Ecological Assessment for Gulf of Mexico Completed

CSA Ocean Sciences Inc. (CSA), an international marine environmental consulting and survey company, has released details of an important marine environmental study to evaluate coral and coral-related habitats (sites) in the northern Gulf of Mexico. The assessment was performed on behalf of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council (Council). The sites studies are considered to be Habitat Areas of Particular Concern (HAPC).

The objective of the project was to carry out a scientifically robust ecological assessment of target HAPC—areas initially identified by the Council’s Coral Working Group in 2014. Since then the areas have been extended, following further analysis by the Council’s Coral Advisory Panel and Coral Statistical and Scientific Committee in 2021. The purpose was to establish a means of prioritizing which sites would benefit from protective intervention measures and ongoing mitigation.

This work centered around a site-specific and comparative review of potential risks to mesophotic corals (found in water depths of 30- to 150-m) and deep-water corals (deeper than 150-m). Both coral types are found from 9 to 200 nautical miles offshore in federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

“Corals and coral reefs are far more widely distributed in GOM waters than previously understood, so accurately mapping these habitats and understanding how they impact the broader benthic ecosystem are essential steps in determining the most appropriate sustainability practices or interventions,” said Project Manager Steve Viada.

“As well as providing essential insights into the impacts that coral communities have on critical fishery species found at the sites, the research profiled the sensitivity of certain corals to disease and other notable shifts in environmental factors,” he added.

The work was underpinned by a comprehensive literature review of the selected coral sites. This included:

  • A compilation of the most up-to-date information about deep reef corals, coral diversity, and other benthic habitat attributes found in the GOM
  • The design and preparation of a systematic framework for general ecological assessment across sites
  • The creation of an exclusive geodatabase of project-related spatial data supported by a web-based dashboard designed to help the Council validate key management and mitigation decision-making and for general outreach purposes

The completed assessment was coauthored by CSA Senior Scientists Steve Viada and David Snyder, CSA Director of Library & Information Services Kristen Metzger, and collaborator Dr. Steve Ross, Adjunct Professor at UNC-Wilmington. It was submitted to the Council in March 2022 and presented to the Council and State and Federal agencies in June 2022.

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