The Gulf of Mexico is the world’s ninth-largest body of water and an economic engine that supports millions of people and jobs in ecotourism, fishing, and other coastal businesses. But that payoff depends upon healthy ecosystems with abundant fish and wildlife.
Florida’s Gulf Coast is home to the largest continuous seagrass beds in the country. The marine meadows provide food, oxygen, and homes for valuable shellfish, including shrimp, crabs, and scallops as well as finfish such as seatrout, snappers and groupers. About 70 percent of species that fishermen target in Florida, the “Fishing Capital of the World,” use seagrass at some point in their lives. However, fertilizers, coastal development, and careless boaters threaten this habitat.
Oyster reefs are another of the Gulf’s major assets. They provide habitat for diverse marine animals and, like seagrass, help reduce erosion and improve water quality by filtering or trapping pollutants. The Gulf is the country’s major source of wild-caught oysters, with Louisiana supplying the majority of the harvest. Yet pollution, poor water quality, warming waters, rising seas, and other problems are placing increasing stress on oyster populations, which are plummeting throughout the Gulf.
And other Gulf habitats are also facing threats. Ancient and fragile deep-sea coral ecosystems, which are found from hundreds to thousands of feet below the surface, play host to abundant marine life and contain properties that are producing innovative medical treatments. But oil spills as well as trawls and other harmful fishing gear can take a toll.
Protecting these delicate habitats is essential, as is adopting fishing rules that foster sustainable fishing practices, adhere to science-based catch limits, and consider predator-prey relationships and the broader ecosystem.
With proper planning, future generations can continue to enjoy the Gulf’s environmental jewels and the economic benefits they provide.