Shelf-margin carbonate mounds in water depths of 116–135 m in the eastern Gulf of Mexico along the central west Florida shelf were investigated using swath bathymetry, side-scan sonar, sub-bottom imaging, rock dredging, and submersible dives. These enigmatic structures, known to fisherman as the “Sticky Grounds”, trend along slope, are 5–15 m in relief with base diameters of 5–30 m, and suggest widespread potential for mesophotic reef habitat along the west Florida outer continental shelf. Possible origins are sea-level lowstand coral patch reefs, oyster reefs, or perhaps more recent post-lowstand biohermal development. Rock dredging recovered bioeroded carbonate-rock facies comprised of bored and cemented bioclastics. Rock sample components included calcified worm tubes, pelagic sediment, and oysters normally restricted to brackish nearshore areas. Several reef sites were surveyed at the Sticky Grounds during a cruise in August 2010 with the R/V Seward Johnson using the Johnson-Sea-Link II submersible to ground truth the swath-sonar maps and to quantify and characterize the benthic habitats, benthic macrofauna, fish populations, and coral/sponge cover. This study characterizes for the first time this mesophotic reef ecosystem and associated fish populations, and analyzes the interrelationships of the fish assemblages, benthic habitats and invertebrate biota. These highly eroded rock mounds provide extensive hard-bottom habitat for reef invertebrate species as well as essential fish habitat for reef fish and commercially/recreationally important fish species. The extent and significance of associated living resources with these bottom types is particularly important in light of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the northeastern Gulf and the proximity of the Loop Current. Mapping the distribution of these mesophotic-depth ecosystems is important for quantifying essential fish habitat and describing benthic resources. These activities can improve ecosystem management and planning of future oil and gas activities in this outer continental shelf region.
USA - Gulf of Mexico