In 2004, the oceanographic research ship, Thomas Jefferson, set off on a journey of discovery. It’s destination – Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary and the surrounding seas. The ship brought with it an arsenal of research tools, from side-scan sonar units to sediment sampling equipment. As they “pinged” along the bottom, the ship’s high resolution multi-beam survey instruments drew pictures on computer screens, revealing the hidden world at the bottom of the ocean.
As it passed between the East and West Flower Garden Banks, the ship’s equipment began to show that all was not mud and clay. Instead, it illuminated hundreds of patch reefs ringed around scattered mud volcanoes. These patch reefs formed a horseshoe shape around the central volcanoes, and thus, the new bank was named. After the Thomas Jefferson moved on to other explorations, another crew of researchers returned to the site, this time equipped with ROVs.
The video and pictures from the ROVs showed that Horseshoe Bank is home to extensive coral assemblages. Black corals, octocorals, and deep reef fish all inhabit the patch reefs that make up the bank, and act as the foundation of a habitat that provides shelter and resources for pelagic animals (i.e. creatures living in the water column between the surface and the bottom). Additionally, the site acts as a nursery for juvenile fish, such as groupers, that then migrate to Flower Garden Banks as adults.
Current Status and Threats
Currently, no anchoring or bottom contact fishing gear is allowed at Horseshoe Bank. However, the surrounding area is still vulnerable to gas and oil exploitation as Horseshoe is not yet designated by BOEM as a “No Activity Zone” and fishing is still common in the waters above.
Future and Recommended Protection
During the Flower Garden Banks management plan review process, much support was expressed for an expansion of the Sanctuary’s boundaries to include areas like Horseshoe Bank. One of the current proposals would result in its inclusion. Not only would this be beneficial for the Bank itself, but would also better protect the biological connectivity of the ecosystem and provide regulatory consistency between the banks.