Texas A&M: Project To Study Marine Life In Gulf Of Mexico Reefs

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

Jay Rooker will lead a team of 13 researchers from five universities hoping to answer many questions about marine life in the Gulf, especially those related to natural banks and the fishes that inhabit them.

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

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

The first scientific study of the area, located about 100 miles off the Galveston coast, did not occur until 1936 but numerous studies have been conducted 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 is 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 across banks. They will also use sound recordings to determine the timing of spawning activity to help show where the fish will end up as juveniles.

“Reef-associated fishes in the Gulf of Mexico reside in a complex mix of habitats and natural banks,” Rooker said. “The outer shelf of the northern Gulf of Mexico is characterized by a network of natural banks that extend eastward along the edge of the Texas-Louisiana shelf to the mouth of the Mississippi River. These natural banks — 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 essential habitats of key components of this unique reef fish assemblage and improve our understanding of fish populations within the sanctuary.”