Photo by Calsidyrose via Flickr CC
Did you know that the Gulf of Mexico is the ninth largest body on the planet, and supports some of the largest fisheries in the world? The Gulf is a spectacular space with an astonishing diversity of species, and yet it may also be one of the most imperiled. Here's some of the most interesting facts about the Gulf of Mexico that will inspire you to learn more about this unique place.
Image via Wikipedia CC
Ancient Beginnings And Recent Discoveries
The Gulf of Mexico is a partially landlocked ocean basin -- only a narrow connection to the Atlantic exists as the gulf is surrounded by North America and Cuba.
It is the ninth largest body of water in the world, covering about 600,000 square miles, and is bordered by five US states in the north, five Mexican states in the west, and Cuba in the southeast.
The total coastline of the gulf measures approximately 3,540 miles from the tip of Florida to the tip of the Yucatan, with an additional 236 miles along Cuba.
The Gulf was created first by continental plates colliding in the Late Triassic period, around 300 million years ago, and then by the sea floor sinking.
Almost half of the gulf basin is shallow waters over continental shelves, though it contains a trough that measures as deep as 14,383 feet.
Sediment-laden water pours into the northern Gulf of Mexico from the Atchafalaya River in this photo-like image, taken by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA's Aqua satellite.
Along the US portion of the Gulf coast, 33 major river systems and 207 estuaries empty into the sea.
The Gulf Stream, which originates in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, is one of the strongest ocean currents in the world.
The first European exploration of the Gulf of Mexico was by Amerigo Vespucci in 1497.
The population in US states along the gulf is projected to reach 61.4 million people by 2025, a 40% increase.
Photo by Monica R via Flickr CC
Ecosystems and Wildlife In The Gulf of Mexico
The gulf coasts offers overs a range of habitats, including submerged vegetation, important upland areas, marine/offshore areas and over 5 million acres of wetlands.
There are 31 major estuarine watersheds in the Gulf of Mexico.
The coastal wetland of the gulf represents 28% of the total U.S. wetland, and open water area represents 41 % of the US total.
Louisiana is an important area for the millions of migratory birds that fly across the Gulf of Mexico, which includes nearly all of the migratory landbird species of the eastern United States, as well as many western species.
Radar technology has shown that hundreds of millions of birds cross the Gulf of Mexico at night during migrations, with as many as 2.5 million landing in Louisiana to rest each day.
A radar image showing about 2.6 million birds arriving on the coast after a transgulf flight. Image via USGS
There are 29 marine mammal species found in the Gulf of Mexico, including such icons as bottlenose dolphins, humpback whales, minke whales, sperm whales, and the West Indian manatee. Many of the species of marine mammals found here are threatened or endangered.
The gulf is home to five species of threatened and endangered sea turtles, including Kemp's ridley sea turtles, Hawksbill sea turtles, Green sea turtles, Loggerhead sea turtles and Leatherback sea turtles.
A diver and shark in the Gulf of Mexico off Key West in 1986, via Florida Keys -- Public Libraries on Flickr CC
As many as 49 shark species are known to inhabit the Gulf of Mexico, including Silky, Bull, Lemon, Oceanic whitetip, Dusky, Tiger, Thresher, several species of hammerhead, and even whale sharks, just to name a few. As with marine mammals and turtles, may of these once populous species are also threatened, endangered or are species of concern.
Photo by zappowbang via Flickr CC
Isla Holbox was uncovered just a few years ago as a prime place to see whale sharks feeding in large groups during their annual migrations. The area is now struggling to balance an ecotourism industry with protecting these gentle giants.
Sargassum is a widespread genus of seaweed that creates floating oases for marine species, from sea turtles and seahorses to tuna and billfish, and patches can become so large and dense they can be detected from space.
Image via USFWS Endangered Species via Flickr CC
Manatees are an iconic figure of Florida's coasts. They can reach up to 12 feet in length and weigh more than 1,500 pounds, but only 5,000 remain in the wild as run-ins with boaters and loss of coastal habitat impact populations.
Brown pelicans have made an incredible comeback after being nearly wiped out by DDT. However, about 60% of brown pelicans breed on the Gulf Coast and face many threats including loss of habitat, being caught in fishing lines, and oil pollution.
Sperm whales call the gulf home. Family groups of females and young totaling 500 to 1,500 individuals reside in the gulf, and when males come to visit, the number can hit as high as as 3,000.
Photo by NOAA Photo Library via Flickr CC
Coral Reefs and Shipwrecks
Florida is the only state in the continental United States to have extensive shallow coral reef formations near its coasts (over 60% of coral reefs found in the US are located around the extended chain of the Hawaiian Islands).
The Florida Reef Tract (FRT) stretches 358 miles from the Dry Tortugas National Park off of the Florida Keys to the St. Lucie Inlet in Martin County, and about 2/3 of the FRT lies within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS).
Image via USGS
Coral reefs grow only in specific ecosystems with the right depth and temperature of water, and the right mix of nutrients and wave action. Reef growth is relatively slow with an individual colony growing between .5 and 7 inches a year.
Black coral living in the Gulf of Mexico is one of the slowest growing deep sea corals, and have been found to be up to 2,000 years old.
The majority of Florida's sport fish species and other important species spend their lives around coral reefs.
Coral reef ecosystems in Florida are extremely diverse, supporting more than 6,000 species--including 520 types of fish; 128 varieties of starfish, sea urchins, sand dollars and sea cucumbers; 55 species of soft corals; and 63 species of stony corals.
Photo via Wikipedia CC
Once the most abundant and important coral species in the Caribbean coral reefs, Elkhorn (Acropora palmata) and staghorn (A. cervicornis) corals are now threatened species, declining by more than 90% since 1980.
Reef-related tourism generates roughly $17.5 billion each year and reefs support as many as 2,300 local jobs.
Coral reefs need platforms on which to grow, and creating artificial reefs is a popular tactic to help new coral reefs begin -- attracting not only fish and other animal species but also tourists.
Everything from retired ships to oil platforms can be used for creating artificial reefs.
Image via BOEMRE
At the end of 1998, 1,715 platforms were retired from oil and gas production and 128 of the retired platforms were donated and permanently dedicated as Rigs-TO-Reefs for fisheries enhancement.
There are many historical shipwrecks in the gulf as well, numbering over 750 known wrecks. While many are from the more recent world wars, some date as far back as the 16th and 17th centuries.
Human Impacts on the Gulf of Mexico
Agricultural runoff, mostly from over-application of fertilizer on agricultural fields, is causing record-setting annual dead zones, areas where plankton blooms and die-offs deplete the oxygen levels to a degree that nothing can live in the areas.
Image of gulf dead zones via Wikipedia CC
A whopping 41% of the contiguous USA drains into the Mississippi River, which then drains into the Gulf of Mexico, bringing with it pollution and significant runoff from farmland.
Scientists say this summer's dead zone could be the largest since records began in 1985, measuring between 8,500 and 9,421 square miles.
Fishing and Tourism in the Gulf of Mexico
Fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico include red snapper, amberjack, tilefish, swordfish, grouper, shrimp, crab and oyster. Commercial fish and shellfish harvest from the five U.S. Gulf states during 2008 was estimated to be 1.3 billion pounds valued at $661 million. Shrimp accounted for 188.8 million pounds, and oysters for 20.6 million pounds.
The Gulf of Mexico has eight of the top twenty fishing ports in the nation by dollar value.
In 2008, over 24.1 million recreational fishing trips were made, catching 190 million fish from the Gulf of Mexico and surrounding waters.
There are four major industries in the Gulf of Mexico -- fishing, shipping, tourism and of course, oil. These four industries account for some $234 billion annually in economic activity, according to a 2007 study published by Texas A&M; University Press.
Oil and gas interests generate $124 billion, or over half of the total amount brought in by the four major industries. However, tourism comes in at a close second with an estimated $100 billion a year.
Oil exploration and drilling has been cited for problems among marine animals, from whales to fish to squid, causing noise pollution that makes it difficult for animals to communicate, navigate, and feed.
There are approximately 27,000 abandoned oil and gas wells beneath the Gulf, which generally have not been checked for potential environmental problems.
Image via Wikipedia CC
The BP Deepwater oil spill flowed for three months starting April 20, 2010, releasing 4.9 million barrels of oil into the gulf and resulting in the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry.
Areas that will be under threat for years, even decades after the spill, include 8 U.S. national parks. Over 400 species living on islands and marshlands are at risk.
As of November 2, 2010, 6,814 dead animals had been collected, including 6,104 birds, 609 sea turtles, 100 dolphins and other mammals, and 1 other reptile. An accurate count of animals killed by the spill is not possible, as BP workers appear to have been collecting an destroying animals before they were counted.
Since January 1, 2011, 67 dead dolphins have been found in the area affected by the oil spill, with 35 of them premature or newborn calves.