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New Study to Assess Hurricane Impact on Coral Reefs in Gulf of Mexico

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MIAMI, Florida -- Flower Garden Banks (FGB) National Marine Sanctuary is home to one of the world's most magnificent coral reefs. Located about 100 miles off the southern coast of Texas in the Gulf of Mexico, the reefs were in the path of Hurricane Rita, which passed over the reefs on September 23 and 24, 2005.

The U.S. Department of the Interior, Minerals Management Service (MMS) has recently contracted with PBS&J to conduct a post-hurricane assessment of the sensitive habitats in the FGB vicinity, which include roughly 50 miles of deep-water reefs and banks. PBS&J's staff includes renowned international scientists and specialists on coral reefs and underwater habitats.

The FGB vicinity is home to 21 species of coral, hundreds of species of fish, and three species of marine turtles. Since the early 1970's, the MMS has been actively involved in a program of protective activities at the East and West Flower Garden Banks and environs. PBS&J has conducted long-term monitoring of FGB since 2002 to detect subtle or chronic effects from natural and anthropogenic industrial activities that could potentially endanger FGB.

"FGB had been particularly healthy before the hurricanes hit," commented William F. Precht, Ecological Sciences Program Manager for PBS&J and chief scientist for the study. "Now its future is uncertain. We have an unprecedented opportunity to identify hurricane-related disturbance on these remote reefs and, at the same time, to identify potential impacts from various anthropogenic sources."

After the hurricanes, boulder-size pieces of broken coral were found in the FGB vicinity along with the movement and displacement of large amounts of reef-derived sediments. Increased coral bleaching related to sustained increases in sea surface temperatures -- caused when coral expels the zooxanthelae algae that enable coral colonies to grow in a symbiotic relationship -- was also detected. This was related to a sustained period of warmer than normal temperatures recorded in the summer and fall of 2005.

"The bleaching has subsided," commented George (G.P.) Schmahl, manager of the FGB National Marine Sanctuary under NOAA, "but it appears some of the coral may now be diseased. We need to find out why."

The completed study will support MMS's decision-making capability to protect these sensitive habitats.

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