The Gulf of Mexico: Gulf Resources

Thank you, Bill. It's really a pleasure to be here. I'm going to use the remote since these things are usually too short. I'd like to welcome you to Corpus Christi and to the Coastal Bend as a third-generation Texan. I feel like I can welcome you to this area. I know some of you are from here.

I know as a professor this is a bad time to be lecturing--also after dinner, and especially when I turn out the lights. It's more like siesta time than listening time. But I feel like this audience is like some of the organisms that I study--mostly the invertebrates. And I feel like you're a bunch of sponges. You're soaking up everything that's going on here. Everybody's asking these intriguing questions.

My wife asked me, What time is your talk this afternoon, looking at the paper and the 2:30 game time. And I said, It's at 2:00. Poor Barto. I don't know how many people are going to be around when it comes to his time.

I would like to take the opportunity to show you kind of photographically the resources of the Gulf of Mexico, some of the impacts and problems that we're having, and then maybe talk about a few solutions at the end. It will be kind of a photographic coverage or essay of this area, and I'd like to have the lights all the way off also.

My colleague and associate director of the Center for Coastal Studies, Dr. Quenton Dalken, helped me with the preparation of this material and may field some questions from you later on today or tonight.

Our Gulf of Mexico, America's Sea, as it's sometimes referred to, is an enclosed area, making it somewhat unique. Only two deep-water openings between the Yucat·n and Cuba and Cuba and Florida get into this area. About 1,600 miles of the Gulf are along the U.S. shoreline, and another 1,000 miles along that of Mexico.

The resources are wonderful, and we could talk about them for a long time. I'll just give you a sketch of this. The northern area is primarily temperate shorelines with estuaries and marshes and beaches. The southern area is more tropical, like if you were in the Caribbean. Many people don't realize, especially those who've only ventured to the northern Gulf of Mexico, that the southern part has tropical lagoons and mangroves and corals reefs. There are a high productivity and value of shellfish and finfish, as well as vast oil and gas reserves in the Gulf of Mexico.

To show you a few of these, and many of you have seen some of the beautiful beaches from the northern Gulf of Mexico, the salt marshes that are so important as nursery areas and protectors of our shoreline and filters, the vast seagrass beds that are nursery areas also and with a high diversity of organisms. Oyster reefs that are more common on the upper Texas coast than the lower Texas coast, but also very abundant over in Louisiana.

An area that many people aren't aware of. In the Laguna Madre of Texas there are over 350 square miles of wind tidal flats; these vast areas that seem almost completely flat--very, very gentle slope to them, as you can see in this picture. Vast nesting areas or rookeries for sea birds along the Texas coast within the bays and estuaries.

To the south of us, a great contrast along the shores of Mexico. If you've been to Hawaii, you might first think that I stole this picture from there. It's not. It's down around the area of Vera Cruz, Mexico, where volcanic mountains reach the shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico. Many of the beaches in the southern Gulf of Mexico are black in color, not from oil, but from the volcanic sands that come down the rivers from the Sierra Madres and the mountains that are inland from there.

Instead of having estuaries with grasses along the shoreline, we have mangroves, these trees that literally can grow in the salt water.
Coral reefs are abundant in the southern Gulf of Mexico. In the southwest and in the southeastern portions, over thirty-eight coral reefs reach up to the surface of the sea.

Again, most people who have not ventured to that area would expect this photograph from Alacran Reef off the northern Yucat·n to be from the Caribbean. It's not. It's from the southern Gulf of Mexico. A great diversity and variety of marine life is associated with these beautiful reef systems.

Sea turtles. The Gulf of Mexico has five species of sea turtles, as many as any other sea or ocean in the world. All of those are endangered or threatened because of various aspects of their livelihood. And they nest on these coral reef islands.

Sea birds on these islands are tremendous also. I had the opportunity to live in MÈrida in the Yucat·n for a year to study the coral reefs there. And some of the birding activity and birds that I studied as a sideline were one of the greatest highlights there. I actually got--these are Masked Boobies, the name of this particular bird, and there were about five or six species and thousands of these on these islands. I got in quite a bit of trouble when I got back from this research trip and my wife found out I had been on a tropical island studying boobies.

If I could give you a few statistics that we can see here about the Gulf of Mexico. Here you see more finfish and shrimp, shellfish, annually from the Gulf of Mexico than any of these other areas along the Atlantic coast, to give you a comparative view. A familiar sight to any of you who travel along the northern Gulf Coast and the ports of the fishermen who live there.

Tourism. Twenty billion dollars annually generated by our Gulf shores. Another familiar sight, especially on holidays and weekends, on the beautiful beaches of the northern Gulf of Mexico. More than 76 billion in federal dollars, into the federal revenue, because of the oil and gas industry between this period of '56 and '84. Just to give you an idea, that's a second only to income tax. That's what's been generated from there.

Ninety percent of the offshore oil and gas industry--its production comes from the Gulf of Mexico. Familiar views like this, primarily off the Texas and Louisiana coast. There are over 3,500 of these platforms now in the northern Gulf of Mexico.

Down below an unbelievably beautiful world of an artificial reef. Vast array of invertebrates that attach to the legs of these platforms, which generates lots of productivity in fish that come around. You can see divers here studying these from our Institute. Amazing schools of fish that are found around these offshore platforms.

Our Gulf ports, 45 percent of U.S. from Gulf of Mexico ports. The larger ones are Tampa, New Orleans, Houston, and Corpus Christi. Four of the top ten in the United States are here in the Gulf. A familiar view of the Houston ship channel, Houston in the background.
One-sixth of the U.S. population now lives along the Gulf Coast, and it's increasing. If you look at some of the numbers and don't try to--and you can't even focus on those smaller numbers, but just look at the trend from the bottom to the top of that last one--the Gulf-wide idea that you see there is the increase that is taking place along the Gulf shores. We're told that as much as 80 percent of the population of the United States now lives within a hundred miles of the shoreline.

Gulf coastal wetlands--very vast in the southern part of the United States. Over half of the wetlands are found in our area of the Gulf. Very important as nursery grounds and erosion control areas and filters for water that runs into the Gulf. Critical habitat for waterfowl. Seventy-five percent of the United States ducks and geese move through this area. Those of you from the upper Texas coast may see this as a familiar sight.

Why should we be concerned? Those of you who are lovers of the outdoor or hunters or fishermen could come up with a long list, and these are just a few. But some of our scientific concerns are low oxygen levels that have been found. To the west of the Mississippi River, there's a bottom area known as the dead zone, between 3,000 and 5,000 square miles in size now. Toxic substances that are in our bays and estuaries. Lavaca Bay is the most polluted bay in the United States with mercury contamination. Two-thirds of the United States drains into the Gulf of Mexico. Anywhere between the Appalachians and the Rocky Mountains you put something into a stream or river, it's going to wind up in the Gulf eventually.

Over 90 percent of the Gulf fisheries rely on our estuaries. Part of their life cycle ties into the estuaries.

Human health concerns. Over 34 million acres--that's about 57 percent of the shellfishing area in the northern Gulf of Mexico is closed to harvesting because of contamination. Why? What's the problem? You saw some earlier slides. Too many people. Too much pressure of various kinds. One hundred, two hundred years ago, the people along the coast were small in number, and their impacts were small. But as the numbers continue to increase, we have to learn how to better manage that and take care of it. That population trend that you saw, Florida leading the pack in increase from the '60s to 2010, a fifty-year span--you see Texas is second in line there as far as increase is going. Almost 150 percent growth.

We'd like to break these impacts down, the problems that we see, into two areas--natural and anthropogenic. The natural ones, such things as hurricanes, cold fronts, and fresh-water inflow, whether it be too much or too little. Hurricanes are familiar to us on the Texas coast. Here Hurricane Allen in 1980 cut 36 passes through a 24-mile section of South Padre Island.

On northern Padre Island 120 feet of dunes were cut back, but they stood because of the vegetation there. The low dunes on Padre and Mustang Island were leveled and water was one foot below the sea wall right out here in front of the Marriott Hotel during that time.

The 1989 freeze in December of that year. This is a familiar sight probably to Dr. Ballard and those of the east coast, but a very unfamiliar sight to those of us along the Texas coast. First time I'd ever been able to walk on Corpus Christi Bay, ice extending 150 yards out. Laguna Madre had a sheet of ice all the way across.

This is what we often see from these severe freezes in our area where fish aren't accustomed to that. We also might see a sight like this with the red tide that occurs occasionally in our area.

The fresh-water inflow in Mexico, around the coral reefs, there has occurred for millennia, but, yet, the deforestation up in the mountains, the agricultural runoff, and the cutting of the mangroves--we see kind of a coupling of manmade activities with natural activities--is now killing the reefs in the Vera Cruz area.

The anthropogenic impacts are human ones. First, in the Gulf of Mexico, offshore, oil and gas, different kinds of pollutants or exploitation of our fisheries. The IXTOC I oil spill in 1979 that Tony mentioned to you a while ago blew for almost nine months--134 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico that reached all the way to the Texas coast.

The Kemp's Ridley sea turtle had a population of 40,000 back in the 1940s. In the 1960s it had 400 left. Drastic reductions in the populations there.

In our bays and estuaries, the list is longer of the impacts or problems we see there, from dredging, fisheries declines, habitat loss and erosions, others. Let me show you a few visual aspects there. From 60,000 feet up, if we look down, we can see the impact of dredging along our coastline. The dredging is necessary for the passageways for shipping, but it has had an impact in our coastal areas.

Even in the more remote areas of the Laguna Madre, with Padre Island on your right and the King Ranch on your left, you see this long chain of dredge material islands that separates the lagoon. On the ground or in the water, the Laguna Madre open-water dredging should have been stopped long ago. But it still occurs and impacts the habitats that are there.

Dredging in this case, creating finger canals for northern Padre Island and all the islands that you see in this area. Although they have a negative impact, they also have a positive impact with the nesting sea birds that we saw a while ago that utilize those.

And the Florida coast--this is a familiar sight to see barrier islands almost loaded to the hilt. What would happen if a storm came through that area?

The IXTOP oil spill again--a band of oil 30 feet in width from the Rio Grande to Port Aransas during August of 1979.

Beach erosion at Sergeant Beach on the Texas coast. This house was built behind the dunes twenty years ago. In a few more years, it'll be out in the water. There are other houses to the right of this picture that were out in the water, only the stubble of the pilings left.

This is a marsh area in Galveston Bay that used to be solid. Now, with subsidence because of the removal of oil and gas from below that, and maybe sea-level rise combined with it, we see the marsh deteriorating.

The invasion of the brown mussel to our Texas coast now covers the jetties along the south Texas coast completely, as you can see in this photograph. There are diseases that are starting to infect some of the corals of the southern Gulf of Mexico--this black band disease killing this particular coral. An unknowing bather walked through this pile of oil that had drifted in from the IXTOP spill and ringed the islands in the southern Gulf around the reefs like a donut.

This coral reef in the 1970s, today looks like this. No more coral, just algae. That was in the shallow water. In the deep water, where we now see the impact taking place, if you can focus right below this diver on this coral head, now you see algae attached all around that coral head. We now have algae reefs instead of coral reefs because the ecosystem has become totally out of balance, because of our inputs into the Gulf waters and our effects due to overexploitation of resources there.

Why should we protect the Gulf? Again, you could come up with your list, but we'd like to have it healthy for the ecosystem and ourselves, tourism, recreation, simply quality of life. What's being done? Lots of things are being done.

The Gulf of Mexico program was created a number of years ago. In its first year, a good comparison to show you is that the Chesapeake Bay received $17 million in funding a number of years ago, and the Gulf of Mexico received $1 million. Think of the size difference in the two. So we've tried to make a focus on the Gulf to start doing these things to help restore and enhance it, as you see here, and manage it in a better way.

Here you see agencies, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, joining with private industry, Conoco, and private individuals, to stop shoreline erosion in whooping crane habitat in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

We see special kinds of technology coming along now to stabilize the shoreline and then plant natural habitat back behind that to try to gain some of the ground we've lost. Another area that was upland is now bay bottom and marsh area.

The sea turtles I mentioned earlier that were down to 400 in the 1960s--this last June, they'd had as many as 1600 come in. And each of these that you see in this compound to protect the turtle eggs, is a nesting site that's been transplanted here to protect them. 1600 were laid this last time, the largest since the program started in 1968.

Tony already talked much about this, our cleanup efforts that are going on.

I close with what are we doing or what are we going to do? As a research scientist, I'd say research. We need more research and jump up and down on the podium and say, Send more money. But we know that that's not the only way. We have to have management. And kind of what Bob Ballard was saying earlier, we need to be visionary as to what we're going to do, not crisis management when it happens, but to take care of it ahead of time. We need to sustain the harvest of what we're going to do, rather than exploit.

How can we fund this? And Bill Crook asked me to be a little provocative. And this will be my provocative aspect for you to talk about. And Bob actually alluded to it a little earlier--space, i.e. challenge means. Let's get more of a balance of money going into the ocean, the study of sea technology, and research for the ocean, as we do into space. Dr. Dalken pointed out to me a year or so ago, and I've taken up the banner, that what have we brought back from space? We saw some good photographs earlier, and that's helped us in oceanography. Have we brought back any resources like we've seen from the Gulf of Mexico and from the other oceans of the world?

Let's look for and try to get a balance more in funding where we can put more to study and work within there. We need this development triangle, as I call it, not only economic development, but we must consider social health and environmental quality as we move along.

So the challenge for 2000 and on in the next millennium--three C's, collaborate, cooperate, and communicate. We need to form partnerships, whether it's with private industry, foundations, or agencies and academia. We need to all get together to work for that.

And I'll close with an example of our university and the game that's almost about to begin. We're only a little satellite of the mother ship as we understand from the main campus. But, for example, we have cooperative agreements with state and federal agencies on our campus. This new building that Bill mentioned a while ago to put together state and federal agencies in academia and research. The Flower Garden's Ocean Research Program that Dr. Dalken heads, brings together industry and academia for doing those kinds of things. We take our students in the field with the agencies so that they can hands-on learn these kinds of things.

This is the example of our new facility--a 100,000 square foot, $10-million facility--to bring together state and environmental management agencies working with research agencies on the university campus. Just down the hall, local builders and developers call it one-stop shopping. When they have to go for their permitting activities, it's all in one place, so we like the idea also.

The Flower Garden's program is working primarily with Mobil and British Petroleum, where Dr. Dalken has arranged this program whereby industry puts in the money for supporting the research activities.

And I'll close with noting the Gulf of Mexico Foundation, an organization that Dr. Dalken also works with, which is set up for education and promoting education about the Gulf of Mexico and enhancing and preserving it. And as we all work together in that with industry, agencies, academia, and citizens, we'll see that we can achieve. Thank you.

Bill Moyers: You were talking about the financial situation and I remembered that when our oldest son turned sixteen, he asked for an increase in his allowance. And I said to him, Well, you know, son, there are some things more important than money. And he said, Yes, Dad, but it takes money to date them.

The fact of the matter is, it takes money to do this work. And it doesn't have the priority that some more immediate things do. Do any of you have a response to what Wes said--or questions? Yes, Mary.

Mary Altalo: I just have a comment and what's spurred a lot of interest. First of all, because of the coastal region--you are showing very nicely in your set of slides the diversity and the number of parameters that you have to measure, which is, again, much of a challenge.

The second thing is that the time frames that you have to measure these parameters in is very, very rapid, simply because of the rapid changes. That takes very detailed observation systems. And while NASA has established and has sort of turned around and put together plans for Planet Earth, for Mission to Planet Earth, a lot of times the instrumentation that's up there, the satellites, which are actually observing Earth, are looking at a very large footprint. Very nice for looking at the open ocean, but when you get into the coastal region, you cannot observe on the time and space scales that are necessary for the kinds of preservation that you need in the coastal region.

So I urge that not only do we have to educate them to look towards Earth, but also to provide things on the appropriate spatial scale for looking and preserving the coastal region.

Barto Arnold: This fall saw the completion of a landmark in the historical study of the Gulf of Mexico, the publication of the third of Robert Weddle's books on the exploration of the Gulf of Mexico, the first being The Spanish Sea, and then The French Thorn, and now the third one, Changing Ideas.

He takes a broad regional, synthetic look. So often when we hear about the explorers of the Gulf, it's from a state by state perspective. Weddle's books are unique and interesting in that he looks at what's going on in the whole region of the Gulf shore at one time. I highly recommend those books.

Bill Moyers: I don't understand how this projection of population growth and accumulating pressure can be offset by the relatively modest efforts of regulation and conservation. I just don't. I have to be honest and say that. It seems to me that the cheerful, ruthless dynamism of human activity is going to overwhelm us.

Robert Ballard: As you said from the man on Wall Street that the reason he was gloomy was that he wasn't sure his optimism was justified. And I must say, I'm in the same boat. I'm an optimist, and it's hard to tell the horrible, horrible news.

But, clearly, when you bring any group of scientists together, almost regardless of discipline, and you ask them the single most important challenge to the human race, it's global population. And I think all of us see that that's the enemy.

Bill Moyers: Bill Crook and I decided arbitrarily, as these totalitarian societies are wont to do here in Texas, that we were going to change our agenda tomorrow morning. We are going to open the questioning to the microphone--anyone can ask a question from the floor.

I hope some of you will think overnight about this philosophical question which has been raised by our scientific guests: What makes us think that the human race is the end of this whole process which may have begun on the ocean floor? Why do we want to assume that the human race is the purpose of nature?

There's no one in this room I admire more than I do Barto Arnold. He went to Austin to attend the University of Texas and never left. Despite having bitten deeply into the fruit of the tree of knowledge, he just simply couldn't part from Scholz's Garten.

He earned two degrees at UT in preparation for a career in land archaeology, which is why he spent the last twenty years in marine archaeology. And how did that happen? Well, his adviser assigned him to clean artifacts from two Spanish vessels that were sunk in the Gulf in 1554, about the time Cactus Pryor arrived in Texas. And Barto's imagination leapt from shore to sea, and his life's destiny followed.

Since 1975 he has been State Marine Archaeologist. The story of his discovery of La Salle's ship Belle is a fascinating account of marine detective work, and a reminder of a fantastic discovery made on a very modest budget.
The president of the Society for Historical Archaeology, Barto Arnold.