Alternate Title

Long-Term Persistence of Coral Assemblages on the Flower Garden Banks, Northwestern Gulf of Mexico: Implications for Science and Management


The coral reefs of the Flower Garden Banks (FGB) are among the most sensitive biological communities in U.S. Federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico. In 1973, the Minerals Management Service (MMS) established a program of protective activities at those reefs. The MMS and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have been monitoring coral populations on a long-term basis to detect incipient changes caused by oil and gas activities. The results also help in explaining the widespread degradation of reef ecosystems observed in the Caribbean region over the past few decades. Two sites, each 100 X 100 m and 17-26 m deep, have been monitored since 1988: one on the East FGB and the other on the West FGB. The mean coverage of living hard corals exceeded 50% at the two banks in 2002-2003, consistent with estimates of coral cover in previous years. We compared our results from 2002-2003 with data collected during the same period on protected reefs within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS). Low values of coral cover on the reefs in the FKNMS exemplify how catastrophic mortality of the formerly dominant Acropora spp. led to degradation of coral assemblages throughout the Caribbean. The FGB remained in exceptionally good condition, largely for reasons of geography; their northern location excluded the cold-sensitive acroporids, so the regional-scale loss of acroporids did not reduce coral cover. The continuing multidecadal baseline of reef condition generated by the monitoring program at the FGB will enable managers to make informed decisions in the event of future changes to their biota.