A high-latitude coral community with an uncertain future: Stetson Bank, northwestern Gulf of Mexico


Limited data exist that detail trends in benthic community composition of high-latitude coral communities. As anthropogenic stressors are projected to increase in number and intensity, long-term monitoring datasets are essential to understanding community stability and ecosystem resilience. In 1993, a long-term monitoring program was initiated at Stetson Bank, in the Gulf of Mexico. Over the course of this monitoring, a major shift in community structure occurred, in which the coral-sponge community was replaced by an algal-dominated community. During the initial years of this study, the coral community at Stetson Bank was relatively stable. Beginning in the late 1990s, sponge cover began a steady decline from over 30 % to less than 25 %. Then, in 2005, the benthic community underwent a further significant change when living coral cover declined from 30 % to less than 8 % and sponges declined to less than 20 % benthic cover. This abrupt shift corresponded with a Caribbean-wide bleaching event in 2005 that caused major mortality of Stetson Bank corals. Previous bleaching events at Stetson Bank did not result in wide-scale coral mortality. Several environmental parameters may have contributed to the rapid decline in this benthic community. We suggest that the combined effects of coastal runoff and elevated temperatures contributed to the observed shift. We present an analysis of 15 years of monitoring data spanning from 1993 to 2008; this dataset provides both a biological baseline and a multiyear trend analysis of the community structure for a high-latitude coral-sponge community in the face of changing climatic conditions.

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We thank the volunteer divers who help make the annual long-term monitoring missions successful and the Gulf Reef Environmental Action Team (GREAT), which initiated the monitoring program at Stetson Bank, including G. Boland, S. Gittings, D. Zingula, and K. Deslarzes. We also thank S. Bernhardt, K. Buch, G. Bunch, F. & J. Burek, K. Byers, Q. Dokken, K. Drinnen, G. Merritt, E. Platzer, T. Sebastian, D. Weaver, M. Weber, the captains and crew of the M/V Fling, and the monitoring teams from Texas A&M Corpus Christi and PBS&J. We are grateful to M. Eakin and G. Liu at NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch Program for providing DHW data. R. Baker provided statistical assistance and valuable comments. We also thank P. Sammarco and 2 anonymous referees for their insightful reviews.

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Correspondence to J. L. DeBose.

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Communicated by Environment Editor Prof. Rob van Woesik

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DeBose, J.L., Nuttall, M.F., Hickerson, E.L. et al. A high-latitude coral community with an uncertain future: Stetson Bank, northwestern Gulf of Mexico. Coral Reefs 32, 255–267 (2013).

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  • High-latitude reef
  • Millepora
  • Coral bleaching
  • Phase shift
  • Stetson Bank
  • Gulf of Mexico