Houston Matters

Coral Reefs In The Gulf Dodged Harvey’s Bullet – For Now

Researchers are studying the Flower Garden Banks to see what effect Hurricane Harvey had on the coral reefs.

Flower Garden Banks SCUBA Diver
A diver studies coral reefs at the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in the Gulf of Mexico.

Scientists think the Tax Day Floods in 2016 had a negative impact on the Flower Garden Banks, a diverse ecosystem of coral reefs in the Gulf of Mexico. So, Hurricane Harvey must have been even worse on them, right? Not necessarily.

Researchers from NOAA and several Texas universities have studied the coral reefs in the Gulf, and, so far, they haven’t seen the same kind of damage from all the freshwater runoff after Harvey that they saw in the months following the 2016 floods.

Several months after the Tax Day Floods, there was a mass mortality event on the reef, according to Adrienne Correa, an assistant professor of ecology and evolution at Rice University. But researchers like her are still trying to learn exactly what caused it. The cause could’ve been all the fresh water from the floods disturbing the salty conditions the coral need to thrive – or something else.

So, in October, when Correa and other researchers took water samples and dove down to the Flower Garden Banks, they thought maybe they’d see a similar result. But that was not the case.

But why not? Correa says further study is still needed. She and other scientists are busy analyzing their samples from the site. But, she says wind and ocean circulation patterns could’ve kept all that fresh water from getting to the banks this time.

She said scientists have much better data leading up to and after Harvey compared to the Tax Day Floods. So, they can compare the two events and better determine if certain microbial signatures match up and learn exactly what caused the 2016 mortality event.

Flower Garden Banks - Water Samples
A researcher prepares to dispatch machinery to take water samples from the Flower Garden Banks coral reefs in the Gulf of Mexico.

Regardless of the cause, it’s important to keep tabs on the health of the Flower Garden Banks because they’re some of the highest coral-cover reefs left in the Atlantic and Gulf. They harbor some of the most diverse marine life species in the ocean, and they’re important to many industries – such commercial fishing and diving. And she says problems could still surface in the coming months. If all that fresh water from Harvey had come down on the Flower Garden Banks, the outcome could’ve been dire.

Correa and Dr. Michelle Johnson from the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary talk with Houston Matters host Craig Cohen about the health of the site after Harvey.

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