With all of the discussion about the oil spill and restoration of Gulf habitats, we frequently see reference to the northern Gulf of Mexico. Where is the northern Gulf of Mexico and what are its unique features?
The northern Gulf of Mexico is generally recognized as the area bordered by the Suwannee River, in the Florida panhandle, to the Sabine River, near the state line between Louisiana and Texas. This term commonly includes watersheds, coastal zone and coastal ocean areas in the region. Thus, the region includes a variety of geological environments and a large number of different ecosystems.
When compared to the eastern and western shores of the U.S., one of the features that stands out is the river input to the Gulf. The region includes a number of major river systems, including the largest river in North America, the Mississippi River. Estuaries, areas where rivers flow into ocean waters, are thus a dominant ecosystem of the area. There are more than 16 major estuarine systems and a number of smaller ones in the northern Gulf. With rivers and estuaries come wetlands, those areas periodically flooded by non-tidal or tidal waters. Wetlands in the northern Gulf include bottomland hardwood forests, freshwater swamps, salt marshes, and more recently mangrove ecosystems. Submerged coastal habitats include seagrass meadows and oyster reefs. Each of these habitats support a variety of plants and animals, making the northern Gulf of Mexico region an incredibly diverse area.
The Northern Gulf region is incredibly important to the nation as a whole. It is one of the most important fishing areas in U. S. waters and has been coined the “Fertile Fisheries Crescent”. Three of the top six commercial U.S. fishing ports (by poundage landed) lie in the northern Gulf. Eight of the top ten commercial fishing ports in the Gulf of Mexico region occur in the northern Gulf. Six of the top ten transportation hubs (ports by tonnage) in the Gulf lie in the northern Gulf. The northern Gulf is also one of the major natural gas and oil sources for the nation. The Gulf region west of Florida produces 54% and 52% of the total U.S. crude oil and natural gas, respectively and holds 47% of the U.S. refinery capacity. There are more than 3700 active oil and gas platforms in the Gulf, employing more than 120,000 people and earning more than $15.6 billion in wages for jobs directly related to oil and gas production and refining. The drastic decline in coastal tourism due to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill also illustrated how critical coastal communities were to the economies of the northern Gulf states, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.
Human impacts on the northern Gulf region are growing. Increasing human populations, coastal development, pollution, introduction of non-native species and climate impacts such as sea level changes are negatively affecting the region. Population growth in the Gulf coastal region has increased at more than twice the rate for the rest of the U.S. Wetland loss due to sediment starvation caused by dams and levees and construction of transportation corridors for the oil and gas industry has resulted in habitat loss, loss of ecosystem services and affected the vulnerability of the area to hurricane and storm damage. More than 300 non-native (introduced) species are found in the Gulf coast region. Nutrient pollution has created an infamous Dead Zone, an area devoid of fish and other sea life along the Louisiana coastline. Many of the northern Gulf estuaries are showing signs of nutrient pollution too. More than 30 Superfund sites, sites designated by the EPA as containing hazardous pollutants, lie in coastal counties of the northern Gulf. The entire Louisiana and Mississippi coastline and some of the Florida panhandle is at risk for sea level rise. Given the low elevations characteristic of the northern Gulf, sea level rise could potentially affect transportation of both people and freight valued in the hundreds of billions of dollars annually.
Perhaps a silver lining of this cloud of problems in the northern Gulf of Mexico has come from recent hurricanes and the Deepwater Horizon event. These events have illustrated the importance of the Gulf to the nation. Recognition has led to significant funding being allocated to research and restoration activities in the northern Gulf. Funds for restoration such as those from the RESTORE Act will provide the means to make it happen. Research programs such as the National Academy of Science’s Gulf Research Program and the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative that supports ACER and many other research consortia will provide valuable information about northern Gulf ecosystems, its communities and the ways to best restore this unique and critical area.
 National Ocean Service, NOAA. 2011. The Gulf of Mexico at a Glance: A Second Glance. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce. Get the report here