Coral Reef NOAA
May 31, 2016  

Sanctuary has Healthiest Coral Reef Systems

coral reef seascape in the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary showing hard and soft corals as well as fish
Reef scene in the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. Photo credit: G.P. Schmahl, FGBNMS

NOAA National Ocean Service recently released a report detailing a comprehensive study of the fish communities and habitats of the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, located off the coasts of Texas and Louisiana. Researchers from the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science and the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries determined that the Sanctuary is among the most healthy coral reef systems in the tropical western Atlantic.

"The information in the report is critical because it enables us to understand how well we are protecting and conserving these marine resources," said Sanctuary superintendent G.P. Schmahl."The data tells the story of how the marine life interacts with the various habitats and helps us understand and appreciate this unique place."

NOS scientists found that large apex predators such as grouper and snapper—which are virtually absent throughout the U.S. Caribbean—were commonly observed in the Sanctuary. They also found that there was a significantly higher overall number of fish in the Sanctuary compared to the U.S. Caribbean.

"We also found that 50 percent of the area surveyed for this report is covered by live coral," Chris Caldow, a NOAA marine biologist and lead author on the report said."This is significant because such high coral cover is a real rarity and provides critical habitat for many different types of fish and other animals that live in these underwater systems."

The scientists also developed a sampling protocol that will help managers better detect and track the influences of threats on the Sanctuary's benthic habitats and fish communities. This information is especially critical for this region which is an area for so many competing human uses including oil and gas exploration, shipping, fishing, and even diving. By understanding where the plants and animals are and how their populations are changing, conservation goals can be better balanced with other human needs through a process known as marine spatial planning.