag
of bay scallops. Although heavily recreationally
fished, the population of scallops is the most stable
in Florida. However, heavy use has also resulted in
significant problems caused by “prop” scarring –
Current Status and Threats
for pink shrimp, and that this activity may harm
grouper, the most important and highest priced
reef fish in the southeastern region of the US uses
these seagrasses and rocky reef habitats for its
nursery years.
A Manager’s Perspective
Tim Jones, Big Bend Aquatic Preserve Manager
“Big Bend Seagrasses Aquatic Preserve
(BBSAP) is comprised of mostly rural
and sparsely developed coastal habitats
spanning more than 984,000 acres.
These pristine and relatively undisturbed
waters make ideal habitats for nature
based tourism. Within BBSAP is one of the
largest contiguous seagrass beds on the
Gulf Coast. Seagrass meadows make an
ideal nursery for many of these creatures
by acting as a food source and providing
cover from larger predators.
Future and Recommended Protection
restoration is expensive, an educational campaign
aimed at recreational boaters may provide a better
strategy for reducing prop scarring. Additionally,
efforts to “close the gap” in the preserve and extend
the protected area into one continuous strip may
assist in the fight against seagrass fragmentation.
Most importantly, surveying the federal edge of the
preserve is critical to understanding the current
status and extent of deeper water seagrasses,
as well as to ensure that proper protections are
BBSAP is especially important for
commercial and recreational fisheries.
The seagrass beds provide vital habitat to
many sport fish such as redfish, speckled
sea trout and grouper. Commercial
catches also include stone crab, blue crab,
oysters, shrimp and mullet. Bay scallops
are found in abundance. Many of the
Big Bend’s coastal communities depend
on the millions of dollars in revenue
generated by the annual recreational
harvest of bay scallops. In 2009, research
findings indicated that the 2.2 million acres
of seagrass in the Big Bend area provides
ecological services of more than $40 billion
on an annual basis.
Seagrass beds are an indicator of a healthy
ecosystem, and our biggest challenge as
resource managers is maintaining these
coastal habitats in their pristine condition
for future generations. As part of Florida
Coastal Office, our vision is a healthy
coastal environment, achieved through
credible science, partnerships, stakeholder
input, and place-based management,
that encourages sustainable recreation,
education, and economic opportunity.”
in place for them. Not only will this protect the
physical environment, but also help to sustain key
fish populations into the future.
Image Credit: All Photos, Tim Jones
The Pinnacles
Step off the Alabama coast, jump in a time machine,
and set the dial back 18,000 years. You’ll arrive at
a world where ice covers most of North America
and sea level is a dramatic 300 feet lower than it
is today. In this world, the continental shelf of the
Gulf of Mexico is much closer to the surface and
is inhabited by thriving, sun drenched coral reefs.
Look out the window as you fast forward back
to the present, and you’ll see these reef building
communities try in vain to keep up with rising seas,
ultimately “drowning” in 300 feet of water. Today,
they exist as tall, steep-sided pinnacles.
Yet as always – life finds a way – and today these
fossil reefs are inhabited by soft corals, sponges,
crinoids, black corals, and small, solitary hard
corals. The area is dominated by roughtongue
bass and red barbier. Large predatory fish species
like snowy grouper, red snapper, and amberjack
hunt among the slopes.
Herbivorous grazers, like parrotfish, are absent as
little plant growth can occur in such light-limited
water, and plankton is the most common food
Current Status and Threats
With names like Yellowtail Reef, Roughtongue
Reef, and the Alabama Alps, each of the Pinnacles
hosts its own small world of creatures. Yet the area
surrounding the Pinnacles region is dense with oil
and gas exploration and production.
Production platforms now span the continental
shelf, and many potential drilling “lease sites” are
still open to new development. Additionally, the
Pinnacles are open to fishing activity and harbor
many commercially desired species. There are no
marine protected areas in the region.
Species Spotlight
Future and Recommended Protection
The uniqueness of the Pinnacles and the fragility
of the ecosystems there suggest that some level
of habitat protection would be appropriate.
Designation as a Habitat Area of Particular Concern
(HAPC) or inclusion in a National Marine Sanctuary
(such as Flower Garden Banks) could help protect
the Pinnacles and ensure that they remain for
another 18,000 years.
Basket Star (Gorgonocephalidae)
Although the derivation of its family name
comes from a physical similarity to the
writhing serpents that form the hair of
the lethal Gorgons of Greek mythology,
the basket star is only deadly to the small
crustaceans, zooplankton, and jellyfish
that make up its diet. Like tree branches,
the five arms of the basket star split one
after another into smaller and smaller
offshoots. These arms are covered in tiny
hooks that help them grip their food and
can be regrown if damaged or eaten.
Basket stars are nocturnal and curl up
into a tight ball to protect themselves
Gorgonocephalidae fossils have been
found dating to the Miocene Epoch (~23
million-5 million years ago).
Image Credit: Opposite Page, NURC/UNCW; This Page Center, Islands in the
Stream 2001 NOAA/OER; This Page Top Right, USGS
Gulf Gems
South Texas Banks
With our satellite images and GPS devices, it is
easy to think that the Earth has been mapped in
its entirety – and to be fair, much of our terrestrial
world has been. However, our oceans are another
story. The great depths and dark waters that they
contain make them tough to explore, and our
aerial photography shows us little save for a vast
expanse of blue. Instead, we have to rely on other
methods to discover our oceans – from scanning
systems that can paint us a picture of seafloor
topography to remotely operated vehicles that
can travel down into the deep while sending back
video and return with samples of water, earth,
and living organisms. Each of these technologies
allows us to add another snapshot of information
have been discovered, ranging in size from 10 to
almost 40,000 acres and in height from a mere 6.5
feet to 72 feet. More than 877 species have been
identified throughout the complex. These banks
are “drowned” coral reefs that thrived during the
Pleistocene when seas were much shallower.
And it seems there is more to come. Predictive
habitat modeling, combined with an analysis of
fishing records, has indicated that there may be
more Banks winding along the ancient continental
shelf coastline. In April 2014, a NOAA research
vessel will depart for the area, and there’s little
doubt that more discovery will occur along the
and usually reveals to us new discoveries.
The South Texas Banks which rise from the soft
Current Status and Threats
muddy clay that covers most of the Gulf are no
exception to this observation. Marine biologists
continue to discover a remarkable diversity of
marine life there. Southern Bank and Hospital
Bank have been long known from the surface
as their high-relief habitat provides a perfect
home to many desirable fish. Mysterious Bank is
shrouded in the nepheloid layer – a murky layer
of suspended sediment. Around these banks are
fields of black corals, with feathery branches, and
meadows of wire corals, with corkscrew spires,
rising from the bottom. So far, more than 40 banks
At present, the South Texas Banks are vulnerable
to a variety of human activities – from intensive
fishing to anchors from vessels. Oil and gas
exploration also exists throughout the region, and
while some banks have recieved designations as
“No Activity Zones” (a BOEM classification that
protects them from petroleum exploration), banks
that have yet to be mapped have no protected
status at all.
An Explorer’s Perspective
Dr. Harriet Nash
The South Texas Banks consist of over 20 sites ranging
from 12 to 45 miles off the coast of Corpus Christi,
Texas. For decades, very few scientific research
projects have targeted the South Texas Banks, also
known as the “snapper banks” to local fishermen who
frequent the sites. I’m thrilled that these important
hard-bottom habitat sites in the Gulf of Mexico are
receiving increased attention from scientists and
fisheries managers, and I hope the efforts continue to
contribute to our growing knowledge about the role
the banks play in connecting populations of fish and
other organisms throughout the region.
Future and Recommended Protection
commercially valuable species, designation of the
area as a Habitat Area of Particular Concern (HAPC)
would begin the process of ensuring protection
for the most critical areas by prohibiting bottom
anchoring by fishing vessels, bottom trawling, and
I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to
explore the South Texas Banks as a member
of the science team aboard the Schmidt Ocean
Institute’s R/V Falkor in September 2012. Not only
was I eager to work on a vessel with new, state-ofthe-art technology (an extravagant treat to say the
least for a marine scientist!), but I was also excited
to map and explore places that few scientists had
ever visited. I read some descriptive accounts
written in the 1970s of submarine exploration of a
couple of our sites of interest, so in theory I knew
what to expect. However, the preparation I did
couldn’t possibly prepare me for the experience in
reality. The science control room of the R/V Falkor
was like something out of a movie. I can only begin
to describe the rush of adrenaline when our nerdy,
data-collecting team of scientists got our first clear
view on the 10-15 high-resolution monitors in the
control room. We were cheering and hollering
so loudly that the journalist in the next room
came running in thinking we must have found
something as rare as the extinct megalodon shark.
Alas, we did not discover a living representative of
an extinct species, but we were incredibly excited
nonetheless. As the ROV (remotely operated
vehicle) hovered over the site, we watched the live
3-D video feed revealing amazing images--dense
fields of colorful wire corals with fully extended
polyps feeding, patches of ancient black corals,
colorful tropical reef fishes, a variety of large
snappers, and even a shark or two.
A few days later and a few kilometers farther south
we woke up to some exhilarating news. During
the overnight mapping activities, a new site was
discovered, and my pioneering itch was scratched.
We rushed to process the data quickly enough
to identify a good path for the ROV. The site was
teeming with life. Based on the site’s proximity to
the edge of the continental shelf, I believe that
it acts as an important habitat link for ecological
connectivity between nearshore waters and much
deeper waters beyond the continental shelf.
The outer-shelf South Texas Banks collectively
represent an historic shoreline, and although
we only discovered one new site in 2012, I am
convinced that there are at least two or three
additional sites in US waters (and more toward
the south in Mexican waters) that represent the
continuation of this historic shoreline.
Such knowledge, combined with analytical results
from the 2012 research cruise, guides explorers
on future expeditions (in 2014 and beyond) to
discover additional sites that will contribute to the
network of gems in the Gulf of Mexico. The South
Texas Banks lie between Federally protected coral
reefs in Mexico and in the US, and the important
provision of stepping-stone habitats to connect the
true coral reefs certainly warrants consideration
for additional protection.
the use of longlines, buoy gear, and traps and pots
that contact the seafloor.
Image Credit: Opposite Page, Schmidt Ocean Institute/Deep Sea Systems
International; This Page, Harriet Nash
West Florida Slope Lithoherms
picturing a coral reef, bright colors and
sunlit waters often come to mind. It is therefore
hard to imagine coral reefs thriving in deep, dark
waters. In the case of the West Florida Slope
Lithoherms, deep down is a long way down
indeed. In fact, at this remarkable spot in the Gulf
of Mexico, a nearly pristine coral ecosystem exists
1500 feet below the surface of the water.
At the very edge of the continental shelf, the
surface slopes away, descending deeper to the
central Gulf. Much of the bottom of the Gulf of
Mexico is soft, composed of mud and clay, which
makes it difficult for organisms to grow up without
sinking in. Any place that hard rock or ancient
coral emerges from the soft mud or clay is prime
real estate.
On that sloped edge lie large boulders and
protruding rocky surfaces thought to number in
the dozens, or possibly hundreds. Now colonized
primarily by deep sea corals like Lophelia pertusa,
these habitats are home to sponges, fish,
crustaceans, mollusks, and others. Golden crab
(which are part of an economically important
fishery) are also found amongst the lithoherms.
Current Status and Threats
The lithoherms found on the west Florida slope are
completely unprotected against many potentially
damaging activities, including deep sea fishing and
the use of pots for crabbing. Along the continental
slope, oil and gas exploration is more the norm
than the exception, and the area surrounding
the lithoherms is highly exploited for resource
Future and Recommended Protection
The incredible longevity of deep sea corals mandate
a correspondingly high level of protection. A
designation as a no-take area would be the only
adequate action that would fully protect this
ecosystem from harm, although intermediate
protections under HAPC against detrimental
fishing activities would be worthwhile.
Species Spotlight
Deep-water coral (Lophelia pertusa)
Lophelia pertusa is probably not as wellknown as its tropical counterparts, but
it supports just as much diversity as
shallow water reefs. This deep-sea coral is
primarily found at depths of 650-3,000 feet
and provides habitat for over 850 species
including sponges, anemones, worms, fish,
mollusks, and crustaceans. Living on the
deep ocean floor makes lophelia pertusa
susceptible to deep-sea trawling.
The coral prefers attaching to hard
surfaces which often means the deep
sea platforms that support oil and gas
platforms. As a result, some populations
of Lophelia pertusa were damaged by
the 2010 Gulf oil spill. Lophelia pertusa is
extremely slow-growing (~0.03 inches per
year) which makes the damages caused by
trawling and the oil spill even more severe.
Image Credit: All, USGS
Horseshoe Bank
In 2004, the oceanographic research ship, Thomas
Jefferson, set off on a journey of discovery. It’s
destination – Flower Garden Banks National
Marine Sanctuary and the surrounding seas. The
ship brought with it an arsenal of research tools,
animals (i.e. creatures living in the water column
between the surface and the bottom). Additionally,
the site acts as a nursery for juvenile fish, such
as groupers, that then migrate to Flower Garden
Banks as adults.
from side-scan sonar units to sediment sampling
equipment. As they “pinged” along the bottom,
the ship’s high resolution multi-beam survey
instruments drew pictures on computer screens,
revealing the hidden world at the bottom of the
Current Status and Threats
Currently, no anchoring or bottom contact fishing
gear is allowed at Horseshoe Bank. However, the
surrounding area is still vulnerable to gas and oil
As it passed between the East and West Flower
by BOEM as a “No Activity Zone” and fishing is still
Garden Banks, the ship’s equipment began to
exploitation as Horseshoe is not yet designated
common in the waters above.
show that all was not mud and clay. Instead,
it illuminated hundreds of patch reefs ringed
around scattered mud volcanoes. These patch
reefs formed a horseshoe shape around the
central volcanoes, and thus, the new bank was
named. After the Thomas Jefferson moved on to
other explorations, another crew of researchers
During the Flower Garden Banks management
plan review process, much support was expressed
for an expansion of the Sanctuary’s boundaries
to include areas like Horseshoe Bank. One of the
returned to the site, this time equipped with ROVs.
current proposals would result in its inclusion.
The video and pictures from the ROVs showed
itself, but would also better protect the biological
that Horseshoe Bank is home to extensive coral
assemblages. Black corals, octocorals, and deep
reef fish all inhabit the patch reefs that make up
the bank, and act as the foundation of a habitat
that provides shelter and resources for pelagic
Future and Recommended Protection
Not only would this be beneficial for the Bank
connectivity of the ecosystem and provide
regulatory consistency between the banks.
Species Spotlight
Shortnose batfish (Ogcocephalus nasutus)
Winning “Most Beautiful” is probably out of
the question for the shortnose batfish, but
this bottom-dweller has some distinctive
features. This species uses a modified
dorsal fin, which looks more like a spine,
as a lure to entice prey close enough to
attack. These unsuspecting meals include
small crabs, shrimps, mollusks, worms,
and juvenile fish. With its horizontal
pectoral and pelvic fins as well as a flat
body shape, the shortnose batfish has
adapted to crawling across the ocean floor
rather than swimming. Also known as the
“walking batfish”, this species and the most
of the members of the Ogcocephalidae
family have rough skin covered in bony
Image Credit: Top Right, FGBMNS; Others, NOAA
Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary
Throw on your snorkel and fins, and let’s jump out
of the boat and into the bright waters of the Florida
Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Designated
Both within and outside of the Florida Keys
in 1990, this 2,842 square mile area is home to
National Marine Sanctuary, rules and regulations
an incredible amount of marine life, including
are varied and complex. Fishing is allowed in many
endangered species like the elkhorn coral and
areas, but not in all, along with other activities
the Florida manatee. Within its boundaries lie
such as anchoring or diving. This mix of regulated
extensive seagrass beds, the world’s third largest
uses can promote confusion for users about
barrier reef, and mangrove-fringed islands, in
where certain activities are permitted and where
addition to more than 6,000 species who call
they are not. Additionally, the patchwork nature of
the area home. Recreational swimming, fishing,
the Sanctuary may not optimally protect the area’s
snorkeling, and scuba diving opportunities are
Intermediate and deep reefs provide another
important component of this diverse ecosystem,
and are home to hundreds of species of reef
fish, especially commercially important groupers
and snappers. The Sanctuary also has high water
quality – critical in an era of acidifying oceans.
However, not all of the area’s waters are protected.
Around the boundary line, both species and
habitat are vulnerable to the effects of anchoring,
discharge, dumping, and resource extracting, as
well as bottom trawling and the use of traps and
pots. To the southwest of the sanctuary lies the
Tortugas South Ecological Reserve – a no-take area
that protects important habitat and growing fish.
Current Status and Threats
Species Spotlight
Lionfish (Pterois volitans)
Don’t let this vibrantly colored fish fool you.
It might look like a native among the other
tropical species in the Florida Keys, but the
lionfish is an outsider in this ecosystem.
Traditionally found in Indo-Pacific waters,
this invasive species wreaks havoc on
native fish species, consuming over 50
economically and ecologically important
fish species in the Atlantic. Venomous
dorsal spines that deter predators and a
reproduction cycle with quick turnover
(30,000 to 40,000 eggs every few days) has
led to a population explosion of lionfish
that threatens the native biodiversity of
the Florida Keys.
Future and Recommended Protection
Connecting the boundaries of the Florida Keys
Pet owners are blamed for the introduction
of this species into Florida waters, and now
humans are the only predator that stands
between the lionfish and the extensive
damage they cause to the Florida Keys
coral reef ecosystem. Spear-fishing hunts
have had some success in curtailing
lionfish numbers.
National Marine Sanctuary and the Tortugas
Ecological Reserve and enclosing the waters
in-between would provide more consistency
in the regulatory framework throughout and
better protect the species within. Expanding the
Sanctuary to completely enclose the Reserve
would ensure more uniform protections for the
area’s important habitat. As research continues
to indicate that larger areas of protection better
serve ecosystems than smaller ones, the inclusion
of the Tortugas South Ecological Reserve within
the larger framework would magnify the positive
impact of both areas.
Image Credit: Opposite Page from Left to Right, NOAA, NOAA, NOAA/FKMNS, NOAA; Center,
Viosca Knolls
The only thing harder than pronouncing the name
(vi-ah-sca) of this conglomeration of deep-sea
coral communities is locating it 1,640 feet beneath
the Gulf’s surface due south of Mobile Bay. If you
happen to find your way to these depths—most
likely through an ROV video feed—you will witness
a range of biodiversity usually only attributed to
shallow water coral reef ecosystems. Viosca Knolls
are home to some of the most developed and welldocumented Lophelia pertusa communities in the
Gulf of Mexico, and these cold-water corals are a
veritable hot bed of marine life. Keep an eye out
for the plethora of anemones, sponges, worms,
crustaceans, and fish species that call Lophelia
pertusa home.
comprise Viosca Knolls are labeled with a series of
numbers which identify the oil and gas lease block
that encompasses that particular area—generally
9x9 miles. For example Viosca Knoll 906 refers to
the deep reef located just 20 miles north of the
Deepwater Horizon oil rig responsible for the 2010
British Petroleum (BP) oil spill.
Current Status and Threats
Fortunately, Viosca Knolls 906/862 and 826 are
listed in the BOEM database of seismic anomalies
which means they are protected from drilling and
oil infrastructure within 1.24 miles of the BOEMdrawn boundaries. Despite this protection, fishing
exploitation and other human activities such as
oil spills can still pose a threat to these vulnerable
Super Site Highlight
Future and Recommended Protection
Because overfishing both diminishes local fish
populations and all but destroys the essential
Lophelia pertusa communities, designation of these
sites as no-take coral areas or HAPC is crucial.
Additionally, understanding the impacts of the BP
oil spill on Viosca Knoll 906/862 will provide insight
into the deep water consequences of this disaster
and help to shape responses to possible future
Roberts Reef
Nestled in Viosca Knoll 906, Roberts Reef
has been the home of Lophelia pertusa for
over 300,000 years. Black corals, which
are actually orange-red in color, also
inhabit the area. The reef itself is a mound
of Lophelia skeleton over 65 feet thick
and over 650 feet in diameter. The site
is one of the largest continuous Lophelia
reefs and the first reported cold-water
carbonate mound in the Gulf. Despite its
advanced age, the reef was not discovered
until 2009.
Image Credit: All, NOAA
Florida Middle Grounds
The Florida Middle Grounds are thought to have
been first discovered by fisherman tracking red
snapper towards the end of the 19th century.
Dropping lines into 100 feet of water, fishermen
would pull up hooks heavy with fish. In the 1970s,
researchers discovered the reason behind the
bounty – a relict coral-reef complex was providing
critical habitat to many desirable species.
Found approximately 80 miles offshore from the
west coast elbow of Florida and from Tampa-St.
Petersburg, this area ranges in depth from 85 to
150 feet and scientists have so far identified 23
species of stony coral, approximately 40 sponges,
103 species of algae, and 170 species of fish.
The ecosystem represents the northern most
appearance of mid-shelf octocoral communities in
the entirety of North America, and, interestingly,
the fauna are distinctly tropical. This may be a
result of the presence of the Gulf’s Loop Current,
which pulls species northward from the Caribbean
and brings warmer temperatures (up to 60°F) with
The most abundant fish species in the Middle
Grounds is the purple damselfish, but the
economically important gray snapper, scamp, and
red grouper also frequent the area.
Current Status and Threats
The habitat found within the Florida Middle Grounds
is in remarkably good shape in comparison with
global trends for corals elsewhere. No indications
of coral die-off or disease have been found, and a
comparison of surveys across time has indicated
that species biodiversity has remained high.
However, researchers have identified a dearth
of economically valuable fish species, and have
attributed this lack to intensive fishing efforts.
Species Spotlight
Massive Starlet Coral (Siderastrea sidereal)
Future and Recommended Protection
The uniqueness of this habitat and the biodiversity
found within it, combined with the low abundance
of certain fish, suggests that further protections are
needed. A large portion of the area was designated
as a Habitat Area of Particular Concern in 2001, but
many extractive and destructive activities (such
as anchoring) can still occur within the site. At a
minimum, the northern half of the Florida Middle
Grounds should be permanently closed to these
Characterized by its dome-like shape, the
massive starlet coral can grow over six feet
wide and live at depths of up to 130 feet,
though they tend to live around 30 feet.
The coral’s surface ranges in color from
light gray to pink to golden brown and is
covered in dimples, known as corallites,
where its reproductive polyps reside.
One of the more resilient coral species, the
massive starlet coral has shown the ability
to recover from ocean acidification when
water conditions improve. The greatest
threat to massive starlet corals is habitat
loss due to climate change-induced
temperature extremes and human
impacts such as anchoring.
activities, and the area in its entirety should be
surveyed and assessed to determine any additional
impacts that may be occurring.
Image Credit: Top Left, CIOERT; Top Right Center, NOAA; Top Right, NOAA;
Bottom Center, FSU/NOAA;
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“You simply cannot make more [reefs], unless you have
a few thousand years to wait.”
—Doug Rader, chief ocean scientist,
Environmental Defense Fund

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