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Ecosystems on the Gulf's Coastline

written by: •edited by: Donna Cosmato•updated: 8/27/2011

The Gulf of Mexico coastal ecosystems are challenged with numerous threats. Changing climate conditions and the growing population and activities of humans in the area pose threats for many reasons. What will eventually happen to the gulf life if this continues?

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    Abundance and Loss in the Gulf of Mexico

    Gulf of Mexico shown in 3D The Gulf of Mexico is recorded as being the ninth largest body of water in the world. Not only do the people of the region rely on fishing, fisheries and tourism, but they rely on oil, trade and shipping as well.

    The fishing industry contributed $630 million to the United States in 1993. One fourth of the United State’s seafood processing relies on the coastal abundance of brown shrimp, octopus, red grouper, brackish water clam, pink shrimp and white shrimp. Offshore oil and gas production service bases are also part of the gulf’s supply to the states through the coastal Louisiana and eastern Texas pipelines.

    The coastline ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico has taken a hit from various environmental disturbances such as oil manufacturing. Between the man-made destruction and the alteration of the shoreline, the condition of the gulf has been affected. Marine lives such as the fish in the area now come with a warning. The fish of the area have housed mercury contamination in the past, the water quality is rated as “fair" and the wetland loss has happened at a rate of five percent per decade.

    The gulf area may be having ecological troubles like other regions in the world; however, the ecosystem still carries numerous species of animals, water that pulls in the tourists, hard and soft wood forests and is economically stable with a vast array of resources.

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    The Ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico

    The gulf area relies on several processes in the surrounding ecosystems to keep it healthy as well. The ecosystem joins all of nature in Crabmuss one package so if one element is upset, it can have a dire effect on all the other portions of the system.

    Some areas of the gulf coast interact by physical, biological and chemical means to move the ingredients of one ecosystem to another and to allow the movement of various species from one to another.

    Currents and waves play a large part in the ecosystem movements and transfers. Waves and currents that sweep into the shore cross over coral reefs. During the sweeping motion, submerged vegetation in the ocean filter pollutants and so do the mangroves. This built-in filtration system is nature’s key to keeping the ecosystem in good array.

    Mangroves and the vegetation survive due to the coral growth in return for their help in the process. With the filtration of pollutants, the water fed to the coral reefs remains clear and full of nutrients thus bringing the circle around again. It has been noted that mangroves could not exist in this region without the coral reefs and vice versa; thus, one cannot live without the other.

    The mangroves that grow along the coastal lines in the gulf help settle the sediment within the water environment. This keeps the vegetation beds in full growth offshore in the less turbid water flow. Fish are also important to the gulf region and use the ecosystem as fry nurseries and feeding grounds for adult fish to thrive.

    The bays, estuaries, tidal flats, barrier islands, hard and soft wood forest and the mangrove swamps all play a role in the health of the ecosystem. Without these resources, life would not be the same.

    The wetlands along the coastal region are about half of the wetlands in the United States total. Waterfowl rookeries, sea turtles, oysters and the fisheries are all at peace within the gulf thanks to the diverse landforms and ecosystem components.

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    Water In - Water Out

    Loop current in Gulf of Mexico Ocean water runs to the gulf through the Yucatan Strait and is known as the Loop Current. This current moves out of the gulf through the Florida Strait, which turns into the Gulf Stream. Parts of the current break off during the motion to form gyres or eddies. The smaller portions that break off affect the regional current patterns. Tidal currents and wind develop in areas closer to shore.

    Drainage in the gulf is major in amount; inclusive of 20 river systems that flow in from the continental U.S. and into the gulf to create a yearly amount of freshwater (about 280 trillion gallons) that weaves its way into the gulf region. The majority of the freshwater comes from the U.S. and about sixty-four percent of the total 85 percent arrives from the Mississippi River alone. Other freshwater sources arrive from Mexico, the Yucatan Peninsula and from Cuba.

    The flow and drainage system in the environment keeps nutrients flowing from one ecosystem to another to maintain the environment as a whole. The freshwater supplies not only life-giving elements to the marine life, plants and animals that need it, but it also brings in nutrients and food supplies for the ones in the animal kingdom that require the saltier marine water to live.

    Human activity and interaction has resulted in the alteration of the Mississippi and its watershed. During the process of dumping this water into the gulf, sediment and chemical pollutants also arrive in the water flow.

    The flow that empties into the gulf brings less dense waters that result in a normal diffusion of oxygen. The oxygen moves from atmosphere to the surface water to the bottom waters.

    Oxygen supply is imperative to plant life and marine life in the gulf. Hypoxia and anoxia occur when there is a malfunction in this extremely important element in the ecosystem. Hypoxia is the process of the oxygen levels falling below 2mg, which is the defining line on whether shrimp and fish can thrive. Anoxia is when there is no oxygen present.

    The decomposition of dead fish, plants and other organic matter eats away at oxygen in the water. The layering keeps a balance that will maintain the oxygen levels needed to support many life forms. The source of the organic matter primarily comes from phytoplankton that is not a part of the food web or marine life waste that sinks to the bottom of the water environment where it decomposes via bacteria. Oxygen is taken up by the process. Hypoxia has been noted in the Gulf of Mexico, which proves there are environmental complications that could affect the gulf's ecosystem.

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    Hardgrounds Beneath the Gulf Waters

    Dolphins live in the gulf marine environment and feed on the smaller fish that are supplied by the health of the ecosystem. Over 230Corals and Seastar  species of fish and alligators also survive in the wetlands in the gulf region. Migratory birds, sea turtles and plant life make the gulf their home.

    Rocky substrates in the depths of the gulf’s waters are home to many communities of the ecosystem. These hardgrounds host chemosynthetic communities that get their life-sustaining energies from chemosynthesis instead of photosynthesis processes.

    Tubeworms and mussels are the most common to this environment and have the ability to grasp energy from chemical reaction instead of sunlight. The tubeworms and mussels contain the energy in their bodies rather than feeding on the bacteria as do other residents of the seeps.

    Clams also thrive in the seep habitats and there are two species found in the gulf. Hundreds to thousands of clams are found together in large beds. While these three symbiotic creatures are located in the gulf, they are only the foundation of many others. Limpets, starfish, shrimp, crabs, snails, fish and polychaete worms make up some of the rest of the ecosystem.

    The deep-sea aquatic life such as mussels, tubeworms and clams reside in the valleys or canyons that lie far beneath the surface in what are called submarine canyons. The mussels found in this situation often colonize sites of active seepage where they reside in the high levels of methane and sulfide. Communities of organisms that are associated with the mussel beds are usually overruled by endemic species that can tolerate the higher levels of methane and sulfide. They feed on the free-living bacterial communities within the deeper canyon waters.

    Normally, the tubeworms colonize among the old mussel beds when the rate of seepage declines. The larger amount of bacteria can feed many different species. The tubeworm communities that age are filled with the non-endemic species from deep-sea communities. The two groups survive by co-existing to form communities; however, later the non-endemic species will rule the roost. In later stages of this diverse co-existence, they normally exist in lower numbers and use tubeworms as shelter and the surrounding area as a food source hunting ground.

    The seeps that are considered hydrocarbon eventually die out. When seepage subsides, the chemically dependent creatures die off. The carbonate rock that is laid over the ground during the depletion is home to deep-sea corals.

    The corals feed off on the zooplankton and other food sources with polyps. The communities that reside in the rock are the corals called bamboo corals, black corals, soft corals, sea fans and the hard corals. The hard corals are found in deep ocean waters and the amount of these is not yet known in the gulf; however, some have been located in the region. The hardgrounds are made up of the corals, which draw the attention of the coral-feeding snail that bores into the skeleton of coral to eat.

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    Paradise Gulf

    Tricolor Heron in Gulf of Mexico Oysters play a large part in the ecosystem of the gulf. They filter water as they consume food, which helps clarify the water and improves the water quality. One oyster filters up to 50 gallons of water per day. Oyster reefs also play a large part as they protect coasts and the marsh areas from erosion. They also provide a place for fish, shrimp and crabs to hide and eat. Over 170 marine species count on the oysters as part of the ecosystem.

    Forests, mountains, meadows, swamps and beaches all bring out the avian residents of the gulf area. From the bald eagle to the endangered species of the red-cockaded woodpecker, they all thrive because of the gulf's ecosystem. The fowls that reside in the region cover over 400 species that play over the waters and forests of the Gulf of Mexico. Cranes survive with the food sources the marshy areas supply, and the hummingbirds eat the nectar from flowering plants in bloom. Waterfowl come to the gulf when food is abundant and some migrate once the winter months come in search of another food source.

    With diverse environmental creations, it gives way to a fuller, more abundant supply of life-sustaining nutrients. The freshwater lakes, bayou marshes, forests and deep blue waters are places that make all the species happy with food supplies, nesting areas and living quarters.

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