As the fight to stop the growing disaster in the Gulf of Mexico continues, concern remains that oil from the Gulf disaster could enter the powerful Loop Current and circulate water around Florida and up the Atlantic Coast via the Gulf Stream. This current could place oil on the shores of North America’s only living barrier coral reef ecosystem – the Florida Keys.
Located just off the tip of Florida, the Florida Keys is a significant ecological treasure which consists of 1,700 islands with the only complete tropical marine ecosystem in the continental United States. Its amazing barrier coral reef is the third longest barrier reef in the world.
The ecosystem of the Florida Keys – its corals, mangroves, submerged seagrass beds and patch reefs in between – supports more than 6,000 species of plants, fish, and invertebrates. Marine mammals like bottlenose dolphins and manatees; fish like snapper, blue marlin, and hammerhead sharks; shellfish like spiny lobster and stone crabs; and reptiles like the American alligator – thrive in the waters of the Florida Keys. Five of the six species of marine turtles found in U.S. waters can be found in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
The economic health of the Florida Keys depends on this ecosystem remaining healthy:
- Tourism and recreation in the Keys contributed more than a billion dollars to the state’s gross domestic product in 2004.
- Key West is among the nation’s top 20 producers of seafood by dollar value of the dockside catch. In 2008, more than 10 million pounds of fish and shellfish worth nearly $39 million were brought in to the Key West port alone.
- Expenditures from recreational anglers in western Florida generated more than $5 billion in total sales to the regional economy and supported approximately 54,600 jobs in 2008.
Scientists believe that if oil were to reach the Keys, residents could see a mixture of weathered forms of oil like tar balls, thin sheen, and streamers of emulsified oil.
Thankfully, thus far there have been no confirmed observations of oil from the spill near South Florida and researchers are closely monitoring the Loop Current and the submerged plumes of oil droplets and natural gas. Whether or not oil will reach South Florida depends on the currents, weather, and winds.
However, while no oil has hit the shoreline of Florida Keys, residents should inform themselves about what they can do – and what they should not do – to help respond to this disaster.
As the oil continues to flow, we need to make sure that we’re protecting our valuable ocean resources and coastal communities.