When picturing a coral reef, bright colors and sunlit waters often come to mind. It is therefore hard to imagine coral reefs thriving in deep, dark waters. In the case of the West Florida Slope Lithoherms, deep down is a long way down indeed. In fact, at this remarkable spot in the Gulf of Mexico, a nearly pristine coral ecosystem exists 1500 feet below the surface of the water.
At the very edge of the continental shelf, the surface slopes away, descending deeper to the central Gulf. Much of the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico is soft, composed of mud and clay, which makes it difficult for organisms to grow up without sinking in. Any place that hard rock or ancient coral emerges from the soft mud or clay is prime real estate.
On that sloped edge lie large boulders and protruding rocky surfaces thought to number in the dozens, or possibly hundreds. Now colonized primarily by deep sea corals like Lophelia pertusa, these habitats are home to sponges, fish, crustaceans, mollusks, and others. Golden crab (which are part of an economically important fishery) are also found amongst the lithoherms.
Current Status and Threats
The lithoherms found on the west Florida slope are completely unprotected against many potentially damaging activities, including deep sea fishing and the use of pots for crabbing. Along the continental slope, oil and gas exploration is more the norm than the exception, and the area surrounding the lithoherms is highly exploited for resource extraction.
Future and Recommended Protection
The incredible longevity of deep sea corals mandate a correspondingly high level of protection. A designation as a no-take area would be the only adequate action that would fully protect this ecosystem from harm, although intermediate protections under HAPC against detrimental fishing activities would be worthwhile.