View Electronic Edition

Gulf of Mexico Bioregion

Though often compared to the Mediterranean, the Gulf of Mexico is a unique semi-enclosed sea. It was shaped by the largest known meteor to have crashed into the Earth, the extinction of a major bellowing deep sea crack in Gaia's crust, and the collision of three tectonic plates. The Gulf of Mexico welcomes one of the planet's major currents, the Loop Current, from the Northern Pacific, eddies and swings it by three nations and eleven states, and turns it completely around. T'ain't nothin', as they say in Texas.

The Gulf has swallowed many. African slaves, French and Spanish colonists, and Native American traditions (most of the peoples were exterminated) have stirred up the essence of the United States: the future's cuisine and down home blues. Texas coast rice, Louisiana and Mexican cane sugar, Florida and Mexican citrus, palm and coconut oil, and shrimp and fish wreathe the nearshore Gulflands.

Even before this recent history, Caribs boated from Havana to Tampa, and Mexican mound-builders are believed to have brought religion up the Mississippi. And, before that, hundreds of non-human creatures spread from the Caribbean and Mexico by land and sea and air, leaving a unique suite of species from Florida to the Rio Grande. Caribbean flamingos and crocodiles appear in Florida. Migrating birds—warblers, falcons—maintain the connection to their tropical origins.

This is a region of snapper banks, shrimp grounds, lobster, crab, oyster, scallops and deep-sea fishing. The limbo line of the Gulf's shore fluctuates on all time scales: strand, dune, and shell beaches, barrier islands; salt and freshwater marshes, bays, and lagoons; nearshore turtle grass pastures and mangrove swamps. Mostly, they are in retreat from human appetite and thoughtlessness. Recreational and industrial developments and subdivisions along the whole Gulf Coast clash with tern and turtle nesting grounds as well as the stop-over and wintering habitats of migrating birds. Florida phosphate mines and upper Gulf sulfur extractions both fertilize inland soils and fragment coastal integrity.

Huge rivers pour into the Gulf. The Mississippi, the Usamacinta, the Everglades, and the Rio Grande used to nurture great fishing. Now they empty their altered sediment and the polluted runoff of every state they touch. River control and dams have shut down most flow in the Rio Grande, which has been invaded by dozens of non-native fish. Along the Louisiana coast, land subsides faster than anywhere else in North America, and salt marshes turn to open bays more often than they should. The industries of Cancer Alley on the lower Mississippi, the Houston Ship Canal, and Galveston Bay piss their toxins into the Gulf. Scientists ponder the causes of red, green, and brown tides, massive fish die-offs, ailing coral reefs, and dolphin strandings.

This is the bioregion of natural gas and oil, with onshore refineries and thousands of offshore drilling platforms. They hover ominously near beautiful salt dome-, rock-, and limestone-based coral reefs. Spills and platform fires are not under control.

The Gulf is the place where ecotourism, game fishing, commercial fishing, and just plain cheap flights for a tequila weekend of snorkeling can be the time of your life or turn the gumbo sour. El Garrafón and the Isla Mujeres reefs are dead from too much Cancún turismo. The shrimpers clash with the turtle-savers and conservationists worry about by-catch. Game and commercial fishermen clash with themselves and argue: is this decline a natural fluctuation or are we overfishing?

The Gulf Coast is a bioregion of essentially no snow and no history of glaciers. In the United States, the seasons between summer convection storms and winter frontals run the risk of drought. When winds die off the coast, larval and young invertebrates and fish have a hard time moving. Hurricanes like Dona, Camille, Hugo, and Andrew churn through the bioregion and send insurance companies begging for federal bailouts. Occasional volcanoes in the Yucatan veil the sun with ash.

There are great spiritual and Earth warriors here. Upstream and Gulf Coast citizens have begun the struggle for clean waters and edible fish and shellfish. The Seminole and the Mayans hold on. The decline of the pelican and whooping crane has been turned around. Coral reefs now have careful monitors and restorers. Bioregional writers sing of its beauty and satirize mercilessly the perpetrators of blind greed. It is a place of great hospitality, a mysterious Mardi Gras of petrochemical addiction, and home to wise fisherpeople who see and who speak with unpretentious words of what has been wrought upon our mother sea.