Helping the Gulf Ecosystem Evolve
The Gulf of Mexico provides Texans with countless recreational, environmental and economic benefits, and marine biologist Dr. Lee Fuiman, director of the University of Texas at Austin Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas, aims to see that it always will. Fuiman and his staff confront myriad problems related to the Gulf's ever-changing ecology. The fish population itself is one of the most important.
"As our global population increases, our demand on all sorts of food resources is increasing," Fuiman notes. "We are placing a large demand on the environment and the fish populations are suffering." Yet 40 percent of the seafood consumed by Americans comes from the Gulf (sportfishing contributes another $3 billion annually to the Texas economy). So as "fishing down the food chain"—harvesting and attempting to market previously unsought species—increases, MSI researchers study how and why fish populations are suffering, and ways to combat that; simultaneously, they look into developing commercial "fish farms" where the more desirable fish can be reared in sufficient quantities to offset the natural fishing losses.
Overfishing is far from the only pressure on the Gulf Coast ecosystem. There's pollution from all the garbage dumped off boats in the Gulf (or on the Mississippi River, as that waste eventually washes into the Gulf, too). Less freshwater from the Mississippi and other rivers flows into the Gulf, which makes its waters more salty; if they become too salty, the Gulf will become like the Dead Sea. Because of nitrogen and phosphorus nutrients dissolved in Mississippi River waters coming from the Midwest, there's now a "dead zone" in the northern Gulf where the water contains so little oxygen that sea life cannot survive there. Red tides, created when toxins in the water kill fish, occur periodically. Seagrass, which sucks pollutants out of the water and buffers the coastline during storms, is being threatened, as are mangroves which combine with seagrass in salt marshes to provide habitats for oysters, shrimp and blue crabs that contribute millions of dollars to the economy. "Things like marshes and mudflats that are unattractive and don't particularly appeal to us," Fuiman says, "are critically important to maintaining the pristine nature of our environment." They clean it up so we aren't required to. And unnatural climate changes such as global warming also alter the delicate balance of Texas' bays and estuaries.
The Marine Science Institute attempts to bring lawyers, policymakers, economists and social scientists together with natural scientists to create interdisciplinary studies that can investigate these problems and propose solutions which are viable in the "real world" of political, social and economic considerations. Scientists work with representatives from the fishing, gas and oil, transportation and tourism industries to find ways to keep marine ecosystems healthy and productive. Dr. Fuiman and fellow researchers also train future scientists, and educate the public about the marine environment through a Visitor's Center and the new Wetlands Education Center.
"The Institute established the first marine science public education program in Texas more than 30 years ago, and strengthening science education remains one of the most important facets of our work," Fuiman concludes. "We want everyone to understand how important it is to have healthy coastlines. Only by having an educated, well-aware public can we hope to activate legislators to make changes that are necessary to preserve our environment."