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Concept: Gulf of Mexico


Acute catastrophic events can cause significant damage to marine environments in a short time period and may have devastating long-term impacts. In April 2010 the BP-operated Deepwater Horizon (DWH) offshore oil rig exploded, releasing an estimated 760 million liters of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. This study examines the potential effects of oil spill exposure on coral larvae of the Florida Keys. Larvae of the brooding coral, Porites astreoides, and the broadcast spawning coral, Montastraea faveolata, were exposed to multiple concentrations of BP Horizon source oil (crude, weathered and WAF), oil in combination with the dispersant Corexit® 9500 (CEWAF), and dispersant alone, and analyzed for behavior, settlement, and survival. Settlement and survival of P. astreoides and M. faveolata larvae decreased with increasing concentrations of WAF, CEWAF and Corexit® 9500, however the degree of the response varied by species and solution. P. astreoides larvae experienced decreased settlement and survival following exposure to 0.62 ppm source oil, while M. faveolata larvae were negatively impacted by 0.65, 1.34 and 1.5 ppm, suggesting that P. astreoides larvae may be more tolerant to WAF exposure than M. faveolata larvae. Exposure to medium and high concentrations of CEWAF (4.28/18.56 and 30.99/35.76 ppm) and dispersant Corexit® 9500 (50 and 100 ppm), significantly decreased larval settlement and survival for both species. Furthermore, exposure to Corexit® 9500 resulted in settlement failure and complete larval mortality after exposure to 50 and 100 ppm for M. faveolata and 100 ppm for P. astreoides. These results indicate that exposure of coral larvae to oil spill related contaminants, particularly the dispersant Corexit® 9500, has the potential to negatively impact coral settlement and survival, thereby affecting the resilience and recovery of coral reefs following exposure to oil and dispersants.

Concepts: Petroleum, Coral, Coral reef, Gulf of Mexico, Exxon Valdez oil spill, Oil spill, Florida Keys, Oil platform


A large region of low-dissolved-oxygen bottom waters (hypoxia) forms nearly every summer in the northern Gulf of Mexico because of nutrient inputs from the Mississippi River Basin and water column stratification. Policymakers developed goals to reduce the area of hypoxic extent because of its ecological, economic, and commercial fisheries impacts. However, the goals remain elusive after 30 y of research and monitoring and 15 y of goal-setting and assessment because there has been little change in river nitrogen concentrations. An intergovernmental Task Force recently extended to 2035 the deadline for achieving the goal of a 5,000-km(2) 5-y average hypoxic zone and set an interim load target of a 20% reduction of the spring nitrogen loading from the Mississippi River by 2025 as part of their adaptive management process. The Task Force has asked modelers to reassess the loading reduction required to achieve the 2035 goal and to determine the effect of the 20% interim load reduction. Here, we address both questions using a probabilistic ensemble of four substantially different hypoxia models. Our results indicate that, under typical weather conditions, a 59% reduction in Mississippi River nitrogen load is required to reduce hypoxic area to 5,000 km(2) The interim goal of a 20% load reduction is expected to produce an 18% reduction in hypoxic area over the long term. However, due to substantial interannual variability, a 25% load reduction is required before there is 95% certainty of observing any hypoxic area reduction between consecutive 5-y assessment periods.

Concepts: Drainage basin, Florida, Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Gulf of Mexico, Mississippi River, Rio Grande


A recent hydrographic survey of the Florida Current at 27°N revealed an enhanced upward flux of nutrients along the Florida coast. Geostrophic flow of the Gulf Stream through the narrow Florida Straits causes an uplift of the nutricline toward its western edge, shoaling the mixed layers into the base of the euphotic zone. At a nearshore station, nitrate, phosphate, and silicate concentrations reached 19, 1.4, and 10 µM, respectively, at a water depth of 27 m. Furthermore, nutrient vertical gradients below the mixed layer increased with decreasing seafloor depth toward the Florida coast. The estimated vertical eddy diffusive nutrient fluxes across diapycnal surfaces reached 0.40-83.7, 0.03-6.24, and 0.24-45.5 mmol m(-2) d(-1) for nitrate, phosphate, and silicate, respectively, along the shore. Estimated fluxes span a wide range due to the range of diffusivity measured. The lower end of estimated fluxes are comparable to open ocean values, but higher end of estimates are two orders of magnitude greater than those observed in open ocean. The diapycnal nutrient fluxes declined rapidly offshore as a result of decreasing vertical gradients of nutrient concentration.

Concepts: Oceanography, Atlantic Ocean, Ocean, Aquatic ecology, Gulf of Mexico, Photic zone, Gulf Stream, Straits of Florida


A northern Gulf of Mexico (GoM) cetacean unusual mortality event (UME) involving primarily bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama began in February 2010 and continued into 2014. Overlapping in time and space with this UME was the Deepwater Horizon (DWH) oil spill, which was proposed as a contributing cause of adrenal disease, lung disease, and poor health in live dolphins examined during 2011 in Barataria Bay, Louisiana. To assess potential contributing factors and causes of deaths for stranded UME dolphins from June 2010 through December 2012, lung and adrenal gland tissues were histologically evaluated from 46 fresh dead non-perinatal carcasses that stranded in Louisiana (including 22 from Barataria Bay), Mississippi, and Alabama. UME dolphins were tested for evidence of biotoxicosis, morbillivirus infection, and brucellosis. Results were compared to up to 106 fresh dead stranded dolphins from outside the UME area or prior to the DWH spill. UME dolphins were more likely to have primary bacterial pneumonia (22% compared to 2% in non-UME dolphins, P = .003) and thin adrenal cortices (33% compared to 7% in non-UME dolphins, P = .003). In 70% of UME dolphins with primary bacterial pneumonia, the condition either caused or contributed significantly to death. Brucellosis and morbillivirus infections were detected in 7% and 11% of UME dolphins, respectively, and biotoxin levels were low or below the detection limit, indicating that these were not primary causes of the current UME. The rare, life-threatening, and chronic adrenal gland and lung diseases identified in stranded UME dolphins are consistent with exposure to petroleum compounds as seen in other mammals. Exposure of dolphins to elevated petroleum compounds present in coastal GoM waters during and after the DWH oil spill is proposed as a cause of adrenal and lung disease and as a contributor to increased dolphin deaths.

Concepts: Death, Pneumonia, Cetacean intelligence, Animal echolocation, Bottlenose dolphin, Great white shark, Common Bottlenose Dolphin, Gulf of Mexico


Tunas are apex predators in marine food webs that can accumulate mercury (Hg) to high concentrations and provide more Hg (∼40%) to the U.S population than any other source. We measured Hg concentrations in 1292 Atlantic bluefin tuna (ABFT, Thunnus thynnus) captured in the Northwest Atlantic from 2004 to 2012. ABFT Hg concentrations and variability increased nonlinearly with length, weight, and age, ranging from 0.25 to 3.15 mg kg(-1), and declined significantly at a rate of 0.018 ± 0.003 mg kg(-1) per year or 19% over an 8-year period from the 1990s to the early 2000s. Notably, this decrease parallels comparably reduced anthropogenic Hg emission rates in North America and North Atlantic atmospheric Hg(0) concentrations during this period, suggesting that recent efforts to decrease atmospheric Hg loading have rapidly propagated up marine food webs to a commercially important species. This is the first evidence to suggest that emission reduction efforts have resulted in lower Hg concentrations in large, long-lived fish.

Concepts: United States, Atlantic Ocean, Europe, Gulf of Mexico, Tuna, Thunnus, Scombridae, Northern bluefin tuna


Atlantic bluefin tuna are a symbol of both the conflict between preservationist and utilitarian views of top ocean predators, and the struggle to reach international consensus on the management of migratory species. Currently, Atlantic bluefin tuna are managed as an early-maturing eastern stock, which spawns in the Mediterranean Sea, and a late-maturing western stock, which spawns in the Gulf of Mexico. However, electronic tagging studies show that many bluefin tuna, assumed to be of a mature size, do not visit either spawning ground during the spawning season. Whether these fish are spawning in an alternate location, skip-spawning, or not spawning until an older age affects how vulnerable this species is to anthropogenic stressors including exploitation. We use larval collections to demonstrate a bluefin tuna spawning ground in the Slope Sea, between the Gulf Stream and northeast United States continental shelf. We contend that western Atlantic bluefin tuna have a differential spawning migration, with larger individuals spawning in the Gulf of Mexico, and smaller individuals spawning in the Slope Sea. The current life history model, which assumes only Gulf of Mexico spawning, overestimates age at maturity for the western stock. Furthermore, individual tuna occupy both the Slope Sea and Mediterranean Sea in separate years, contrary to the prevailing view that individuals exhibit complete spawning-site fidelity. Overall, this complexity of spawning migrations questions whether there is complete independence in the dynamics of eastern and western Atlantic bluefin tuna and leads to lower estimates of the vulnerability of this species to exploitation and other anthropogenic stressors.

Concepts: Atlantic Ocean, Europe, Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico, Tuna, Thunnus, Scombridae, Northern bluefin tuna


Gravity models are powerful tools for mapping tectonic structures, especially in the deep ocean basins where the topography remains unmapped by ships or is buried by thick sediment. We combined new radar altimeter measurements from satellites CryoSat-2 and Jason-1 with existing data to construct a global marine gravity model that is two times more accurate than previous models. We found an extinct spreading ridge in the Gulf of Mexico, a major propagating rift in the South Atlantic Ocean, abyssal hill fabric on slow-spreading ridges, and thousands of previously uncharted seamounts. These discoveries allow us to understand regional tectonic processes and highlight the importance of satellite-derived gravity models as one of the primary tools for the investigation of remote ocean basins.

Concepts: United States, Plate tectonics, Atlantic Ocean, Indian Ocean, Caribbean Sea, Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, Gulf Stream


Surface-ocean circulation in the northern Atlantic Ocean influences Northern Hemisphere climate. Century-scale circulation variability in the Atlantic Ocean, however, is poorly constrained due to insufficiently-resolved paleoceanographic records. Here we present a replicated reconstruction of sea-surface temperature and salinity from a site sensitive to North Atlantic circulation in the Gulf of Mexico which reveals pronounced centennial-scale variability over the late Holocene. We find significant correlations on these timescales between salinity changes in the Atlantic, a diagnostic parameter of circulation, and widespread precipitation anomalies using three approaches: multiproxy synthesis, observational datasets, and a transient simulation. Our results demonstrate links between centennial changes in northern Atlantic surface-circulation and hydroclimate changes in the adjacent continents over the late Holocene. Notably, our findings reveal that weakened surface-circulation in the Atlantic Ocean was concomitant with well-documented rainfall anomalies in the Western Hemisphere during the Little Ice Age.

Concepts: Atlantic Ocean, Pacific Ocean, Ocean, Tropical cyclone, Gulf of Mexico, Antarctica, Equator, Greenland


Cetaceans are protected worldwide but vulnerable to incidental harm from an expanding array of human activities at sea. Managing potential hazards to these highly-mobile populations increasingly requires a detailed understanding of their seasonal distributions and habitats. Pursuant to the urgent need for this knowledge for the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, we integrated 23 years of aerial and shipboard cetacean surveys, linked them to environmental covariates obtained from remote sensing and ocean models, and built habitat-based density models for 26 species and 3 multi-species guilds using distance sampling methodology. In the Atlantic, for 11 well-known species, model predictions resembled seasonal movement patterns previously suggested in the literature. For these we produced monthly mean density maps. For lesser-known taxa, and in the Gulf of Mexico, where seasonal movements were less well described, we produced year-round mean density maps. The results revealed high regional differences in small delphinoid densities, confirmed the importance of the continental slope to large delphinoids and of canyons and seamounts to beaked and sperm whales, and quantified seasonal shifts in the densities of migratory baleen whales. The density maps, freely available online, are the first for these regions to be published in the peer-reviewed literature.

Concepts: United States, Atlantic Ocean, Mexico, Gulf of Mexico, Cetacea, Whale, Baleen whale, Cetaceans


Plastics represent the vast majority of human-made debris present in the oceans. However, their characteristics, accumulation zones, and transport pathways remain poorly assessed. We characterised and estimated the concentration of marine plastics in waters around Australia using surface net tows, and inferred their potential pathways using particle-tracking models and real drifter trajectories. The 839 marine plastics recorded were predominantly small fragments (“microplastics”, median length = 2.8 mm, mean length = 4.9 mm) resulting from the breakdown of larger objects made of polyethylene and polypropylene (e.g. packaging and fishing items). Mean sea surface plastic concentration was 4256.4 pieces km(-2), and after incorporating the effect of vertical wind mixing, this value increased to 8966.3 pieces km(-2). These plastics appear to be associated with a wide range of ocean currents that connect the sampled sites to their international and domestic sources, including populated areas of Australia’s east coast. This study shows that plastic contamination levels in surface waters of Australia are similar to those in the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Maine, but considerably lower than those found in the subtropical gyres and Mediterranean Sea. Microplastics such as the ones described here have the potential to affect organisms ranging from megafauna to small fish and zooplankton.

Concepts: Fish, Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, Sea, Ocean, Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, Marine debris