Project to study marine life in the Gulf of Mexico

The Gulf of Mexico is one of the most important areas in the world for marine life, and in particular its natural banks and reefs which provide food, habitat and shelter for many species. It’s also home to a key marine protected area, and a marine biologist from Texas A&M University in Galveston is leading a $1.9 million project to study how fish and marine life inhabit the area.

Jay Rooker will lead a team of 13 researchers from five universities in hopes of answering many questions about marine life in the Gulf, especially those related to natural shorelines and the fish that inhabit them.

A key area that will be examined is the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary which was first discovered by snapper and grouper fishermen in the early 1900s. They named the banks after corals, sponges , plants and other sea life they could see on the brightly colored reefs below their boats.

“Understanding how fish populations use the Flower Garden Banks and other banks within the wider sanctuary boundaries will be central to our research,” Rooker said. “We will study a wide range of reef-associated fish – including groupers, snappers, jacks, parrotfish and sharks – to determine their required habitats and how the natural banks in the sanctuary are interconnected.”

The first scientific survey of the area, located about 100 miles off the coast of Galveston, did not take place until 1936, but numerous studies have been carried out in the area since then. Earlier this year, the sanctuary was expanded from 56 to 160 square miles and now includes 14 additional banks. Today, the Flower Garden Banks is the only National Marine Sanctuary in the Gulf of Mexico and one of 14 federally designated underwater areas protected by NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.

Rooker and the team will use acoustic and satellite telemetry to track fish movements within and through the schools. They will also use sound recordings to determine the timing of spawning activity to help show where fish will end up as juveniles.

“The fish associated with the reefs of the Gulf of Mexico reside in a complex mix of natural habitats and schools,” Rooker said. “The Outer Plateau of the northern Gulf of Mexico is characterized by a network of natural banks that extend eastward along the edge of the Texas-Louisiana Plateau to the mouth of the Mississippi River. These natural banks, including including the Flower Garden Banks, provide critical habitat for a variety of marine organisms, but our understanding of how fish use these natural banks is rather limited, and we hope to learn more about the critical habitats of key components of this unique assemblage of reef fish and improve our understanding of fish populations in the sanctuary.

The four-year study is funded by NOAA and its National Ocean Service and National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science.

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