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September 2016    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 31, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Flower Garden Banks May be Off Limits to Divers

from the September, 2016 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Divers have been warned to avoid the Flower Garden Banks. According to NOAA, the reefs 70-100 miles off Texas in the Gulf of Mexico that normally teems with marine life appear to be dying and scientists have no idea why. Recreational divers exploring the East Flower Garden Bank have been dismayed to find the corals and sponges coated in ugly white mats of algae, while dead animals such as sea urchins, brittle stars, clams and other critters litter the sea floor.

NOAA officials have said that the bank is undergoing a large-scale mortality event of unknown cause and recommend the public avoid diving, fishing and boating activities in the area. This is to prevent transmission of whatever is causing the mass mortality to other locations, but also to protect divers from ingesting what could be harmful pathogens or toxins.

Possible causes could include poor water quality, disease pathogens, chemical spills and an influx of low salinity coastal water that is rich in plankton, nutrients and chemicals that get into the Gulf by way of agricultural run-off and river discharges. These can combine to make coral reef animals more prone to outbreaks of disease. Scientists have voiced concern that shielding the Banks from human impact may now be insufficient to protect them.

"We know of no spills that have recently occurred near the Flower Garden Banks," said Sanctuary Superintendent G.P. Schmahl, "but water temperature over the banks is quite high, at 86 degrees."

Sanctuary Research Coordinator Emma Hickerson estimates the mortality of corals to be nearly 50 percent in some of the affected areas. Hickerson says the die-off has been seen at three dive sites that charter boats typically use.

Mary Wicksten of Texas A&M University said, "On my last trip, I saw at the East Bank that one large coral head was covered by unidentified red algae. The last guess that I heard was that these encrustations were not directly due to human activity but probably had been carried out there by the floods in Louisiana and Texas."

Sharon Cain of Fling Charters, working out of Freeport (TX), told Undercurrent, "We are still running trips out to the Flower Gardens - West and East Banks and Stetson Bank. At this time we are not diving the areas that have been impacted with the problem. As far as I know the West Bank, Stetson Bank, and some areas of the East Bank are fine at this time."

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