Step off the Alabama coast, jump in a time machine, and set the dial back 18,000 years. You’ll arrive at a world where ice covers most of North America and sea level is a dramatic 300 feet lower than it is today. In this world, the continental shelf of the Gulf of Mexico is much closer to the surface and is inhabited by thriving, sun drenched coral reefs. Look out the window as you fast forward back to the present, and you’ll see these reef building communities try in vain to keep up with rising seas, ultimately “drowning” in 300 feet of water. Today, they exist as tall, steep-sided pinnacles.
Yet as always – life finds a way – and today these fossil reefs are inhabited by soft corals, sponges, crinoids, black corals, and small, solitary hard corals. The area is dominated by roughtongue bass and red barbier. Large predatory fish species like snowy grouper, red snapper, and amberjack hunt among the slopes. Herbivorous grazers, like parrotfish, are absent as little plant growth can occur in such light-limited water, and plankton is the most common food source.
Current Status and Threats
With names like Yellowtail Reef, Roughtongue Reef, and the Alabama Alps, each of the Pinnacles hosts its own small world of creatures. Yet the area surrounding the Pinnacles region is dense with oil and gas exploration and production. Production platforms now span the continental shelf, and many potential drilling “lease sites” are still open to new development. Additionally, the Pinnacles are open to fishing activity and harbor many commercially desired species. There are no marine protected areas in the region.
Future and Recommended Protection
The uniqueness of the Pinnacles and the fragility of the ecosystems there suggest that some level of habitat protection would be appropriate. Designation as a Habitat Area of Particular Concern (HAPC) or inclusion in a National Marine Sanctuary (such as Flower Garden Banks) could help protect the Pinnacles and ensure that they remain for another 18,000 years.