Scientists Investigate Mysterious Coral Mortality Event at East Flower Garden Bank
August 9, 2016
Several potential causes of the outbreak are under investigation, but it's most likely a combination of stressors at work.
Although the reefs of Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary (FGBNMS) are normally considered the healthiest in the region, on July 25, sport divers on the M/V FLING, reported green, hazy water, huge patches of ugly white mats on corals and sponges, and dead animals littering the bottom at East Flower Garden Bank, buoy #4.
The charter captain immediately notified FGBNMS and BOEM (Bureau of Ocean Energy Management) researchers, who were just a few hundred yards away, conducting long-term monitoring efforts at buoy #2. The FGBNMS team responded quickly to the reports and was able to conduct several benthic and fish surveys, and collect some samples in the area before heading back to shore.
Several potential causes of the outbreak are under investigation, but it's most likely a combination of stressors at work. Scientists from around the world are offering advice and assistance in trying to help discover the cause.
An initial response cruise was launched with Texas A&M University (TAMU), July 30-August 2, to collect water samples for water chemistry sampling.
FGB-RR16 Cruise Report (pdf 4.8MB)
A second response cruise, led by FGBNMS, with partners from Rice University, UNCW-Chapel Hill and TAMU, took place August 4-7. Researchers conducted photo transects and scooter surveys, and collected over 300 samples of corals and sponges, both affected and unaffected, as well as directed water samples in specific areas of the impacted reef. These samples will be analyzed to look at the micro-organism communities and also genetic markers that may indicate specific types of stress. TAMU also deployed a glider that will be running transects throughout the area to continue characterization of the water column.
Based on surveys so far, about 6.3% of the corals located in the shallower (< 90 feet) portions of the reef cap on East Flower Garden Bank were affected by the mortality event. These affected corals are spread across 6.5 acres, with some locations exhibiting up to 70% mortality. This could mean several thousand dead coral colonies and untold numbers of associated reef invertebrates including sponges, brittle stars, sea urchins, crabs, worms and shrimp. Many of the dead coral colonies are tens of hundreds of years old.
Although it is still unclear what caused the coral and organism mortality, researchers think the event may no longer be active, except for some discrete areas.
Sanctuary scientists will continue monitoring the area to document recovery over time. Observations will take place more frequently in the short term, followed by annual surveys. Scientists will also be on the look-out for possible indications of additional mortality or coral disease.
Meanwhile, sanctuary managers continue to request that divers and fishers avoid the impacted areas to allow the reef time to heal and to limit the possibility of transferring whatever caused the die-off to healthy areas.
Initial Report, July 2016
Investigation Continues, September 2016
UPDATE: In February 2018, the sanctuary hosted a mini-symposium in partnership with the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System (GCOOS) and the U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS), bringing together 40 researchers from different disciplines to discuss possible causes of the mortality event. The report below summarizes their findings.
Mini-Symposium Report, February 2018