With our satellite images and GPS devices, it is easy to think that the Earth has been mapped in its entirety – and to be fair, much of our terrestrial world has been. However, our oceans are another story. The great depths and dark waters that they contain make them tough to explore, and our aerial photography shows us little save for a vast expanse of blue. Instead, we have to rely on other methods to discover our oceans – from scanning systems that can paint us a picture of seafloor topography to remotely operated vehicles that can travel down into the deep while sending back video and return with samples of water, earth, and living organisms. Each of these technologies allows us to add another snapshot of information and usually reveals to us new discoveries.
The South Texas Banks which rise from the soft muddy clay that covers most of the Gulf are no exception to this observation. Marine biologists continue to discover a remarkable diversity of marine life there. Southern Bank and Hospital Bank have been long known from the surface as their high-relief habitat provides a perfect home to many desirable fish. Mysterious Bank is shrouded in the nepheloid layer – a murky layer of suspended sediment. Around these banks are fields of black corals, with feathery branches, and meadows of wire corals, with corkscrew spires, rising from the bottom. So far, more than 40 banks have been discovered, ranging in size from 10 to almost 40,000 acres and in height from a mere 6.5 feet to 72 feet. More than 877 species have been identified throughout the complex. These banks are “drowned” coral reefs that thrived during the Pleistocene when seas were much shallower.
And it seems there is more to come. Predictive habitat modeling, combined with an analysis of fishing records, has indicated that there may be more Banks winding along the ancient continental shelf coastline. In April 2014, a NOAA research vessel will depart for the area, and there’s little doubt that more discovery will occur along the way.
Current Status and Threats
At present, the South Texas Banks are vulnerable to a variety of human activities – from intensive fishing to anchors from vessels. Oil and gas exploration also exists throughout the region, and while some banks have recieved designations as “No Activity Zones” (a BOEM classification that protects them from petroleum exploration), banks that have yet to be mapped have no protected status at all.
Future and Recommended Protection
As the banks provide habitat for many commercially valuable species, designation of the area as a Habitat Area of Particular Concern (HAPC) would begin the process of ensuring protection for the most critical areas by prohibiting bottom anchoring by fishing vessels, bottom trawling, and the use of longlines, buoy gear, and traps and pots that contact the seafloor.