WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary is among the healthiest coral reef ecosystems in the tropical Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, according to a new NOAA report.
The report, A Biogeographic Characterization of Fish Communities and Associated Benthic Habitats within the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, offers insights into the coral and fish communities within the sanctuary based on data collected in 2006 and 2007. Sanctuary managers will use the report to track and monitor changes in the marine ecosystem located 70 to 115 miles off the coasts of Texas and Louisiana.
"We found that 50 percent of the area surveyed for this report is covered by live coral," said Chris Caldow, a NOAA marine biologist and lead author on the report. "This is significant because such high coral cover is a real rarity and provides critical habitat for many different types of fish and other animals that live in these underwater systems."
The sanctuary is also unusual in that it is dominated by top-level predators, including large grouper, jacks, and snappers that are virtually absent throughout the U.S. Caribbean. Researchers looked at the relationship between physical measures of the sanctuary's habitat such as depth, slope and geographic location, and the nature of the fish community in each location.
"Ultimately our goal was to develop a protocol that would detect and track long-term changes in fish and sea-floor community structure," Caldow said. "Once managers are equipped with this information, they can better understand how threats from climate change and other stressors will impact the ecosystem."
The report cautions that despite the sanctuary's relatively healthy condition, it may be more susceptible to environmental impacts than previously thought. For example, scientists observed high levels of coral bleaching and corals severely impacted from hurricane activity.
NOAA prepared the report based on data collected in 2006 and 2007, with input from scientists and managers at Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary.
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