6.1 Introduction

The Gulf of Mexico (GoM) is the ninth largest body of water in the world (including ocean basins) with an outer shoreline extending approximately 6,077 kilometers (km) (3,776 miles [mi]) from the Florida Keys to the northwest coast of Cuba (Moretzsohn et al. 2012). The Gulf encompasses an area of approximately 1.5 million km2 (0.58 million mi2), and with an average depth of about 1,615 meters [m] (5,300 feet [ft]), it provides habitat for a myriad of marine, shoreline, and estuarine flora and fauna that occupy a diverse suite of coastal ecosystems (NOAA 2011). The Gulf is among the most biologically productive marine environments in the world, producing 78, 62, and 16 % of U.S. shrimp, oyster, and fishery landings, respectively (NOAA 2011). The productive value (market value) of the Gulf has been estimated at 124 billion U.S. dollars annually for Mexico and the United States from oil and gas, fisheries, ports and shipping, and tourism (Yoskowitz 2009). The Gulf provides a variety of important ecosystem services from regulating greenhouse gases to providing food to supporting recreational activities, all of which enhance the diverse social cultures within the GoM region (see Section 6.4.4).

The GoM shoreline includes a variety of coastal habitats, ranging from submerged seagrass beds to intertidal wetlands to supratidal sand dunes and maritime forests. Included in this habitat diversity are barrier islands, hypersaline lagoons, herbaceous marshes, forested wetlands of mangroves and cypress swamps, beaches, intertidal flats, oyster and coral reefs, subaquatic vegetation, and sponge beds (NOAA 2011). The following review emphasizes vegetated habitats of coastal strand beaches, as well as adjacent saline wetlands and subaqueous environments.

Coastal strand beaches, and adjacent marsh and subaqueous habitats of the GoM, extend as far north as approximately 30.5°N near the Florida Panhandle shoreline to as far south as 18°N along the Veracruz-Tabascan shoreline of Mexico. The westernmost extent is approximately 98°W along the Tamaulipas shoreline of Mexico, and the far eastern extent is along the Matanzas shoreline in Cuba at about 80.6°W (Figure 6.1). This geographic range spans geophysical boundaries and climatic zones (temperate, subtropical, and tropical), giving rise to physiographic and ecological classifications of shoreline habitats.

Figure 6.1
figure 1

Geographic extent of the Gulf of Mexico (basemap from CEC, 2007; French and Schenk, 2005)

The primary goal of this paper is to provide a conceptual framework from which to understand the ecology of coastal habitats in the GoM including the physical and geological processes that control their formation. Given the importance of vegetated habitats along coastal beaches and marshes of the GoM, their documented societal value, and the present pressures for development, emphasis will be placed on vegetated shoreline habitats. These include intertidal wetlands, such as salt marshes and mangroves, intertidal to subtidal seagrasses and flats, and supratidal barrier strand habitats, including beaches, sand dunes, and maritime forests on barrier islands. The landward limit of this review is the boundary between salt and brackish marshes, although when relevant, processes, biota, and/or habitats farther landward will be discussed. The seaward limit to which physical and biotic processes are addressed is the extent of active littoral transport (approximate location of the 10-m [33-ft] depth contour). From a geological standpoint, Holocene processes and sedimentary deposits are emphasized.

Although much is known about vegetated marine habitats of the GoM, no single document has attempted to review the diverse geology and ecology of coastal shoreline habitats in this vast geographic region. This review provides a summary of the geological and ecological status of shoreline habitats in the GoM, emphasizing vegetated ecosystems. It provides a baseline and general understanding of the operative physical and geological processes influencing coastal habitat formation and evolution, as well as the ecological structure and function of habitats.

6.2 Physiographic Framework

Gulf Coast margins are characterized by persistent geochemical and biological interactions where continental and marine waters mix, and there is a continual exchange of large amounts of sediment, organic matter, and energy with the open Gulf. Topographic features, coastal and nearshore circulation, tidal mixing, and freshwater inflow from rivers and groundwater all contribute to small-scale interactions that control coastal habitat distribution and response (see Section 6.4). Along the north and south margins of the Gulf, river systems deliver large quantities of organic matter, sediments, and nutrients, resulting in high rates of sediment deposition and primary productivity, along with episodic sediment resuspension and redistribution (Robbins et al. 2009). On the eastern and western Gulf margins, river input is relatively small, and Loop Current and upwelling processes predominate (Schmitz 2003; Hine and Locker 2011).

Various classification systems have been used to describe marine and terrestrial ecosystems within and adjacent to the GoM relative to watershed characteristics and oceanographic processes. Because the primary focus of this review is to describe the evolution of vegetated marine habitats of coastal strand beaches and adjacent wetlands (coastal habitat at the land–water interface), the marine ecoregion classification of Wilkinson et al. (2009) was used to illustrate natural environmental variability and the potential impact of human activities along the margins of the GoM. However, terrestrial ecoregions describe the inland character of subaerial coastal habitats at the marine boundary. As such, both systems are described below and referred to throughout the text when discussing shoreline change and coastal habitat distribution.

6.2.1 Marine Ecoregions

The GoM provinces of Robbins et al. (2009) largely overlap marine ecoregions established by Wilkinson et al. (2009), including (1) the South Florida/Bahamian Atlantic Marine Ecoregion, (2) the Northern GoM Marine Ecoregion, (3) the Southern GoM Marine Ecoregion, and (4) the Caribbean Sea Marine Ecoregion (Figure 6.2). Furthermore, Spalding et al. (2007) classified waters surrounding Cuba and a larger portion of the central Caribbean as the Greater Antilles Marine Ecoregion. The marine ecoregion classification was established to address ecosystem-based conservation and sustainable development strategies. Three levels were identified for each ecoregion, except for the Greater Antilles. Level I captures largest-scale ecosystem differences, such as large water masses and currents and regions of consistent sea surface temperature (Figure 6.2). Level II reflects the break between neritic and oceanic areas and is delineated based on physiographic features (e.g., continental shelf and slope). This sub-level indicates the importance of depth for determining the location of benthic marine communities and primary physiographic features for controlling current flows and upwelling. Level III is limited to the continental shelf and based on differences within the neritic zone as determined by local water mass characteristics, regional landforms, and biological community type (Figure 6.3). Spalding et al. (2007), Wilkinson et al. (2009), Yáñez-Arancibia and Day (2004), and Yáñez-Arancibia et al. (2009) summarized these ecological regions and related environmental characteristics.

Figure 6.2
figure 2

Level I marine ecoregions of the GoM (data from Spalding et al. 2007; Wilkinson et al. 2009; and basemap from CEC 2007; French and Schenk 2005)

Figure 6.3
figure 3

Level III marine ecoregions for the GoM (data from Wilkinson et al. 2009 and basemap from CEC 2007; French and Schenk 2005)

Although marine province and ecoregion characterizations for the GoM basin are generally consistent, marine ecoregion classification provides details more closely related to coastal habitat identification. The South Florida/Bahamian Atlantic region includes the southern tip of the Florida Peninsula, where groundwater discharge is important and sandy beaches, mangroves, seagrasses, and coral reefs dominate. This marine ecoregion extends from the Florida Keys north to southern Keewaydin Island (just south of Naples, Florida) and comprises four subregions that reflect physiographic and hydrologic complexities associated with this biologically unique area. Level III subregions include the Dry Tortugas Reef Tract, Florida Keys, Florida Bay, Shark River Estuarine, and Southwest Florida Neritic (Figure 6.3). Habitats of this region are often underlain by a calcium carbonate substrate, a driver of vegetation structure and function. Sea surface temperatures vary from 22.5 °C (72.5 °F) in the winter to 28 °C (82 °F) in the summer (Figure 6.4). Although the Cuban shoreline of the GoM is not included in this classification level, it is part of the Greater Antilles Marine Ecoregion (Level I) and is dominated by limestone substrate similar to that of southern Florida. Furthermore, physical processes and ecological characteristics along the northwestern Cuban shoreline are similar to those of the Florida Keys.

Figure 6.4
figure 4

Average sea surface temperatures for winter and summer seasons for the GoM (data from Casey et al. 2010; basemap from French and Schenk 2005)

The Caribbean coast of Mexico is the northern portion of the Caribbean Sea Ecoregion, named the Contoyan Neritic sub-region (Wilkinson et al. 2009). The sub-region name reflects proximity to Isla Contoy, located just east of the Campeche/Yucatán Inner Neritic zone (Figure 6.3). The area generally has lower average sea surface temperatures (28 °C [82 °F] in summer and 22.5 °C [72.5 °F] in winter; Figure 6.4) and lower nutrient loading than the Southern GoM Marine Ecoregion. Coral reefs, carbonate beaches, mangrove forests, and seagrass meadows are common coastal habitats, and water flow through the Yucatán Channel has a primary influence on coastal and shelf ecosystems. Beaches are primary tourist attractions of economic importance to the region.

The Northern GoM Ecoregion is a warm-temperate area in the GoM basin that contains approximately 60 % of tidal marshes in the United States, freshwater inputs from 37 major rivers, and numerous nursery habitats for fish (Figure 6.2) (Wilkinson et al. 2009). Average sea-surface summer temperatures in this region range from 28 to 30 °C (82 to 86 °F), while winter temperatures range from 14 to 24 °C (57 to 75 °F) (Figure 6.4). This is generally a region of high nutrient loading and includes biotic communities such as mangroves, salt marshes, and seagrasses, coastal lagoons and estuaries, and low river basins. This ecoregion extends from southern Keewaydin Island on the west coast of Florida to just south of Barra del Tordo in the State of Tamaulipas, Mexico and comprises six subregions that reflect the influence of tropical currents from the Caribbean Sea through the Yucatán Channel, the Loop Current and associated warm-water eddies, freshwater contributions from major river systems and groundwater, and outflows through the Straits of Florida. Level III subregions include the Western Florida Estuarine, Eastern Gulf Neritic, Mississippi Estuarine, Texas Estuarine, Laguna Madre Estuarine, and the Western Gulf Neritic (Figure 6.3).

The Southern GoM Ecoregion encompasses tropical waters of Mexico that support a variety of coastal habitats, including coastal lagoons, estuaries, beaches and dunes, mangroves, seagrass beds, and coral reefs. Air temperatures vary little between winter and summer, averaging about 26 °C (79 °F), although sea surface temperatures vary between 24 and 28.5 °C (75 and 83 °F), respectively (Figure 6.4). This is also a region of generally high nutrient loading and some local upwelling. The continental margin in this region is very topographically diverse, including a relatively narrow continental shelf (6 to 16 km [3.8 to 10 mi] wide) in the southwestern portion of the ecoregion with beaches and estuaries composed primarily of reworked fluvial sediment, interspersed with coastal rocky outcrops (Moreno-Casasola 2007; Contreras-Espinosa and Castañeda-Lopez 2007). In contrast, the southeastern coast of Campeche and Yucatán is fronted by a wide and shallow carbonate continental shelf and carbonate sand beaches. Many of the same biotic communities present in the northern GoM are common in this ecoregion, although coastal salt marshes are almost completely replaced by mangroves, and coral reefs and seagrasses become important. The Southern Gulf ecoregion extends from Barra del Tordo, along all six Gulf-facing States in Mexico, to the northeastern end of the Yucatán Peninsula. Subregions include Veracruz Neritic, Tabasco Neritic, Campeche/Yucatán Inner Neritic, and Campeche/Yucatán Outer Neritic (Figure 6.3).

Marine ecoregions for Cuba were not classified beyond Level I (Greater Antilles; Spalding et al. 2007); however, coastal systems within the Central Caribbean Ecoregion described by Sullivan-Sealey and Bustamante (1999) (equivalent to the Greater Antilles Ecoregion of Spalding et al. 2007) were classified based on dominant community type. Coral reefs, seagrass beds, and mangrove-dominated habitat are common along the northwestern Cuba coast. Further discussion of this classification is presented below in Section 6.4.2.

6.2.2 Terrestrial Ecoregions

Although oceanographic processes associated with specific marine ecoregions influence habitat development at the land–sea interface, geology, soils, and watershed characteristics associated with terrestrial ecoregions exert primary control on physiography of coastal habitats and nearshore water bottoms (Griffith et al. 2007). As such, coastal habitat descriptions within the context of GoM marine ecoregions may refer to terrestrial ecoregions when examining habitat distribution and change. Like marine ecoregions, their terrestrial counterparts portray areas within which relative homogeneity exists among physical and biological components of an ecosystem. Thirteen terrestrial ecoregions border the GoM from Florida to Cuba; four in the United States and ten in Mexico and Cuba (Figure 6.5).

Figure 6.5
figure 5

Level III terrestrial ecoregions surrounding the GoM (data from Wiken et al. 2011 and basemap from CEC 2007; French and Schenk 2005). Cuban ecoregions were developed by Olson et al. (2001)

The Southern Coast and Islands portion of the Southern Florida Coastal Plain Ecoregion extends from Keewaydin Island south to Key West and the Dry Tortugas (Griffith et al. 1997). The region includes the Ten Thousand Islands and Cape Sable, the islands of Florida Bay, and the Florida Keys (Figure 6.6). It is an area of mangrove swamps and coastal marshes, coral reefs, coastal strand vegetation on beach ridges, and limestone rock islands. The area has a nearly frost-free climate with mean annual temperature of 22 to 25 °C (72 to 77 °F) and mean annual precipitation of 1.34 m (4.4 ft) (Figure 6.7; Wiken et al. 2011). It is characterized by low-relief topography with wet soils. Relatively minor differences in elevation have significant impact on vegetation and diversity of habitat. Limestone underlies surficial sand and gravel and areas of peat and clay.

Figure 6.6
figure 6

Level IV terrestrial ecoregions for the U.S. GoM coast (data from USEPA 2011 and basemap from Amante and Eakins 2009)

Figure 6.7
figure 7

Average annual temperature (data from CEC 2011a) and precipitation (data from CEC 2011b) for terrestrial areas adjacent to the GoM. Basemap credits: © 2014 ESRI, DeLorme, HERE

North of this area lies the Southwestern Florida Flatwoods portion of the Southern Coastal Plain Ecoregion (Level III), which includes barrier islands and Gulf coastal flatlands between Anclote Key and Keewaydin Island (Figure 6.6) (Griffith et al. 1997). The terrain consists mostly of flat plains, and also includes sandy beaches, coastal lagoons, marshes, and swampy lowlands. The Pinellas Peninsula portion of the Southern Coastal Plain Ecoregion is underlain by deeply weathered sand hills of Miocene age in the north and Pleistocene-age sand, shell, and clay deposits in the south. Besides the coastal strand, natural vegetation consists of longleaf pine and pine flatwoods. The dominant characteristic of the region is the Clearwater/St. Petersburg urban area. North of Anclote Key is the Big Bend Coastal Marsh segment of the Southern Coastal Plain Ecoregion, where Miocene to Eocene-age limestone resides at or near the surface to the mouth of the Ochlockonee River near the western margin of Apalachee Bay (Figure 6.6). Coastal salt marshes and mangroves characterize most of the coast.

The Gulf Barrier Islands and Coastal Marshes Ecoregion (Level IV) represents the westernmost extent of the Southern Coastal Plain Ecoregion (Figure 6.6). This area contains salt and brackish marshes, dunes, beaches, and barrier islands that extend from Saint George Sound near Apalachicola Bay to western Mississippi Sound at the Pearl River. Quaternary quartz sand, shell fragments, silt, clay, muck, and peat are primary physical components of coastal deposits. Cordgrass and saltgrass are common in the intertidal zone, while coastal strand grasses and pine scrub vegetation occur on parts of the dunes, spits, and barrier islands (Griffith et al. 2001). Average annual precipitation is approximately 1.5 m (4.9 ft), and average annual temperature is about 20 °C (68 °F) (Figure 6.7).

The Deltaic Coastal Marshes and Barrier Islands component (Level IV) of the Mississippi Alluvial Plain Ecoregion (Level III) encompasses brackish and saline marshes of the south Louisiana deltaic plain between the Pearl River and Vermilion Bay (Daigle et al. 2006). The region supports vegetation tolerant of brackish or saline water including salt marsh cordgrass, marshhay cordgrass, black needlerush, and coastal saltgrass. Black mangrove occurs in a few areas, and some live oak is found along old natural levees. Barrier islands in this region are low relief, medium to fine sand deposits with beach grasses in elevated dune and backshore environments. Extensive organic deposits lie mainly at or below sea level in periodically flooded settings, and inorganic silts and clays are soft and generally have high water content. Wetlands and marshes act as a buffer to help moderate flooding and tidal inundation during storm events. Flood control levees and channelization of the Mississippi River have led to a reduction in sediment input to marshes and bays, resulting in delta erosion and accelerated relative sea-level rise (due primarily to subsidence) that threaten the environmental and economic stability of the region. This ecoregion has a humid subtropical climate with an average annual temperature of about 21 °C (70 °F) and mean annual rainfall of about 1.7 m (5.6 ft) (Figure 6.7).

In southwestern Louisiana and southeastern Texas, marginal deltaic deposits of the Mississippi-Atchafalaya River system form the Texas-Louisiana Coastal Marshes section (Level IV) of the Western Gulf Coastal Plain Ecoregion (Level III). The region is characterized by extensive brackish and saline marshes, few bays, and thin, perched barrier beaches at the GoM marsh-water edge that extend from western Vermilion Bay (LA) to High Island, Texas (Figure 6.6). Streams and rivers north of this region supply nutrients and sediments to coastal marshes from poorly consolidated Tertiary coastal plain deposits and Quaternary alluvium, terrace deposits, or loess. Soils are very poorly drained with muck or clay surface textures. Narrow, low relief ridges paralleling the modern shoreline are called cheniers, for the live oak trees that grow on these relic sand and shell shoreline deposits (McBride et al. 2007). Extensive cordgrass marshes occur in more saline areas. Estuaries and marshes support abundant marine life, supply wintering grounds for ducks and geese, and provide habitat for small mammals and alligators (Daigle et al. 2006). This coastal marsh ecoregion has a humid subtropical climate and average temperature and precipitation similar to the Deltaic Coastal Marshes ecoregion to the east.

The Mid-Coast Barrier Islands and Coastal Marshes portion of the Western Gulf Coastal Plain Ecoregion extends approximately 350 km (217 mi) from the Bolivar Peninsula on the southeast margin of Galveston Bay to Mustang Island, just south of Port Aransas, TX (Figure 6.6). The climate is sub-humid and average annual precipitation ranges from 0.9 to 1.2 m (3.0 to 3.9 ft) (Figure 6.7). The region includes primarily Holocene sediments with saline, brackish, and freshwater marshes, barrier islands with minor washover fans, and tidal flat sands and clays. In estuarine areas between Matagorda Bay and Corpus Christi Bay, some older Pleistocene barrier island deposits occur. Smooth cordgrass, marshhay cordgrass, and coastal saltgrass vegetation dominate in more saline zones. Barrier islands support extensive foredunes and back-island dune fields (Griffith et al. 2007). Salt marsh and wind-tidal flats are mostly confined to the backside of the barrier islands with fresh or brackish marshes associated with river-mouth delta areas. Black mangroves become common from San Antonio Bay south.

The Laguna Madre Barrier Islands and Coastal Marshes section of the Western Gulf Coastal Plain Ecoregion extends approximately 200 km (124 mi) from Corpus Christi Bay to the Rio Grande River; however, the Western Gulf Coastal Plain Ecoregion encompasses an extra 250 km (155 mi) of coastal habitat in the State of Tamaulipas, Mexico from the Rio Grande south to La Pesca (Figure 6.5). The Laguna Madre sections in Texas and Mexico are distinguished by their hypersaline lagoon systems, vast seagrass meadows, wide tidal mud flats, and long, narrow barrier islands with numerous washover fans. Surficial geology is primarily Holocene alluvium, beach ridges, and barrier island-tidal flat sands. The coastal zone of south Texas and northeastern Mexico has a semi-arid climate and average annual precipitation of 0.7 to 0.8 m (2.3 to 2.6 ft); average annual temperatures range from 22 to 25 °C (72 to 77 °F) (Figure 6.7). There is extreme variability in annual rainfall, and evapotranspiration is generally two to three times greater than precipitation. Tropical storms and hurricanes can bring large changes to this ecoregion. Grass vegetation of barrier island systems consists mostly of bitter panicum, sea oats, and gulf dune paspalum. Marshes generally are less extensive on the southern Texas and northern Mexico coast. A few stands of black mangrove occur along the south Texas coast; however, mangrove and herbaceous marsh habitat are more common in the Mexican part of this ecoregion along the fringes of backbarrier lagoons. Along the Tamaulipas coast, beaches are low profile and sand rich with narrow or no lagoons.

As no major rivers flow into the Texas Laguna Madre, the lagoon water can be hypersaline. Combined with the Laguna Madre of Tamaulipas, Mexico, it is the largest hypersaline system in the world (Tunnell 2002a). The shallow depth, clear water, and warm climate of this lagoon are conducive to seagrass production. Nearly 80 % of all seagrass beds in Texas are now found in the Laguna Madre (Tunnell 2002a).

The Veracruz Moist Forests Ecoregion along the eastern coast of Mexico extends from La Pesca to the Farallón Lagoon in Veracruz (Figure 6.5). This ecoregion encompasses lowlands of the eastern slopes of the Sierra Madre Oriental. It is composed of sedimentary rocks from the Cretaceous period, and the soils are shallow but rich in organic matter. The climate is tropical humid, with rain during 7 months of the year. Mean annual temperatures fluctuate between 20 and 24 °C (68 and 75 °F), and average annual precipitation ranges between 1.1 and 1.6 m (3.6 and 5.2 ft) (Figure 6.7) (WWF 2014a). Numerous fluvial systems drain geologic deposits that provide sediment and water to coastal saltwater lagoons and Gulf beaches (Contreras-Espinosa and Castañeda-Lopez 2007; Moreno-Casasola 2007). The ecoregion encompasses a variety of coastal physiography from sandy beaches and lagoons to rocky cliffs composed primarily of Mesozoic and Cenozoic sedimentary rocks. Between Laguna de Tamiahua to the rocky headland at Playa Munéco, clastic sediment beaches are supplied by upland sedimentary sandstone, shale, and limestone (Wiken et al. 2011). Extensive coastal sand dunes are common and sandy/cobble pocket beaches exist between rocky headlands. Mangroves are common in coastal lagoons and estuaries.

The Veracruz Dry Forests Ecoregion is located in central Veracruz, surrounded by tropical forest ecoregions (Figure 6.5). The region is located in the coastal plain of central Veracruz, north of the Santa Martha and San Andrés volcanoes. The climate is tropical dry due to the influence of the Chiconquiaco Sierra Mountains. The soils are calcareous and derived from sedimentary rocks, and the area is relatively humid (<1 m/year [3.3 ft/year] rainfall). These characteristics allow the development of a dry forest along the coast, near Veracruz City. The forests constitute the preferred habitat for many birds, including migratory species that use coastal environments of the region as a stopover during their migratory route (WWF 2014b).

Adjacent and south of the Veracruz dry forests is the Petén-Veracruz Moist Forests Ecoregion. This moist forest ecoregion consists of a mixture of wetlands, riparian habitats, and moist forests that extend from southern Veracruz and into the State of Tabasco (Figure 6.5). Soils of this ecoregion are some of the most productive in the country, resulting in high species richness and high desirability for local agriculture. As such, much of the natural habitat has been cultivated for agriculture, and it is estimated that only a small percentage of the original habitat remains (Hogan 2013a). Beach and estuarine deposits in the Petén-Veracruz Moist Forests Ecoregion are influenced by fluvial systems that primarily drain Cenozoic sedimentary sandstones. Quaternary alluvial, marsh, and lacustrine deposits are common near the coast. The Papaloapan watershed is a dominant physiographic feature in this ecoregion (Wiken et al. 2011).

The Sierra de los Tuxtlas small coastal ecoregion is bounded on landward sides by the Petén-Veracruz Moist Forests Ecoregion. Formed from volcanic activity, coastal deposits are primarily rocky cliffs and sandy pocket beaches between rocky headlands. Upland environments are thickly forested and the area is recognized as an important zone for migratory birds (Valero et al. 2014).

The Pantanos de Centla Ecoregion is located in the eastern part of Tabasco and the western portion of Campeche south and west of Laguna de Términos (Figure 6.5). The ecoregion is biologically rich and contains almost 12 % of aquatic and sub-aquatic vegetation in Mexico. Soils of this ecoregion are quite productive and species richness is high. Deltaic deposits and extensive marsh habitat are primary components of the Centla region of Tabasco from the Grijalva-Usumacinta watershed. Lowlands fringing Laguna de Términos (Campeche) contain large expanses of mangroves (ParksWatch-Mexico 2003).

The Mesoamerican Gulf-Caribbean Mangroves Ecoregion resides at various locations along the Mexican GoM coast, primarily associated with saltwater lagoons and estuaries (Figure 6.5). Mangroves north and west of the Alvarado Lagoon (Veracruz) thrive in coastal areas exposed to riverine water and sediment input throughout the states of Tamaulipas and Veracruz. Mangroves grow on flat terrain and are influenced by the Tonala River near the border between Tabasco and Veracruz, the Papaloapan in northern Veracruz, and the Pánuco River near the border between Tamaulipas and Veracruz. Mangroves grow on clay soils that are deep and rich in organic matter. The climate is tropical sub-humid with summer rains; temperature oscillations are very slight, and the levels of humidity are relatively high with between 1.2 and 2.5 m (3.9 and 8.2 ft) of annual rainfall. Red, black, and white mangroves are the dominant species, and as with most mangrove areas, local herbaceous flora is not abundant because they are generally intolerant to frequent flooding (Hogan 2013b; WWF 2014c).

Mangrove habitat flourishes surrounding Laguna de Términos in the State of Tabasco, Mexico. The delta of the Usumacinta and Grijalva Rivers supports mangrove habitat in this region as well. Soils are deep and rich in organic matter, which make them among the most productive soils in Mexico. The climate is warm and humid with abundant rain in summer, and this mangrove ecoregion is one of the wettest, with about 1.6 m (5.2 ft) of rain annually. Usumacinta mangroves and the nearby floodlands are considered the most important wetlands of the country, referred to as the Pantanos de Centla (Figure 6.5). The Grijalva-Usumacinta fluvial system and deltaic plain supply the largest discharge of fresh water to the southern GoM. Intrusions of salt water during the dry season allow mangroves to form up to 30 km (18.6 mi) inland. Vegetation is established in soils with very high organic matter content. Red, white, and black mangroves are key species in the community (WWF 2014d).

Homogenous limestone layers from Tertiary and Quaternary periods characterize the western portion of the Yucatán Peninsula, where the Yucatán Dry Forest Ecoregion abuts the coast near the city of Campeche (Figure 6.5) (WWF and Hogan 2013). The area is relatively dry, with average annual rainfall of about 0.5 m (1.6 ft) and average annual temperatures between 24 and 26 °C (75 and 79 °F) (Figure 6.7) (Wiken et al. 2011). Mangroves dominate coastal vegetation and very little surface water drains to the coast; drainage is primarily subterranean. Beach sand is primarily limestone particles (Moreno-Casasola 2007). Petenes mangroves characterize the northwestern edge of the Yucatán Peninsula (WWF and Hogan 2014a). The area is continuously flooded, though rivers are absent from this portion of the Mesoamerican Gulf-Caribbean Mangroves Ecoregion. Instead, springs form in the bottom of the mangroves, providing fresh water to help regulate salinity and raise nutrient concentrations. The Celestún Lagoon is the most important hydrologic feature within Petenes mangroves portion of the ecoregion. Soils form on a karstic limestone platform and are shallow in some areas and deep in others. Different types of mangroves grow in this area depending on the levels of salinity and the amount of nutrients present. Coastal fringe mangrove habitat contains greater nutrients and is composed of taller trees (15 to 20 m [49 to 66 ft]) as compared with pygmy mangrove habitat inland of the fringe where shorter trees (less than 5 m) dominate. Both types of mangrove habitat contain primarily red and white tree species; black mangroves are scarce because they are relatively intolerant of persistent floods.

The eastern Yucatán Peninsula has similar physiographic and ecologic characteristics. It has a mean annual temperature of 26 °C (79 °F), and there are warm, sub-humid climates with intermediate rains (Wiken et al. 2011). Mangroves dominate coastal vegetation, and white limestone sand beaches are present. Drainage is completely subterranean, and carbonate rocks are of Upper Tertiary origin.

Two terrestrial ecoregions dominate coastal habitats in western Cuba adjacent to the GoM. The Cuban Cactus Scrub Ecoregion is always associated with dry coastal climates and is located in patches along west coast shorelines (Figure 6.5) (WWF 2014e). The ecoregion has a desert-like appearance with average annual precipitation of 0.8 m (2.6 ft) or less and average temperatures of 26 °C (79 °F) (Figure 6.7). The principal soil type is derived from coralline limestone rock and has a karstic structure. Beaches are generally narrow and are composed of coralline sand and pebble fragments. Although the Bahamian-Antillean Mangroves Ecoregion is primarily associated with the Bahamas islands, coastal habitat on the submerged limestone bank along the northwestern Cuban shoreline is included in this ecoregion (Figure 6.5) (WWF and Hogan 2014b). Porous limestone substrate and relatively low precipitation means no major rivers supply nutrients and sediment to the coast. Coral reefs and carbonate islands are common seaward of the mainland coast, and mangroves thrive in these environments. Mainland beaches are composed of coralline sand and carbonate shell deposits, and seagrass beds in association with mangroves are common.

6.3 Physical Setting

River-dominated shelves and energetic tropical cyclonic events that control the development of coastal habitats characterize the GoM ocean basin. Gulf waters are bordered by the United States to the north (Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas), six Mexican states to the south and west (Tamaulipas, Veracruz, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatán, Quintana Roo), and the island of Cuba to the southeast (Figure 6.1). The Gulf basin extends approximately 1,600 km (994 mi) from east to west and about 900 km (560 mi) from north to south. The Gulf-facing shoreline from Cape Sable, Florida to the tip of the Yucatán peninsula extends approximately 5,700 km (3,542 mi), with another 380 km (236 mi) of shore on the northwest margin of Cuba. When bays and other inland waters are included, total shoreline length increases to at least 27,000 km (16,777 mi) in the United States alone (Moretzsohn et al. 2012). Based on bathymetric contours for the Gulf basin, shallow and intertidal regions (<20 m [66 ft] deep) represent about 11 % of the Gulf basin, whereas shelf, slope, and abyssal regions comprise approximately 25, 38, and 26 %, respectively (Figure 6.8). Average water depth for the basin is on the order of 1,615 m (5,300 ft), and maximum depth is about 4,400 m (14,435 ft) (Sigsbee Deep).

Figure 6.8
figure 8

Map illustrating primary depth contours defining the GoM basin (contour data from Becker et al. 2009; basemap from Amante and Eakins 2009)

Water and sediment presently are supplied to the Gulf by more than 150 rivers, including 20 major river systems (Robbins et al. 2009). Freshwater inflow to the Gulf is approximately 1012 cubic meters per year (m3/year) (35 × 1012 ft3/year), with about 63 % of the total arriving via the Mississippi-Atchafalaya watershed (Moretzsohn et al. 2012). Other U.S. rivers contribute another 14 %, and the remaining 23 % is supplied from Mexico and Cuba. South Texas receives the least rainfall among Gulf coastal areas. Groundwater contributions are significant in many areas, especially the eastern and southern margins of the Gulf.

Thirty-nine major estuarine systems exist along the Gulf coastline, of which 82 % are located within the Northern Gulf Marine Ecoregion and 18 % along the Southern Gulf coast (Wilkinson et al. 2009; Moretzsohn et al. 2012). Marine-dominated bays occur in the eastern Gulf, whereas river-dominated estuaries characterize the northern Gulf and coastal lagoons are common in the Southern Gulf (Moretzsohn et al. 2012). More than 14,500 km2 (5,600 mi2) of estuarine wetlands reside along Gulf coastlines. Approximately one-third consist of forested mangrove wetlands, with the remainder being herbaceous marsh (Wilkinson et al. 2009). Tidal influence on estuaries is relatively uniform (in contrast to freshwater influence), with tide ranges generally less than 1 m (3.3 ft) (Stumpf and Haines 1998).

The following sub-sections provide a summary of geologic controls regarding formation of the GoM Basin, terrestrial and watershed controls on coastal habitat formation, primary oceanographic processes influencing basin-wide circulation patterns and coastal habitat evolution, and historical shoreline change patterns relative to longshore sediment transport magnitude and direction. These geological and physical processes are the primary factors influencing the spatial distribution of coastal habitats and their ecology (Sections 6.4.3 and 6.5) within an ecoregion context (Section 6.2).

6.3.1 Formation of the Gulf of Mexico Basin

The GoM has been described as a relatively small oceanic basin that evolved in response to separation of the North and South American plates by crustal extension and seafloor spreading during the Mesozoic breakup of Pangea (Galloway 2011). As such, topographic relief and bathymetry reflect the overall geologic structure of the basin. Furthermore, physiography of the Gulf basin has been influenced by sea-level changes in response to alternating glacial and interglacial periods on the North American continent. Sea-level changes driven by episodic influxes of meltwater generally controlled drainage systems of the region, the morphology of coastal plain alluvial systems, and sediment volumes supplied to the basin (Bryant et al. 1991).

The general geographic limits of the GoM basin correspond with structural features (Figure 6.9). The Florida and Yucatán carbonate platforms mark the eastern and southern flanks of the basin. The western flank of the basin corresponds to the location of the Chiapas massif and the Sierra Madre Oriental of Mexico, whereas the northern border flanks the Ouachita orogenic belt, the Ouachita Mountains, the central Mississippi deformed belt, and the southern reaches of the Appalachian Mountains (Salvador 1991a). Along the north and northwest margins of the basin, the coastal plain and continental shelf of the GoM are widest and have a relatively gentle slope toward the center of the Gulf, similar to the slope of the basement in the region. In eastern Mexico, the coastal plain and shelf are quite narrow and steep, just like the basement surface (Bryant et al. 1991). Adjacent to the east and southeast margins of the basin, some of the deepest parts of the GoM rise rapidly at the submarine escarpments fronting the Florida and Yucatán platforms, under which basement rocks are flat and featureless.

Figure 6.9
figure 9

General outline of the GoM basin. Second-order structural features include: (1) Macuspana basin; (2) Villahermosa uplift; (3) Comalcalco basin; (4) Isthmus Saline basin; (5) Veracruz basin; (6) Cordoba platform; (7) Santa Ana massif; (8) Tuxpan platform; (9) Tampico-Misantla basin; (10) Valles-San Luis Potosi platform; (11) Magiscatzin basin; (12) Tamaulipas arch; (13) Burgos basin; (14) Sabinas basin; (15) Coahuila platform; (16) El Burro uplift; (17) Peyotes-Picachos arches; (18) Rio Grande embayment; (19) San Marcos arch; (20) East Texas basin; (21) Sabine uplift; (22) North Louisiana salt basin; (23) Monroe uplift; (24) Desha basin; (25) La Salle arch; (26) Mississippi salt basin; (27) Jackson dome; (28) Central Mississippi deformed belt; (29) Black Warrior basin; (30) Wiggins uplift; (31) Apalachicola embayment; (32) Ocala uplift; (33) Southeast Georgia embayment; (34) Middle Ground arch; (35) Southern platform; (36) Tampa embayment; (37) Sarasota arch; (38) South Florida basin (republished with permission of the Geological Society of America from Salvador 1991a; permission conveyed through Copyright Clearance Center, Inc.)

The Late Triassic breakup of Pangea preceded the formation of the GoM Basin, which began about 230 million years ago with the collapse of the Appalachian Mountains (Bird et al. 2011). As a result of rifting within the North American Plate during the Middle to Late Jurassic, it began to crack and drift away from the African and South American plates (Salvador 1991b). Although differing evolutionary models for the basin exist, most researchers believe that counterclockwise rotation of the Yucatán Peninsula block away from the North American Plate, involving a single ocean-continent transform boundary, led to the formation of the basin (Bird et al. 2011). Opening of the Gulf required approximately 500 km (310 mi) of extension accompanied by southward migration and counterclockwise rotation of the Yucatán block (Galloway 2011). Most of the structural basin is underlain by transitional crust that consists of continental crust that was stretched and attenuated primarily by Middle to Late Jurassic rifting (Galloway 2011).

The separation of what became North and South America produced a narrow belt of ocean about 170 million years ago. Initial conditions in what is now the GoM basin consisted of shallow, hypersaline seas in which extensive salt deposition took place. Deposition of Louann salt and associated evaporites spread across the hypersaline basin formed by stretching of continental crust (Figure 6.10) (Galloway 2011). Salt deposition during the Jurassic eventually resulted in the formation of numerous salt domes that are scattered throughout the GoM.

Figure 6.10
figure 10

Crustal types, depth to basement, and original distribution of Jurassic Louann salt beneath the GoM basin. Principal basement structures include: SrA Sarasota Arch, TE Tampa Embayment, MGA Middle Ground Arch, AE Apalachicola Embayment, WA Wiggins Arch, MSB Mississippi Salt Basin, MU Monroe Uplift, NLSB North Louisiana Salt Basin, SA Sabine Arch, ETB East Texas Basin, SMA San Marcos Arch, RGE Rio Grande Embayment, TA Tamaulipas Arch (from Galloway 2011; republished with permission of the Texas A&M University Press)

Since the Late Jurassic, the basin has been a stable geologic province characterized by the persistent subsidence of its central part, likely due at first to thermal cooling and later to sediment loading as the basin filled with prograding sediment wedges along its northwestern and northern margins, particularly during the Cenozoic (Salvador 1991b). Approximately 155 million years ago, the Yucatán Peninsula and the Florida Peninsula were connected landmasses and the ancestral GoM was a shallow marine sea (Figure 6.11). The coast in Mexico and Texas was inland of the present coast and was dominated by reefs with shallow basins that precipitated evaporite minerals on their landward side. These conditions required sea level to be about 100 m (328 ft) above its present position. Persistent subsidence of the basin eventually opened the Gulf between the Yucatán and Florida peninsulas.

Figure 6.11
figure 11

Paleogeography of the GoM basin around 155 million years ago (republished with permission of the Geological Society of America from Salvador 1991b; permission conveyed through Copyright Clearance Center, Inc.)

Carbonate deposition in the Middle Cretaceous (about 100 million years ago) included large reef complexes throughout the basin. Landward of these deposits in the northeastern GoM, terrigenous sediment from the southern Appalachians provided clastics for the initial phase of coastal plain development and fluvial delta formation (Figure 6.12). Near the end of the Cretaceous, tectonic activity caused ocean basins to experience a significant increase in volume that produced falling sea level in the Gulf. Lowered sea level resulted in significant erosion of adjacent landmasses, causing substantial sediment transport to the northern GoM coast. By the end of the Early Cretaceous, deposition and subsidence created the modern morphology of the Gulf Basin.

Figure 6.12
figure 12

Paleogeography of the GoM basin around 100 million years ago (republished with permission of the Geological Society of America from Salvador 1991b; permission conveyed through Copyright Clearance Center, Inc.) For explanation of patterns, see Figure 6.11

The sedimentary section of the GoM was deposited under stable tectonic conditions. Subsidence of the basin was modified only by local deformation of Jurassic salt and growth faulting adjacent to primary depocenters (Galloway 2011). As a consequence, environments of deposition and lithologic composition of the sedimentary sequence persisted from Late Jurassic to present. Overall, three distinct provinces were formed in the sedimentary sequence of the GoM basin: (1) carbonate and evaporite deposits associated with Florida and Yucatán platforms; (2) carbonates and fine-grained terrigenous sediment along the Tamaulipas, Veracruz, Tabasco, and Campeche coasts of Mexico; and (3) coarse-grained terrigenous sediment in the northern GoM, indicating the importance of fluvial input from the continental interior to the area between eastern Mexico and northern Florida (Salvador 1991b; Galloway 2011).

Although the basin was stable, uplift of the Appalachians during the Miocene produced extensive fluvial sediment that was transported to the northern Gulf coast. Large deltaic systems were developed along the northern coast of the basin. Sea level was tens of meters above the present position. During the Pliocene, terrigenous sediments from the mainland dominated the northern Gulf. The Yucatán platform remained controlled by carbonate sedimentation because of a lack of siliclastic sediment (Figure 6.13). The shoreline had a configuration similar to present time but at a more landward position (Salvador 1991b).

Figure 6.13
figure 13

Paleogeography of the GoM basin around 5 million years ago (republished with permission of the Geological Society of America from Salvador 1991b; permission conveyed through Copyright Clearance Center, Inc.). For explanation of patterns, see Figure 6.11

6.3.2 Terrestrial Controls on Coastal Evolution

Two primary factors control the development of terrestrial habitat at the interface between marine and freshwater environments: geology of coastal deposits and watershed contributions. Coastal geology refers to existing deposits that are subject to erosion and transport by modern marine processes and watershed input refers to terrestrial supply of sediment, nutrients, and fresh water to estuarine and fluvial deltaic deposits, and neritic carbonate environments, at the marine land–water interface. Coastal habitats of the GoM reflect the variety of geologic controls and watershed processes operating along the modern Gulf shoreline. Figure 6.14 depicts the age and type of geologic deposits coincident with the land–water interface around the GoM. Most low-lying shorelines are composed of Quaternary sedimentary deposits of carbonate and terrigenous origin. However, Eocene, Oligocene, and Miocene deposits are common along the Big Bend coastline of northwestern Florida and along the Tamaulipas and Veracruz coast of Mexico. Furthermore, Quaternary volcanic rocks intersect the land–water interface in two locations along the Veracruz coast (Palma Sola and Tuxtla). Finally, Cretaceous carbonate deposits are encountered along the northwest margin of Cuba (Figure 6.14). Most prominent Quaternary deposits are those associated with riverine deltas in the northern GoM marine ecoregion (e.g., Rio Grande, Mississippi, and Apalachicola) and carbonate deposits along the southwest Florida coast, the Yucatán Peninsula, and the northwest coast of Cuba.

Figure 6.14
figure 14

Terrestrial geologic deposits bordering the GoM (geology data from Garrity and Soller 2009). Basemap credits: ESRI, GEBCO, NOAA, CHS, CSUMB, National Geographic, DeLorme, and NAVTEQ

Although geologic deposits with direct exposure at the marine land–water interface have significant impact on coastal habitat formation, freshwater input from riverine watersheds and coastal groundwater sources provide vital nutrients and sediment to estuaries and outer coast shoreline habitat. Riverine contributions to coastal habitat in Mexico are important in the States of Tamaulipas, Veracruz, and Tabasco, but annual freshwater and sediment input to the Gulf from the United States vastly exceeds input from Mexico. Figure 6.15 illustrates primary watersheds adjacent to the GoM, showing the spatial extent of each watershed. The Mississippi-Atchafalaya watershed drains nearly two times as much area as all other watersheds combined. Furthermore, average discharge from this watershed contributes about 63 % of freshwater input to the Gulf annually. Table 6.1 provides a summary of freshwater discharge to the Gulf by watershed. Groundwater contributions to coastal habitat evolution are relatively minor but important for carbonate environments of the Yucatán Peninsula and the southwest Florida coast. In both areas, precipitation associated with tropical cyclones and other rain events provides the primary source of fresh water to recharge carbonate aquifers (Beddows et al. 2007).

Figure 6.15
figure 15

Primary watersheds supplying freshwater, nutrients, and sediment to the GoM (watershed data from CEC 2010; basemap from Amante and Eakins 2009)

Table 6.1 Drainage Characteristics for Primary Fluvial Basins Draining to the GoM

The interaction among fluvial water/sediment supply, coastal geology, and marine physical processes produces the variety of coastal depositional environments bordering the GoM. Although marine ecoregions provide a reasonable framework for describing primary coastal habitats at the land–water interface, terrestrial ecoregions emphasize land-based characteristics above sea level (see Section 6.2.2). Section 6.4.2 presents depositional characteristics of vegetated marine habitats and adjacent subaqueous environments along the Gulf shoreline that provide more detail regarding habitat type and distribution than discussed previously under terrestrial ecoregions. First, the distribution of dominant coastal depositional systems will be presented within the context of coastal processes controlling sediment transport and deposition.

6.3.3 Oceanographic Processes

The formation and evolution of coastal habitats within the Gulf are a direct response to water, sediment, and nutrient input to the basin relative to physical oceanographic processes that control erosion and deposition at the land–water interface in response to long- and short-term fluctuations in water level. Far-field forces such as basin-scale circulation, tide dynamics, and eustatic sea-level rise exert significant control on long-term habitat evolution, whereas intense periodic events such as storms and floods present short-term perturbations to the coast that can create habitat in a given locale as fast as it is destroyed in another. As such, coastal habitats are always changing in response to physical disturbances. The following section summarizes dominant physical processes in the GoM. Meteorological Conditions

The GoM is influenced by a maritime subtropical climate controlled primarily by clockwise circulation around a high barometric pressure area known as the Bermuda High. This pressure system dominates circulation throughout the year, weakening in the winter and strengthening in the summer. The Gulf is located southwest of this center of circulation, resulting in a predominantly southeasterly flow throughout the GoM. Two types of cyclonic storms may be superimposed on this circulation pattern depending on time of year. During winter months (December through March) when strong north winds bring drier air into the region, cold fronts associated with cold continental air masses primarily influence northern Gulf coastal areas, but also reach the southern GoM. Tropical cyclones develop and/or migrate into the GoM during warmer months (June through October). These storms may affect any area of the Gulf and substantially alter local wind circulation. Severe weather events such as thunderstorms, lightning, floods, and tornadoes are common in the Gulf as well. While tornadoes and floods are primarily inland weather hazards, the coastal zone is most vulnerable to hurricanes and their accompanying impacts such as storm surge.

For coastal areas along the GoM, prevailing wind directions are generally from the southeast and south, except for the coastal areas in the northeastern Gulf, where the prevailing winds are from the north (BOEM 2011). Average wind speeds from shoreline and buoy stations are relatively uniform, ranging from 5.2 to 6.4 m/s (17.1 to 21.0 ft/s). In general, wind speeds are highest in winter months and lowest in summer months. In coastal areas, sea breezes may become the primary circulation feature during summer months. The humid subtropical climate of the GoM exhibits abundant and fairly well distributed precipitation throughout the year. Precipitation in coastal cities along the Gulf tends to peak in summer months. As such, relative humidity in coastal areas is high. Lower humidity occurs during late fall and winter when cold, continental air masses regularly bring dry air into the northern Gulf. Maximum humidity occurs during spring and summer when prevailing southerly winds introduce warm, moist air. Typically, highest relative humidity occurs during the coolest part of the day (around sunrise), while lowest relative humidity occurs during the warmest part of the afternoon. Climate in the southwestern GoM is relatively dry. Overall, the subtropical maritime climate is a dominant feature driving weather patterns in this region. As such, the GoM climate shows very little diurnal or seasonal variation. Tides

Astronomical tide range throughout the GoM is relatively small (generally less than 1 m [3.3 ft]), but what it lacks in magnitude is compensated for by variety of tide types. While semidiurnal tides (two highs and two lows per day) are dominant along most coasts, GoM water levels are controlled by diurnal tides (one high and one low per day) due to the near resonance of Gulf water with diurnal tidal forcing (Kantha 2005). Diurnal tide in the GoM is driven by in-phase co-oscillations of the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea through the Straits of Florida and the Yucatán Channel and exhibits a natural period of oscillation from 21 to 28.5 h (Reid and Whitaker 1981; Seim et al. 1987). Whereas direct tidal forcing explains about 13 % of the diurnal water level variance, more than half of the semidiurnal water level variance is in response to direct tidal forcing (Kjerfve and Sneed 1984). Because the semidiurnal (M2) tide is dominant in the North Atlantic, it influences tides in the Gulf via flows through the Straits of Florida and indirectly through the Yucatán Channel. Even though semidiurnal tides tend to get amplified across wide continental shelves, only tides in the eastern Gulf from Apalachicola Bay south along the West Florida Shelf are measurably influenced by the semidiurnal signal (Kantha 2005).

Although astronomical tides often are considered unimportant for the GoM, many studies have measured and analyzed tide and current data for the Gulf (e.g., Marmer 1954; Seim et al. 1987; DiMarco and Reid 1998; He and Weisberg 2002). Dominant constituents were found to be the luni-solar diurnal (K1), principal lunar diurnal (O1), and the principal lunar semidiurnal (M2). Along with the principal solar semidiurnal (S2) tidal component, He and Weisberg (2002) found these tidal constituents accounted for 90 % of the tidal variance along the West Florida Shelf. The distribution of tide type within the Gulf was determined by Kjerfve and Sneed (1984) and Seim et al. (1987) using the water level form number (F) of Defant (1960). A common way of defining form number or amplitude ratio is

$$ F=\left({\mathrm{K}}_1+{\mathrm{O}}_1\right)/\left({\mathrm{M}}_2+{\mathrm{S}}_2\right) $$

when F < 0.25, tide is classified as semidiurnal. Within the range 0.25 < F < 1.5, tide is mixed but primarily semidiurnal. For the range 1.5 < F < 3.0, tide is mixed but primarily diurnal, and when F exceeds 3.0, tide is classified as diurnal. Figure 6.16 illustrates the distribution of tide type within the GoM, indicating a dominant diurnal signal.

Figure 6.16
figure 16

Spatial distribution of tide type based on water level form number for the GoM (modified from Kjerfve and Sneed 1984; basemap from French and Schenk 2005). Tide stations from which harmonic constituents were used to create the map are illustrated as green dots Circulation

The GoM has been characterized as a two-layered circulation system with a surface layer up to 1,000 m (3,300 ft) deep and a bottom layer reaching the ocean floor at depths of approximately 4,000 m (13,120 ft) (Lugo-Fernandez and Green 2011). Circulation patterns in the Gulf are the result of complex interactions among bathymetry and forcing mechanisms such as wind, atmospheric conditions, water density (variations in temperature and salinity), and the Loop Current (e.g., Oey et al. 2005; Sturges and Kenyos 2008). Even though the Loop Current and associated eddies are dominant circulation features in the GoM, Cochrane and Kelly (1986) identified a cyclonic (rotating counter-clockwise) gyre present over the Texas-Louisiana continental shelf in response to prevailing wind stress. On the inner shelf, currents flow west-southwest, and a corresponding countercurrent along the shelf break completes the gyre system (Figure 6.17) (Nowlin et al. 1998; Zavala-Hidalgo et al. 2003).

Figure 6.17
figure 17

Generalized circulation patterns for the GoM (modified from BOEM 2011 and MMS 2007; contour data from Becker et al. 2009; basemap from French and Schenk 2005)

Although circulation on the Mississippi-Alabama-Florida (MAFLA) shelf is variable due to interactions among the Loop Current and associated intrusions, tides, winds, and freshwater inflow, Kelly (1991) documented a dominant westward wind-driven flow on the inner shelf and an eastward return flow over the middle and outer shelf, creating a pattern of complex cyclonic and anticyclonic eddy pairs with strong inter-annual variability (Brooks and Giammona 1991; Jochens et al. 2002). Flow structure on the west Florida continental shelf consists of outer shelf, middle shelf, and coastal boundary layer regimes. The Loop Current and associated eddies more directly affect circulation on the outer shelf, whereas in water depths less than 30 m (98 ft), wind-driven flow is predominantly alongshore with a weak, southward-directed mean surface flow. In the coastal boundary layer, longshore currents driven primarily by winds and tides dominate cross-shelf flows.

The Loop Current is a horseshoe-shaped circulation pattern that enters the Gulf through the Yucatán Channel and exits through the Florida Straits (Figure 6.17) (BOEM 2011). The extent of intrusions of the Loop Current into the Gulf varies and may be related to current location on the Campeche Bank at the time it separates from the bank. The Loop Current encompasses approximately 10 % of the GoM (Lugo-Fernandez and Green 2011), has surface current speeds up to 1.8 m/s (5.9 ft/s) (Oey et al. 2005), and exists to depths of 800 m (2,625 ft) (Nowlin et al. 2000; Lugo-Fernandez 2007). Water entering the Gulf through the Yucatán Channel typically is warmer and saltier than GoM waters, which generates energetic conditions that drive circulation patterns in the Gulf (Lugo-Fernandez 2007; Jochens and DiMarco 2008; Lugo-Fernandez and Green 2011). Location of the Loop Current varies, as it periodically extends to the northwest and onto the continental slope near the Mississippi River Delta (Oey et al. 2005). As the Loop Current spreads north to approximately 27°N, instability causes formation of anticyclonic warm-core eddies (closed, clockwise-rotating rings of water) shed from the Loop Current (Vukovich 2007). Even though the physical mechanisms that trigger eddy formation are not fully understood (Chang and Oey 2010; Sturges et al. 2010), the period between eddy separations ranges from 0.5 to 18.5 months (e.g., Vukovich 2007). Loop Current eddies typically have a diameter of 300 to 400 km (186 to 249 mi), surface current speeds between 1.5 and 2 m/s (4.9 and 6.6 ft/s), and west-southwest migration speeds ranging from 2 to 5 km/day (1.2 to 3.1 mi/day) (Brooks 1984; Oey et al. 2005).

Cold-core cyclonic (counter-clockwise rotating) eddies have been observed in the Gulf as well. These cyclones surround a central core of seawater that is cooler and fresher than adjacent waters. Cyclonic circulation is associated with upwelling, which brings cooler, deeper water toward the surface. A cyclone can form north of a Loop Current eddy encountering northern GoM bathymetry due to off-shelf advection (Frolov et al. 2004). Schmitz (2005) has also associated cyclones with the Loop Current. Small cyclonic eddies around 50 to 100 km (31 to 62 mi) wide have been observed over the continental slope off Louisiana (Hamilton 1992). These eddies can persist for 6 months or longer and are relatively stationary.

In addition to currents associated with the Loop Current and meso-scale eddies, two other significant circulation features have been reported in the GoM (MMS 2007). The first is a permanent anticyclonic feature oriented approximately east-northeast and aligned with 24°N in the western half of the Gulf (Monreal-Gomez et al. 2004). The generating mechanism for this anticyclonic circulation and associated western boundary current along the coast of Mexico is a point of debate (Sturges and Blaha 1975; Elliott 1979, 1982; Blaha and Sturges 1981; Sturges 1993); however, the feature is suspected of being wind driven (Oey 1995). The second circulation feature is a cyclonic gyre centered in the Bay of Campeche, also thought to be wind driven (Figure 6.17) (Vazquez de la Cerda 1993; Nowlin et al. 2000; Monreal-Gomez et al. 2004). Wind Waves

Wave climate is one of the primary factors controlling sediment transport, deposition, and erosion in coastal habitats, and is defined as the average wave condition over a period of years based on wave height, period, direction, and energy. In coastal and nearshore environments, wind speed and direction, and nearshore bathymetry, are the primary forcing mechanisms of wave climate. Changing geomorphic characteristics of coastal habitats are dependent upon short-term fluctuations in wave climate, long-term cycles of wind and wave activity (including the effects of frontal passages and hurricanes), and the availability of sediment and fresh water to deltaic, estuarine, and marine coastal settings. Wind directions and intensities vary seasonally with southerly winds prevailing most of the year. During winter months, wind-circulation patterns and low barometric pressures preceding the passage of cold fronts can cause strong onshore winds and increased wave heights that typically erode beaches. After frontal system passage, wind direction shifts and northerly winds can generate waves that erode north-facing shorelines at many locations.

Various moored buoys and coastal wave gauges are situated throughout the GoM (Figure 6.18). Average deep-water wave heights range from 0.5 m (1.6 ft) in summer months to 1.5 m (4.9 ft) in winter months (NDBC 2012). However, most fair-weather average significant wave heights in Gulf coastal environments are less than 0.6 m (2.0 ft) high (Li 2012; BOEM 2011). Average fair-weather wave periods are on the order of 3.5 to 4 s. Although fair-weather waves contribute to coastal habitat evolution throughout the Gulf, greatest sediment redistribution along the coast occurs during tropical cyclones and winter cold fronts for this storm-dominated region.

Figure 6.18
figure 18

Location of National Data Buoy Center (NDBC) wave buoys and WAVCIS coastal wave gauges in the GoM (data from NDBC 2012 and WAVCIS 2012; basemap from French and Schenk 2005) Tropical Cyclones

A tropical cyclone is a warm-core, low-pressure system (organized system of clouds and thunderstorms) without an associated frontal weather zone. These systems develop over tropical and subtropical waters and have a closed low-level circulation (includes tropical depressions, tropical storms, and hurricanes) (NHC 2012). Tropical cyclones affecting the Gulf originate over portions of the Atlantic basin, including the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, and the GoM. They occur as early as May and as late as December, but most frequently from mid-August to late October (Figure 6.19) (NHC 2012). On average, about 11 tropical cyclones occur in the Atlantic Basin annually, many of which remain over the ocean and never impact U.S. coastlines. Approximately six of these storms become hurricanes each year (Blake et al. 2007). Historical data indicate that hurricane tracks are relatively predictable based on a storm point of origin. Figure 6.20 illustrates the likelihood of hurricane occurrence for August, September, and October of any given year relative to storm origin and tracking. Data illustrate that hurricanes formed in the southern Caribbean in September have the greatest chance of impacting coastal habitat within the GoM, followed by August storms formed in the eastern Atlantic (Figure 6.20).

Figure 6.19
figure 19

Historical distribution of tropical cyclones in the Atlantic Basin, with peak occurrence between 20 August and 1 October (from NHC 2012)

Figure 6.20
figure 20

Climatological areas of origin and typical hurricane tracks for August through October (from NHC 2012)

Gulf coastal areas generally experience hurricane return periods ranging from 7 to 20 years for hurricanes passing within 100 km (62 mi) of a given location (Keim et al. 2007; NHC 2012). Hurricanes and tropical storms can increase surface current speeds to between 1 and 2 m/s (3.3 and 6.6 ft/s) in nearshore and continental shelf regions (Nowlin et al. 1998; Teague et al. 2007). Recorded offshore wave heights during major hurricanes have exceeded 30 m (98 ft) (MMS 2005), attesting to the impact these storms can impose on coastal habitat. Furthermore, hurricane storm surges have been reported to range between 2 and 8 m (6.6 and 26.2 ft) for hurricanes throughout the Gulf, inundating large expanses of coastal marine and freshwater habitat (Fritz et al. 2007; Sullivan 2009).

Numerous studies have documented the destructive nature of hurricanes on coastal and nearshore habitat (e.g., Meyer-Arendt 1993; Cahoon 2006; Morton and Barras 2011). However, storm events may rejuvenate coastal marshes by delivering sediment that raises soil elevations and stimulates organic matter production (e.g., Turner et al. 2006; McKee and Cherry 2009). Barrier strand deposits generally absorb the brunt of destructive storm forces as these sand deposits provide the first line of defense to storm energy. Consequently, beach erosion and overtopping during storm surge may result in significant geomorphic change in barrier strand environments and adjacent salt marshes, but erosion and resuspension of coastal and estuarine sediment during storms often leads to nourishment of interior marshes via fine-grained sediment deposition. Relative Sea-Level Rise

Long-term changes in coastal habitat type and extent are controlled by rate at which sediment is supplied to the coastal zone relative to sea level. When sea-level rise exceeds sediment deposition and organic matter accumulation required to maintain wetlands at or above water level, land loss predominates. As sea level has risen throughout the Gulf over the past 15,000 years, previously exposed upland environments on the modern continental shelf surface were inundated and reworked by waves and currents, not unlike the slow but steady submergence of coastal uplands that continues today (Balsillie and Donoghue 2011; Davis 2011a). Rates of coastal inundation and subaerial deposition fluctuate in space and time, but the fate of coastal habitats is dependent on long-term sea-level trends. Douglas (2005), Balsillie and Donoghue (2011), and Davis (2011a), as well as many others, provide detailed discussions on geologic and historical variations in sea-level change throughout the Gulf relative to coastal habitat evolution. For the following discussion, 21 tide gauge time series are used to document variations in relative sea-level rise around the GoM as a function of geographic setting (Figure 6.21).

Figure 6.21
figure 21

Distribution of tide gauge stations around the GoM illustrating sea-level rise trends (data from the Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level [PSMSL] database (see Woodworth and Player 2003) and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New Orleans District (USACE 2014); basemap from French and Schenk 2005)

Due to a variety of geologic controls in Gulf coastal environments, sea-level changes vary significantly. Carbonate geology of the Florida Gulf Peninsula provides a stable platform upon which sea level rises at a rate similar to eustatic (global) change due to a lack of sediment runoff from the continent and distance from areas of tectonic activity in the Earth’s crust (Davis 2011a). Recent sea-level changes recorded in tide gauge time series data are relatively small but sea level is rising at a rate of about 1.6 to 2.5 mm/year (0.06 to 0.1 in/year) (Figure 6.22), very similar to the present rate of global sea-level rise (about 2 mm/year [0.08 in/year]) (Douglas 2005). As such, the Florida Gulf Peninsula provides baseline conditions upon which sea-level changes can be compared with other coastal locations in the Gulf.

Figure 6.22
figure 22

Sea-level change rates for tide gauges located along the Florida Gulf Peninsula using time series of monthly water levels from the PSMSL database

Although coastal habitats along the Florida Panhandle, Alabama, and Mississippi are primarily wave-dominated barrier beaches and backbarrier estuarine marshes that are supplied by significant riverflows into estuaries and the Gulf (Isphording et al. 1989; Isphording 1994), tide gauge data for the northeast Gulf coast illustrate sea-level change trends consistent with eustatic sea-level rise (Figure 6.23). In fact, tide gauge data for Apalachicola illustrate a lower rise rate (1.5 mm/year [0.06 in/year]) than any recorded changes along the west coast of Florida, even though the gauge is located in close proximity to the Apalachicola River Delta. One might expect sediment compaction in this area to contribute significantly to the present rate of sea-level rise; however, deltaic sediment deposits are relatively thin (Twichell et al. 2007) and the tide gauge is situated near a stable Pleistocene interfluve adjacent to the Apalachicola River. As one moves west toward Pensacola Bay and the entrance to Mobile Bay (Dauphin Island), relative sea-level rise increases to about 2.9 mm/year (0.11 in/year), reflecting gauge proximity to thicker sequences of Holocene sediment infilling drowned river valleys (Hummell and Parker 1995).

Figure 6.23
figure 23

Sea-level change rates for tide gauges located along the northeastern GoM coast using time series of monthly water levels from the PSMSL database

Relative sea-level rise on the Mississippi River Deltaic Plain is the highest of any location in the GoM primarily due to compactional subsidence of thick Holocene sediment and peat deposits that filled the Mississippi River valley during the most recent rise in sea level (Törnqvist et al. 2008). Subsidence, in addition to eustatic sea-level rise and reduced sediment supply associated with levee fortification of the river since the 1920s, has resulted in dramatic land loss in coastal Louisiana since the 1930s (Blum and Roberts 2009). Although only two NOAA tide gauge records have been used to characterize relative sea-level rise on the delta plain since the 1940s (Figure 6.24), various U.S. Army Corps of Engineers water-level gauges on the delta plain support the trend documented at these sites (e.g., Penland and Ramsey 1990). Relative sea-level rise at the Grand Isle gauge is approximately 9 mm/year (0.35 in/year), about 4.5 times greater than eustatic sea-level rise. The Eugene Island gauge recorded an even higher rate of relative sea-level rise (9.6 mm/year [0.38 in/year]), but record length is about half that of Grand Isle. Even though subsidence has been active since sedimentation at the river mouth was initiated, prior to dam construction within the watershed and levee construction for flood control, sediment loads were sufficient to create thousands of square kilometers of vegetated wetlands and barrier beaches. As such, a prograding delta complex and marginal deltaic wetlands flourished. Although Holocene deltas experienced landloss due to river abandonment in the past, only after civil works projects constricted sediment yield to within the confines of the dam/levee systems did delta-scale wetland losses become a chronic problem.

Figure 6.24
figure 24

Sea-level change rates for tide gauges located along the Louisiana Deltaic Plain coast using time series of monthly water levels from the PSMSL database

As recorded at the Calcasieu tide gauge, relative sea-level rise remains high along the LA/TX Chenier Plain (Figure 6.25), but less than half that recorded along the delta plain and about 2 mm/year (0.08 in/year) less than the rate recorded for Galveston. Although relative sea-level rise is high at Galveston, due in part to groundwater withdrawal in the Houston area (Gabrysch 1984), as one proceeds southwest along the Texas coast toward Rockport and Port Isabel, a reduction in relative sea-level rise is documented (Figure 6.26). Between Galveston Island and Port Isabel, relative sea-level rise decreased from 6.3 to 3.9 mm/year (0.25 to 0.15 in/year), both greater than eustatic sea-level rise and change trends in the eastern GoM. The Texas coastal plain includes a number of river systems that have contributed sediment to the coast. As such, compaction of fluvial sediment deposits may be contributing to higher relative sea-level rise in coastal Texas.

Figure 6.25
figure 25

Sea-level change rate for the Calcasieu Pass tide gauge located on the Louisiana Chenier Plain using time series of annual mean sea level obtained from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New Orleans District

Figure 6.26
figure 26

Sea-level change rates for tide gauges located along the Texas coast using time series of monthly water levels from the PSMSL database

Approximately 580 km (360 mi) south of the Rio Grande in Tuxpan, Veracruz (Mexico), short-term tide gauge records indicate a sea-level rise rate of about 2.9 mm/year (0.11 in/year) (Figure 6.27), similar to that recorded at Dauphin Island, AL. The rise rate is about 1 mm/year (0.04 in/year) less than that recorded in south Texas on the northern margin of the Rio Grande delta where upland runoff had a significant impact on coastal sedimentation. Even though coastal deposits north of Tuxpan to the Rio Grande primarily are composed of terrigenous clastic sediments from upland sources that commonly form barrier islands and lagoons, beaches narrow with distance south of the Rio Grande resulting in mainland beach morphology and a more stable coast toward Tuxpan (Figure 6.28) (Carranza-Edwards et al. 2007). Sea-level rise may reflect this southward change in coastal geomorphology adjacent to the east Mexico shelf.

Figure 6.27
figure 27

Sea-level change rate for the tide gauge located along the Veracruz coast at Tuxpan using time series of monthly water levels from the PSMSL database

Figure 6.28
figure 28

Aerial view of Tuxpan Beach with elevated upland areas producing a more stable and forested coastal setting. Image credit: ArcGIS World Imagery

South of Tuxpan for about 480 km (298 mi) to Coatzacoalcos is the most geologically diverse coastal region of the southern GoM. The area includes low-lying sandy beaches backed by lagoons and wetlands, bluffed mainland beaches, and rocky volcanic coasts with sandy pocket beaches between rock headlands. Relative sea-level rise for this coastal segment (Veracruz, Alvarado, and Coatzacoalcos) is between 1.8 and 3.2 mm/year (0.07 and 0.13 in/year) (Figure 6.29). The rocky coasts of Veracruz and Alvarado provide a stable platform upon which to record eustatic sea-level changes (1.8 and 2.2 mm/year [0.07 and 0.09 in/year]), but the coast south of the volcanic Los Tuxtlas area is more influenced by fluvial sedimentation from the Coatzacoalcos River and tributaries. Fluvial deposition and Holocene sediment compaction may have contributed to increased relative sea-level rise rates at the Coatzacoalcos gauge.

Figure 6.29
figure 29

Sea-level change rates for tide gauges located along the Veracruz coast near Tuxtlas using time series of monthly water levels from the PSMSL database

The southern Gulf coast between Coatzacoalcos and Ciudad del Carmen encompasses the entire Tabascan coast, as well as the eastern section of Veracruz and western Campeche. Coastal geomorphology is controlled by fluvial sedimentation from the Coatzacoalcos and Grijalva-Usumacinta River systems. Deltaic environments associated with the Grijalva-Usumacinta and San Pedros Rivers contain some of the most extensive marshes in Gulf coastal Mexico known as the Centla Marshes (Moreno-Casasola 2007). Deltaic settings provide for greatest magnitudes of relative sea-level rise due to compactional subsidence. However, the closest tide gauge to these active deltaic environments is at Ciudad del Carmen (Campeche), just east of the Grijalva-Usumacinta delta and marginal deltaic beach ridge plain adjacent to Isla del Carmen. Relative sea-level rise at this location (Figure 6.30) is slightly greater than that recorded at Coatzacoalcos (Figure 6.29), and both rates exceed present eustatic sea-level rise by at least 1.2 mm/year (0.05 in/year).

Figure 6.30
figure 30

Sea-level change rates for tide gauges located along the Campeche and Yucatán coast using time series of monthly water levels from the PSMSL database

Farther east along the Yucatán Peninsula, one tide gauge is available to describe the relative sea-level history of this predominantly carbonate environment. River runoff from this area does not exist; instead, all exchange of fresh water between upland and the Gulf is accomplished via groundwater (Isphording 1975). As such, one might expect this area to be a relatively stable platform upon which to monitor sea-level rise. However, a 38-year record of water level changes at Progreso along the northern Yucatán coast indicated a 5 mm/year (0.20 in/year) rise in sea level (Figure 6.30), the highest rate of sea-level rise along the Gulf coast of Mexico.

The final gauge used to document variations in relative sea-level rise within the Gulf is located at Cabo San Antonio, along the northwestern coast of Cuba (Figure 6.31). Similar to the Yucatán Peninsula and southwestern Florida coast, the geologic setting is primarily carbonate, and clastic sediment is composed of shell, coral, and other limestone fragments. A 38-year time series of water level measurements indicates a relative sea-level rise rate of about 2.2 mm/year (0.09 in/year), very similar to that recorded for eustatic sea-level rise. This rate is almost equivalent to that recorded at Key West (2.3 mm/year), about 400 km (250 mi) northeast across the Florida Straits. The consistency in sea-level rise trends between these sites leads to questions regarding measurements at Progreso, an area of similar geologic setting.

Figure 6.31
figure 31

Sea-level change rate for the tide gauge located along the northwestern coast of Cuba using time series of monthly water levels from the PSMSL database

6.3.4 Shoreline Change and Longshore Sediment Transport

Although three distinct sedimentary provinces characterize the modern GoM basin (Section 6.3.1), a variety of coastal depositional systems have evolved along the 6,077 km (3,776 mi) land–water interface in response to upland drainage; groundwater supply; sediment availability; wind, wave, and current processes; relative sea-level rise; and physiographic characteristics of margin deposits. Carbonate deposits dominate the Mexican States of Campeche (east of Laguna de Términos), Yucatán, and Quintana Roo, as well as the northwestern coast of Cuba and the southwestern coast of Florida. Terrigenous sediment is dominant in the northern GoM where 77 % of all fluvial flow entering the basin originates. Smaller fluvial watersheds along the Tamaulipas, Veracruz, and Tabascan coasts of Mexico contribute the remaining 23 % of fluvial input to the Gulf, resulting in a mixture of fine-grained terrigenous clastics and carbonate sediment.

Shorelines fronting coastal habitats in the GoM evolve as a function of geologic setting and climatological factors affecting the balance between sediment erosion and deposition. Previous sub-sections under Physical Setting (Section 6.3) describe the dominant processes that control land changes along the margins of the Gulf, resulting in sediment erosion, transport, and deposition. On a geologic scale, coastal habitats evolve in response to long-term sea-level changes relative to sediment supply and land movements. Although historical changes in coastal habitats (century time scale) are influenced by these same processes, storm and wave energy controls sediment transport magnitude and direction, resulting in shoreline and habitat change. This section documents historical shoreline changes and associated net sediment transport pathways and magnitudes throughout the GoM over the past century or so. When available, a qualitative description of interior habitat changes is provided in Section 6.4.2. South Florida Marine Ecoregion

One of the most diverse areas of the GoM coast is associated with habitats along the southwestern Florida peninsula where groundwater discharge has significant influence on habitat distribution and sandy beaches, mangroves, seagrasses, and coral reefs dominate. Specific shorelines of interest encompass the Florida Keys and Ten Thousand Islands areas of southwest Florida (Figure 6.32). The Florida Keys is an arcuate complex of Pleistocene coral reef islands and ooid shoals that accumulated approximately 120,000 years ago when sea level was 2 to 3 m above its present position (Hine and Locker 2011). These islands are bedrock based and are separated by tidal passes. Individual keys (islands) are stable but very low in elevation, making them vulnerable to storm surge during tropical storms and hurricanes. Landward of the keys is Florida Bay, a very shallow bay with a soft, carbonate mud bottom (Davis 2011b). The mud is quite thin (<1 m [3.3 ft] thick) and is deposited on Pleistocene limestone of the Key Largo Limestone and the Miami Oolite formations (Hine and Locker 2011). Mud deposits generally are quite cohesive, resulting in only minor sediment resuspension due to tidal currents; however, resuspension does occur during non-tidal wind events (Enos and Perkins 1979).

Figure 6.32
figure 32

Image illustrating the Florida Keys and Ten Thousand Islands within southwestern Florida. Net longshore sediment transport direction is indicated with arrows (data from Clark 1990; Dean and O’Brien 1987). Image credit: Microsoft Bing Maps Aerial

There are approximately 58 km (36 mi) of beaches in the Florida Keys, extending from the head of Florida Bay southwest to the Dry Tortugas (Clark 1990). Florida Keys beach sand is derived from erosion of limestone, precipitation of aragonite particles from seawater, and fragments of corals, shells, and calcareous algae (Clark 1990). Although shoreline change estimates are not well documented, historical analyses of beach erosion have been completed at a few locations along the Florida Keys (Clark 1990; FDEP 2012a). In addition, aerial photography documents numerous erosion control structures that were constructed to protect against beach erosion in this area. Beach erosion along the Keys primarily is associated with tropical cyclones and geomorphic changes associated with natural variations in littoral sediment transport. However, most of the 16.4 km (10.2 mi) of critically eroding beaches (Figure 6.33) can be associated with coastal protection structures (e.g., seawalls, revetments, groins) located at the ends of many small pocket beaches (FDEP 2012a). The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP), Bureau of Beaches and Coastal Systems, defined a critically eroding beach as a segment of shoreline where natural processes or human activity have caused or contributed to erosion and recession of beach or dune systems to such a degree that upland development, recreational interests, wildlife habitat, or important cultural resources are threatened or lost. For beaches fronting the Straits of Florida, net littoral sand transport is to the southwest.

Figure 6.33
figure 33

Critically eroding beaches along the Florida Keys (from FDEP 2012a)

North of Florida Bay to Marco Island are the predominantly vegetated shorelines of Cape Sable and the Ten Thousand Islands, an area containing numerous mangrove-covered islands and marsh habitat (Figure 6.32). Tidal channels separate the series of small islands, and oyster reefs are common in brackish waters that result from freshwater runoff from Big Cypress swamp and the Florida Everglades (Davis 2011b). Marsh habitats are the result of gradual deposition of sediment over the inner shelf during the late Holocene following early Holocene transgression (Parkinson 1989). South of Marco Island and Cape Romano, there is a noticeable transition from dominantly terrigenous sand to biogenic sediment. Beaches generally are absent with only a few local accumulations of shell and skeletal debris (Davis 2011b). The coast is quite stable due to an abundance of mangrove vegetation. Although hurricanes are common in this area, their impact has had little influence on coastal geomorphology (Davis 1995). Furthermore, because of its remote location, there is relatively little human impact on the coastal system.

According to Clark (1990), GoM beaches in southwestern Florida (north of Florida Bay) include about 42 km (26 mi) of sandy shoreline. Average beach width is on the order of 8 to 15 m (26 to 49 ft) and sediment composition is predominantly carbonate. Figure 6.34 illustrates historical shoreline changes south of Gordon Pass (north end of Keewaydin Island) to the Marco Island area between the 1970s and 2000s. Although critically eroding beaches have been identified along both islands, beach nourishment in historically eroding areas has been an effective management technique for mitigating chronic erosion, resulting in a net sand surplus along much of Marco Island (Figure 6.34). Shoreline change since the 1970s for Keewaydin Island was about −0.4 m/year (−1.3 ft/year), and Marco Island illustrated net shoreline advance of approximately 5.7 m/year (18.7 ft/year). The Cape Romano shoreline is not managed for erosion, resulting in net shoreline recession of approximately 5 m/year (16 ft/year) between 1978 and 2010. This segment of coast is classified by the Bureau of Beaches and Coastal Systems as critically eroding. Net littoral sand transport along the southwestern Florida coast is to the south-southeast. Longshore transport rates at the north end of Keewaydin Island (Gordon Pass) were estimated at about 54,000 m3/year (71,000 cubic yards per year [cy/year]), decreasing to about 42,000 m3/year (55,000 cy/year) south of Marco Island at Caxambas Pass (Dean and O’Brien 1987).

Figure 6.34
figure 34

Shoreline change from Keewaydin Island to Cape Romano. Most critically eroding shorelines occur in the Cape Romano area at rates of about 5 m/year. Sources: Shoreline change data, Absalonsen and Dean (2010); Cape Romano shoreline position (1978), NOAA (2013a); beach nourishment locations, Miller et al. (2004), FDEP (2008); critical erosion areas, FDEP (2012a). Image credit: Microsoft Bing Maps Aerial

Although limited studies document historical shoreline/wetland changes for the coast south of Cape Romano, Wanless and Vlaswinkel (2005) illustrated the impact of human activities and hurricane processes on the Cape Sable area. Significant changes in shoreline position were recorded by comparing historical aerial photography. Figure 6.35 documents net shoreline position change for the Cape Sable area since 1928 illustrating natural variations in shoreline response primarily due to tropical cyclone impacts. Although shoreline recession ranges from 1 to 4 m/year (3.3 to 13.1 ft/year) near the entrances to Lake Ingraham and in the Northwest Cape area, other portions of the coast exhibit net stability in this relatively sheltered coastal area. The presence of truncated ridge deposits along the shoreline suggests geologic variations in sediment supply and possibly transport direction; however, net transport direction during historical times is to the south-southeast toward Florida Bay.

Figure 6.35
figure 35

Shoreline change for the Northwest, Middle, and East Cape portions of Cape Sable. Most eroding shorelines occur adjacent to the entrances to Lake Ingraham and along the southernmost portion of the Northwest Cape (shoreline position data from NOAA 2013b). Image credits: Microsoft Bing Maps Aerial (main); ArcGIS World Imagery (inset); John Strohsahl (2008) (photo inset), used with permission Northern Gulf of Mexico Marine Ecoregion

The Northern GoM Marine Ecoregion extends from Keewaydin Island on the west coast of Florida to just south of Barra del Tordo in the State of Tamaulipas, Mexico, and includes barrier beaches and coastal marshes of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas (Figure 6.2). This area encompasses a variety of coastal geological deposits formed by the interaction between fluvial drainage systems and coastal processes in the GoM. Most coastal depositional systems are composed of terrigenous clastic sediment; however, karstic shoreline deposits are dominant in the Big Bend area of Florida (Hine 2009). Shoreline changes throughout this region are a function of sediment supply, changes in relative sea level, and the level of energy associated with dynamic coastal processes (winds, waves, and currents under normal and storm conditions). Eight geographic areas are used to illustrate patterns of shoreline change within the Northern Gulf Ecoregion: (1) Central West Florida Barrier Islands, (2) Big Bend Coast, (3) Northeastern Gulf Barrier Islands, (4) Mississippi River Delta Plain Coast, (5) Chenier Plain Coast, (6) Texas Mid-Coast Barrier Islands, (7) Laguna Madre Barrier Islands, and (8) Laguna Morales Barrier Beaches. Central West Florida Barrier Islands

The barrier-inlet system along the central west Florida coast consists of approximately 27 barrier islands and inlets extending from Gordon Pass (just north of Keewaydin Island) to Anclote Key, northwest of Tampa. The islands range from a few kilometers to tens of kilometers long and all were formed in the past 3,000 years. According to Davis (2011b), no significant terrigenous sediment is transported to the coast in this area; barrier island formation results from reworking of pre-Holocene deposits over the past 3,000 years. Large quantities of sediment from reworking of inner shoreface deposits have been transported landward during historical time (Hine et al. 1987; Hine and Locker 2011). The prism of sediment that includes the barrier island system begins at a water depth of about 6 m (20 ft) and extends landward with maximum thickness at the dunes where it reaches an elevation of only 4 to 5 m (13 to 16.4 ft) in most places (Davis et al. 2003). According to data in Table 6.1, discharge from watersheds in this area is relatively minor, indicating that modern drainage systems do not deliver significant amounts of sediment to the coast.

The balance between tide and wave energy controls morphodynamics of the central West Florida barrier islands (Davis 2011b). The net direction of littoral sand transport along the coast is to the south; however, transport reversals do exist in several locations due to changes in shoreline orientation (Davis 1999). Additionally, bedrock outcrops on the inner shoreface cause wave refraction that contributes to reversals in transport. According to Dean and O’Brien (1987), longshore transport rates vary between 35,000 and 85,000 m3/year (46,000 and 111,000 cy/year).

Most of the central West Florida barrier islands have been developed for residential and commercial activities. Coastal protection structures are prevalent on the islands, often resulting in buildings being situated too closely to the shoreline (Davis 2011b). As such, beach erosion near these structures has been alleviated by beach nourishment, which has been an integral part of beach management activities since the 1970s (Figure 6.36). The highest rates of erosion in this area typically are located near tidal inlets. Overall, average rates of shoreline change were approximately zero between the mid-1800s and the 1970s, even though net change along the islands ranged from 9 m (30 ft) of erosion to 9 m (30 ft) of deposition. Between the 1970s and 2000s, beach nourishment was an integral component of beach management along the islands, and net deposition prevailed at an average rate of about 0.9 m/year (3.0 ft/year) (Figure 6.36) (data from Absalonsen and Dean 2011). Although beach erosion hot spots are common along the islands and beach nourishment has been successful at mitigating erosion, Davis (2011b) indicates that natural accretion has occurred in several places along the islands. Furthermore, tropical cyclone impacts along the central West Florida barrier beaches have been reduced by the presence of a shallow and gently sloping shoreface which limits large waves from reaching subaerial beaches (Davis 2011b). Land loss in the bays and lagoons is minor because these water bodies generally are small or are already protected by erosion control structures such as bulkheads (Doyle et al. 1984).

Figure 6.36
figure 36

Shoreline change for the central West Florida barrier island coast. Long-term and recent shoreline changes illustrate the impact of beach nourishment throughout this coastal region. Shoreline change data from Absalonsen and Dean (2010); beach nourishment data from Miller et al. (2004) and FDEP (2008). Image credit: Microsoft Bing Maps Aerial Big Bend Coastal Marshes

The Big Bend region of Florida is typified by a shallow sloping submarine surface, general lack of wave activity, and lack of sediment supply. These three characteristics have created an extensive salt marsh system that rims the Big Bend coast north of Anclote Key to Ochlockonee Bay (Figure 6.37). This swath of coastal wetlands is a mixture of marsh, mangrove, and hammock vegetation, influenced by porous limestone bedrock (FDEP 2012b).

Figure 6.37
figure 37

Big Bend coastal marshes along the northwestern Florida peninsula illustrating few critical erosion areas in a low energy marsh environment. Inset areas illustrate regions for coastal change assessment in Figures 6.39 through 6.41. Critical erosion areas defined by FDEP (2012a). Image credit: Microsoft Bing Maps Aerial

The geology of the Big Bend region is characterized by karstified Eocene and Oligocene limestone deposits over which thin muddy marsh dominated by Juncus sp. flourishes (Figure 6.38). According to FDEP (2012b), fluctuations in sea level during glaciation caused infilling of karstic features with Holocene and Pleistocene quartz sands and sandy clays. Holocene intertidal calcitic mud commonly overlies Pleistocene sand, and organic material derived from decaying marsh grasses intermixed with sand form the surface layer in coastal marshes. Although the Big Bend coastal area is considered sediment starved, Holocene sediment deposition continues along rivers such as the Aucilla, Suwannee, and Withlacoochee (FDEP 2012b). Big Bend karstic features generate a tight connection between the Floridian aquifer system and surface waters of the region. Because of the low topographic gradient on the limestone surface, the Big Bend area has low wave energy at the coast, similar to that of an incipient epicontinental sea (Hine 2009).

Figure 6.38
figure 38

Distribution of Eocene-age and Oligocene-age limestone in the Big Bend area (left; geologic data from Scott et al. 2001). Image credit: Microsoft Bing Maps Aerial. Photograph of exposed karst surface near Rock Island (right; photo by Doug Alderson, used with permission)

Earlier observations of coastal change in the Big Bend area by Tanner (1975a) indicated that marshes in the vicinity of Ochlockonee Bay have been stable or receding at slow rates since 1950 (on the order of 0.2 m/year [0.7 ft/year]). Tanner (1975a) also noted that average wave breaker heights in the “zero energy” coast (St. Marks to Anclote Key) were less than about 4 cm (1.6 in), that there were no integrated littoral drift cells, and that marshes along the GoM shoreline were well developed, suggesting that wave attenuation over a wide nearshore shelf decreases sediment transport energy to near zero. This implies that shoreline recession in coastal marshes is driven by submergence associated with relative rising sea level rather than erosion due to variations in wave energy.

In a more recent analysis, Raabe et al. (2004) documented coastal change in the Big Bend area using historical maps and aerial imagery. Inset locations shown in Figure 6.37 are used to illustrate changes in Big Bend historical record. Figure 6.39 documents shoreline and habitat change for a portion of the southern Big Bend for the period 1896 to 1995. Although conversion from marsh to water (blue) is present throughout the area, greatest loss of tidal marsh is present north of the Weeki Wachee River. Raabe et al. (2004) conducted field surveys of this area and found large mudflat areas with salt marsh rhizome remnants on the surface. Hernando Beach provides an example of coastal wetland loss due to development, and coastal forest retreat and oyster bar submergence illustrates the influence of slowly rising sea level during the period of record.

Figure 6.39
figure 39

Coastal change for T-sheet 1700 (see Figure 6.37) between Horse Island and the Pine Island area documenting submergence of the intertidal zone between 1896 and 1995 (from Raabe et al. 2004)

Figure 6.40 illustrates a comparison of 1858 and 1995 shorelines for the marshes between Withlacoochee Bay and Waccasassa Bay. Rapid expansion of tidal marsh inland 1 km (0.6 mi) or more over a gently sloping exposed limestone platform replaced coastal forest habitat as slowly rising marine waters submerged inland habitat (Raabe et al. 2004). Minor amounts of shoreline erosion were documented along outer margins of the marine marsh; however, marine submergence under rising sea level appears to be the dominant factor influencing coastal change in this area. According to Raabe et al. (2004), a number of natural and anthropogenic factors may have contributed to the inland expansion of coastal marsh, including soil damage during tree harvest, dissolution of limestone, change in freshwater flow from the Waccasassa River, and concentrated storm surge in the Waccasassa embayment that would focus marine energy and flooding inland. All of these factors may exacerbate the impact of rising sea level in the area.

Figure 6.40
figure 40

Coastal change for T-sheet 699 (see Figure 6.38), Withlacoochee Bay to Waccasassa Bay, documenting inland expansion of marsh from marine submergence, 1858 to 1995 (from Raabe et al. 2004)

Along the northwest portion of the Big Bend coast, between the Fenholloway River and the Aucilla River, is an area illustrating changes most common to the Big Bend marshes and coastal forests. Figure 6.41 shows relatively small losses along the marine marsh boundaries but rather significant inland recession of the coastal forest boundary as tidal marshes expand inland. According to Raabe et al. (2004), increased tidal flooding has resulted in loss of hammocks in tidal marsh and widespread inland recession of the upland forest boundary. Although marsh shoreline recession is most common along the coast, small areas of shoreline advance are present, primarily the result of high marsh bank slumping and recolonization by low marsh species (Raabe et al. 2004).

Figure 6.41
figure 41

Coastal change for T-sheet 1424a (see Figure 6.38), Fenholloway River to Aucilla River, documenting small to moderate changes along the marine and coastal forest boundaries, 1875 to 1995 (from Raabe et al. 2004)

Overall, Big Bend shoreline change documents relatively minor movement in both directions with significant growth of intertidal marsh over adjacent uplands in response to sea-level rise over an approximate 100-year period. As documented by Raabe et al. (2004), dieback of coastal forests is common in the low-gradient Big Bend area as marine water submerges the limestone surface under rising seas. Northeastern Gulf Barrier Islands and Beaches

The barrier island-inlet system of the northeastern GoM extends from the western margin of Ochlockonee Bay, FL (eastern margin of the Apalachicola River Delta) west to Cat Island, MS (Figure 6.42). Geomorphic features include barrier islands, sand spits, mainland beaches, and inlet systems of various sizes. Shorelines of the Apalachicola River Delta vary in orientation, resulting in an array of sand transport directions and magnitudes relative to dominant wave approach. Broad and gently sloping inner continental shelf deposits seaward of the delta result in relatively low littoral transport rates versus those present along the east-west barrier strandplain west of the delta (Davis 2011b). Overall, the dominant direction of longshore sand transport is from east to west, and transport magnitudes vary based on shoreline orientation.

Figure 6.42
figure 42

Location of shoreline reaches for the Northeastern Gulf Barrier Islands and Beaches region extending from Ochlockonee Bay, FL to Cat Island, MS. Image credit: Microsoft Bing Maps Aerial

Historical shoreline change along most of the northeastern GoM beaches has been net erosional since the mid-1800s, primarily the result of tropical cyclone impacts. Storm-driven wave and current processes are the primary erosional forces responsible for instantaneous geomorphic changes, whereas more frequent climatological occurrences that produce normal wave and current processes rework storm-induced beach changes, resulting in long-term coastal evolution. Overall, shoreline recession is dominant throughout this portion of the GoM; however, beach nourishment since the 1970s has mitigated erosion hot spots, augmenting the littoral transport system and reducing erosion. Although sea-level rise for this section of coast is slightly greater than the eustatic rate (see Section, it has not caused significant shoreline recession during the period of record (Davis 2011a; Byrnes et al. 2012).

Based on geomorphic characteristics, shoreline change and longshore transport are summarized for three distinct areas of the northeastern GoM (Figure 6.42). The coast between Ochlockonee Bay and St. Joseph Peninsula is characteristic of deltaic and marginal deltaic environments of the Apalachicola River delta (Figure 6.43). Shoreline orientation varies significantly, and patterns of sand transport and beach change reflect shoreline orientation relative to incident waves. Although reversals in net littoral sand transport are common for this section of the coast, net longshore sand transport is from east to west.

Figure 6.43
figure 43

Historical shoreline change for sandy beaches for the Apalachicola River delta region. Variations in net shoreline change between the mid-1800s and 1970s/1980s are illustrated in the top panel, whereas net shoreline changes between the 1970s/1980s and 2000s are shown in the bottom panel relative to beach nourishment (black line segments) and the direction of net littoral sand transport (white arrows). Shoreline change data from Absalonsen and Dean (2010) and Miller et al. (2004). Beach nourishment data from Miller et al. (2004) and FDEP (2008). Image credits: Microsoft Bing Maps Aerial (main); ArcGIS National Geographic World Map (overview)

According to Dean and O’Brien (1987), net longshore transport along Dog Island and St. George Island (south of Apalachicola) is to the west at a rate of about 130,000 m3/year (170,000 cy/year), even though transport at the eastern end of Dog Island is to the east. As shoreline orientation shifts to more southerly in the St. Vincent Island area (east of St. Joseph Peninsula), west-directed transport decreases to about 90,000 m3/year (118,000 cy/year). North of Cape San Blas (southern point of St. Joseph Peninsula), the shoreline faces a more westerly direction and net longshore transport is to the north-northwest at approximately 130,000 m3/year (170,000 cy/year) (Dean and O’Brien 1987). Historical shoreline change rates for the Apalachicola delta coast vary from 8.2 to −8.2 m/year (26.9 to −26.9 ft/year) between the mid-1800s and 1970s/1980s (Figure 6.43). However, net shoreline recession was dominant at a rate of about 0.2 m/year (0.7 ft/year). Although beach nourishment was completed along the southern extent of St. Joseph Peninsula in 2009, net shoreline recession rates for the period 1970s/1980s to 2009 increased to an average of 0.6 m/year (2.0 ft/year), perhaps due to increased storm impacts since the 1970s.

The next segment of coast is concave and extends from Port St. Joe (near the northern end of St. Joseph Peninsula) to Mobile Point on the eastern side of Mobile Pass (Figure 6.42). Although net longshore sand transport is to the east at about 100,000 m3/year (131,000 cy/year) along a short length of beach at the eastern end of this 300-km (186-mi) segment of coast (near Mexico Beach Inlet), net transport for the western 270 km (168 mi) of beach is to the west at rates between 115,000 and 400,000 m3/year (150,000 and 523,000 cy/year) (Dean and O’Brien 1987; Byrnes et al. 2010). Seven inlets interrupt sand transport between Port St. Joe and Mobile Pass, and all but three are maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Mobile District. Mexico Beach Inlet in Florida, a natural entrance that exchanges water and sediment between the GoM and Saint Andrew Sound, is maintained by the City of Mexico Beach, and Little Lagoon Pass is maintained by the State of Alabama. Historical shoreline change rates for the 1800s to 1970s/1980s illustrate hot spots of erosion and accretion east of St. Andrew Bay Entrance that range from −8.4 to 7.2 m/year (−27.6 to 23.6 ft/year) (Figure 6.44); however, most beaches document shoreline changes between −1 and 1 m/year (−3.3 and 3.3 ft/year). Overall, net shoreline recession of −0.1 m/year (−0.3 ft/year) was recorded for this 300-km (186-mi) coastal segment. Between the 1970s/1980s and 2000s, sand nourishment was imposed along a number of beaches (FDEP 2008), contributing to a shift in net shoreline change to 0.1 m/year (0.3 ft/year) (Absalonsen and Dean 2011) (Figure 6.44).

Figure 6.44
figure 44

Historical shoreline change for sandy beaches from Port St. Joe to Mobile Pass. Variations in net shoreline change between the mid-1800s and 1970s/1980 are illustrated in the top panel, whereas net shoreline changes between the 1970s/1980s and 2000s are shown in the bottom panel relative to beach nourishment (black line segments) and the direction of net littoral sand transport (white arrows). Shoreline change data from Absalonsen and Dean (2010) and Byrnes et al. (2010). Beach nourishment data from Miller et al. (2004) and FDEP (2008). Image credits: Microsoft Bing Maps Aerial (main); ArcGIS National Geographic World Map (overview)

The westernmost 100 km (62 mi) of the northeastern Gulf barrier islands and beaches encompasses the barrier islands fronting Mississippi Sound (Figure 6.42). The barrier islands extend from Dauphin Island (AL) to Cat Island (MS) and provide the first line of protection to mainland Mississippi and Alabama from storm waves and surge. The islands are composed of beach sand derived from updrift beaches east of Mobile Pass and from ebb-tidal shoals at the entrance. Four tidal passes between the islands promote exchange of sediment and water between marine waters of the GoM and brackish waters of Mississippi Sound (Figure 6.45). Tidal passes also interrupt the flow of littoral sand to the west from Mobile Pass ebb-tidal shoals and Dauphin Island. Mobile Pass, Horn Island Pass, and Ship Island Pass are federally maintained navigation channels since the early 1900s (Byrnes et al. 2010, 2012).

Figure 6.45
figure 45

Historical shoreline change for sandy beaches from Mobile Pass to Cat Island. Variations in net shoreline change between the mid-1800s and 1970s/1980 are illustrated in the top panel, whereas net shoreline changes between the 1970s/1980s and 2000s are shown in the bottom panel relative to beach nourishment (black line segments) and the direction of net littoral sand transport (white arrows). Shoreline change data from Byrnes et al. (2010) and Byrnes et al. (2013). Beach nourishment data from Miller et al. (2004). Image credits: Microsoft Bing Maps Aerial (main); ArcGIS National Geographic World Map (overview)

Byrnes et al. (2010) and Byrnes et al. (2013) document long-term beach changes for the Mississippi Sound barrier islands, emphasizing the dominance of east-to-west longshore transport processes on erosion and deposition along the coast. Net shoreline recession of about 1.5 m/year (4.9 ft/year) was documented for Gulf facing beaches for the period 1847 to 1981/1986 (Figure 6.45); storm processes and inlet dynamics in the dominant east-west littoral transport environment control shoreline position change. Shoreline recession since 1981 increased to 2.4 m/year (7.9 ft/year), perhaps due to an increase in tropical cyclone impacts during this 30-year period. Cross-shore island changes are particularly important along central Dauphin Island and along East Ship Island where long-term rates of change have been documented at up to −3 m/year (−10 ft/year) and −6 m/year (−20 ft/year), respectively (Byrnes et al. 2012). However, lateral island migration (from east to west) controls long-term island morphologic changes at rates between 10 and 50 m/year (33 and 164 ft/year), emphasizing the dominance of net longshore transport processes (Figure 6.46) (Byrnes et al. 2013). The systematic pattern of updrift erosion and downdrift deposition illustrates sand movement from east to west and promotes westward migration, and has reduced island areas by about one-third since the 1850s (Byrnes et al. 2012).

Figure 6.46
figure 46

Shoreline change for the Mississippi Sound barrier islands illustrating alongshore erosion and deposition trends that indicate net east to west littoral transport (from Byrnes et al. 2013; used with permission of the Journal of Coastal Research)

As illustrated in Figure 6.46, littoral sand transport along the Mississippi Sound barrier islands is predominantly from east to west in response to prevailing winds and waves under normal and storm conditions from the southeast. Reversals in longshore transport occur at the eastern ends of the islands, but their impact on net sediment transport is localized and minor relative to dominant transport processes from the southeast. Net longshore transport magnitude was estimated using historical survey datasets encompassing an approximate 90-year period to quantify sand flux along the barrier-inlet system (littoral sediment budget). According to Byrnes et al. (2013), longshore sand transport magnitudes range from about 230,000 m3/year (300,000 cy/year) along the western end of Dauphin Island to approximately 320,000 m3/year (420,000 cy/year) along Horn Island to 110,000 m3/year (145,000 cy/year) near Ship Island (Figure 6.47).

Figure 6.47
figure 47

Macro-scale sediment budget for the Mississippi Sound barrier island chain, 1917–1918 to 2005–2010. Arrows illustrate the direction of sediment movement throughout the system and black numbers reflect the magnitude of net sediment transport (from Byrnes et al. 2013; used with permission of the Journal of Coastal Research) Mississippi River Deltaic Plain

The Mississippi River deltaic plain extends from the Chandeleur Islands to Southwest Pass (west margin of Marsh Island) (Figure 6.48). Mississippi River delta growth over the past 7,000 years has produced millions of acres of wetlands that form and degrade as the river switches course every 1,000 to 2,000 years. Channel gradients become so low that hydraulic flow inefficiencies result in river channel realignment to a more efficient route to the Gulf (Roberts 1997). As delta lobes are abandoned (that is, fluvial processes no longer contribute significantly to sedimentation and land building), erosive wave and current forces begin to rework the outer margins of the delta. Erosion and sediment reworking are exacerbated by compactional subsidence, as the primarily depositional system evolves (Williams et al. 2011). Eventually, headland beaches and barrier islands are formed as transgression proceeds on the sediment-starved abandoned delta lobe (Kulp et al. 2005). Headland beaches and barrier islands formed along the outer margin of the Mississippi River delta plain reflect various stages of delta lobe evolution, and because the natural source of river sediment has been reduced from interior watersheds via dams and isolated from the modern deltaic plain via levees, deltaic habitats are rapidly deteriorating. Coastal habitats are particularly vulnerable to change where direct exposure to storm waves and currents results in rapid shoreline changes and significant sediment transport rates.

Figure 6.48
figure 48

Location diagram for the Mississippi River deltaic plain extending from the Chandeleur Islands west to Southwest Pass. Image credit: Microsoft Bing Maps Aerial

In response to high subsidence rates, diminished sediment supply to coast habitats, and continued exposure to storm waves and currents, the Mississippi-Atchafalaya River deltaic plain experiences the highest rates of laterally continuous shoreline retreat and land loss in the GoM (Penland et al. 1990; Miner et al. 2009). While land loss associated with shoreline change along the Gulf shore and around the margins of large coastal bays is extreme, loss of the interior wetlands is even more extensive due to submergence and deterioration of the Mississippi River delta plain. Wetland erosion along the Louisiana deltaic shoreline (excluding accretion along the modern delta fringe) averaged about 4.8 m/year (15.7 ft/year) between 1855 and 2005; however, the rate of erosion increased to approximately 14.1 m/year (46.3 ft/year) between 1996 and 2005 (Martinez et al. 2009). Highest rates of Gulf shoreline recession along the Mississippi River deltaic plain coincide with subsiding marshes and migrating barrier islands such as the Chandeleur Islands, Caminada-Moreau headland, and the Isles Dernieres (Figure 6.49).

Figure 6.49
figure 49figure 49

(a) Historical shoreline changes for coastal Louisiana, 1800s to 2005 (from Martinez et al. 2009). (b) Long-term shoreline changes for coastal Louisiana, 1930s to 2005 (from Martinez et al. 2009)

The Chandeleur Islands barrier system represents the final stage of delta lobe deterioration where transgressive sand deposits reside along the outer margin of a submerged delta lobe under rapid shoreline recession and frequent overwash (Figure 6.50). Historical shoreline recession (1855 to 2005) for this segment of coast was 6.4 m/year (21.0 ft/year) (Figure 6.49a); between the 1930s and 2005, the rate increased to −8.6 m/year (−28.2 ft/year) (Reaches 57 to 59 on Figure 6.49b). Most sand transport within this low-profile barrier island system is directed landward during storm events (washover); however, longshore transport is characterized as bi-directional (north and south of the central portion of the island chain), and net rates estimated using wave modeling varied between 60,000 and 130,000 m3/year (78,000 and 170,000 cy/year) (Ellis and Stone 2006; Georgiou and Schindler 2009).

Figure 6.50
figure 50

Deterioration and rapid shoreline recession along the Chandeleur barrier island system, mid-1800s to 2005 (data from Martinez et al. 2009). White arrows show the direction of net littoral sand transport. Image credit: Microsoft Bing Maps Aerial

The Plaquemines barrier system protects Barataria Bay from Gulf waves and currents and extends from Sandy Point (east) to West Grand Terre Island at Barataria Pass (Figure 6.51). Longshore transport is eastward from Barataria Pass and westward from Sandy Point, converging near the eastern end of East Grand Terre Island (Figure 6.51; USACE 2012). Annualized maintenance dredging from the bar channel at Barataria Pass (1996 to 2007) was approximately 140,000 m3/year (183,000 cy/year) (USACE 2010). Of this quantity, about 90,000 m3/year (118,000 cy/year) was sand; however, this quantity is an estimate of gross transport to the pass from east and west. Georgiou et al. (2005) estimated that approximately 10,000 m3/year (13,000 cy/year) of sand was transported westward along the Plaquemines shoreline based on survey data, and USACE (2012) estimated sand transport along Shell Island at approximately 33,000 m3/year (43,000 cy/year) westward. Historical shoreline change rates average about −7.0 m/year (−23.0 ft/year) (1884 to 2005); however, shoreline recession rates increased to approximately 8.1 m/year (26.6 ft/year) between the 1930s and 2005 (Reaches 44 to 48, Figure 6.49b; Martinez et al. 2009).

Figure 6.51
figure 51

Net longshore sediment transport pathways for the barrier island shoreline between Sandy Point and Raccoon Point fronting the Mississippi River deltaic plain. Image credit: Microsoft Bing Maps Aerial

The Bayou Lafourche barrier system extends approximately 60 km (37 mi) from Barataria Pass (eastern end of Grand Isle) to Cat Island Pass at the western end of Timbalier Island (Figure 6.51). The Caminada-Moreau Headland is included in this coastal segment and contains some of the highest rates of shoreline recession in south Louisiana (11.2 m/year [36.7 ft/year]; Reach 42, Figure 6.49a). Timbalier Island has experienced rapid lateral migration to the west, reflecting the dominant direction of longshore transport west of the Caminada-Moreau Headland (McBride et al. 1992). Based on shoreline change analyses and nearshore sedimentation trends, Georgiou et al. (2005) estimated net longshore transport for this area to be approximately 146,000 m3/year (191,000 cy/year) eastward. According to Rosati and Lawton (2011), net westward transport of maintenance dredging material from Cat Island Pass (Houma Navigation Canal) was about 100,000 m3/year (130,000 cy/year) toward the Isles Dernieres. However, Georgiou et al. (2005) estimates that a maximum of 50,000 m3/year (65,000 cy/year) of sand moves westward along the Timbalier Islands. Based on data from Martinez et al. (2007), historical shoreline change for the Bayou Lafourche barrier shoreline was about −8.8 m/year (−28.9 ft/year) (1884–2005). Shoreline recession rates decreased to about 5.8 m/year (19.0 ft/year) between the 1930s and 2005 (Figure 6.49b).

The westernmost barrier island system along the south Louisiana coast is the Isles Dernieres. In the mid-1800s, the Isles Dernieres (then known as Last Island) was home to the first coastal resort in Louisiana (Davis 2010). At that time, the island was continuous, about 50-km (31-mi) long, and approximately 1 km (0.6 mi) wide. The hurricane of 1856 destroyed the resort community and the island has continued to deteriorate since that time. Although the east-to-west longshore sediment transport pathway is well defined for the Isles Dernieres (Figure 6.51), littoral transport rates estimated using wave modeling routines vary from about 33,000 m3/year (43,000 cy/year) (Georgiou et al. 2005) to 60,000 m3/year (78,000 cy/year) (Stone and Zhang 2001). Based on the sediment budget for Cat Island Pass (Rosati and Lawton 2011) developed using survey data, net transport quantities of Stone and Zhang (2001) and Georgiou et al. (2005) likely underestimate annualized transport rates. Historical shoreline change rates (−11.3 m/year [−37.1 ft/year]; 1887–2005) are of similar order to those recorded for the Caminada-Moreau headland. For the 1930s to 2005 period, recession rates increased slightly to 12.0 m/year (39.4 ft/year) (Reaches 33 to 36; Figure 6.49b). Mississippi River Chenier Plain

The Chenier Plain coast of southwestern Louisiana and southeastern Texas is a unique marginal-deltaic depositional environment indirectly influenced by high levels of riverine input from the Mississippi-Atchafalaya River system. The area extends from Southwest Pass (LA) to Rollover Pass (TX) (Figure 6.52). The Chenier Plain coast is approximately 200 km (124 mi) long and extends up to 30 km (19 mi) inland from the GoM. Chenier Plain deposits are composed primarily of mud, interspersed with thin sand- and shell-rich ridges. Coastal deposits were formed from sediments supplied by longshore transport of primarily fine-grained Mississippi-Atchafalaya River sediment (Hoyt 1969) when the river mouth was oriented to the west. When the river mouth was located eastward and sediment supply to the Chenier Plain was limited relative to erosive wave energy, previously deposited mud-rich sediment was reworked by coastal processes, concentrating coarse-grained sediments and forming shore-parallel ridges (Penland and Suter 1989). Subsequent shifts in sediment supply created the alternating ridge and swale topography so common to the Chenier Plain (McBride et al. 2007).

Figure 6.52
figure 52

Historical shoreline change trends for the Mississippi-Atchafalaya River Chenier Plain coast. Shoreline change data from Martinez et al. (2009) and Paine et al. (2011). White arrows show the direction of net littoral sand transport. Image credit: Microsoft Bing Maps Aerial

Although no direct measurements of littoral sediment transport have been made along mixed sediment coastal and nearshore deposits of the Chenier Plain, Holocene geomorphic records illustrate an east to west longshore transport direction (McBride et al. 2007). Only three primary waterways interrupt longshore transport along the Chenier Plain coast, two of which have significant inland bays (Calcasieu and Sabine). All three waterways are structured with jetties that illustrate net longshore sediment transport direction (sand accumulation at the eastern jetties). Sediment transport magnitude is more difficult to estimate; however, net transport quantities estimated by Georgiou et al. (2008) between Calcasieu Pass and Sabine Pass using numerical modeling were reported as a maximum of about 40,000 m3/year (52,000 cy/year). Shepsis et al. (2010) used survey data and numerical modeling to estimate a net west-directed longshore transport rate of approximately 70,000 m3/year (92,000 cy/year) for the same coastal segment. Furthermore, Taylor Engineering (2010) documented a series of longshore sand transport rates for the Rollover Pass area that ranged between 44,000 and 73,000 m3/year (96,000 cy/year) to the southwest.

Shoreline change along the Louisiana Chenier Plain coast is dominated by erosion between Southwest Pass and the Mermentau River Outlet at a rate of about 5.3 m/year (17.4 ft/year) (Figure 6.52) (Byrnes et al. 1995; Martinez et al. 2009). However, a 23-km (14-mi) segment of coast east and west of Freshwater Bayou illustrates net shoreline advance between 1884 and 2005 (2.9 m/year [9.5 ft/year]; Figure 6.52), perhaps reflecting sediment supplied to this area by the Atchafalaya River (Huh et al. 1991). West of this deposition zone to a position 7.5 km (4.7 mi) west of the Mermentau River Outlet is a 68-km (42 mi) shoreline segment that illustrates greatest historical recession rates along the Chenier Plain (8.7 m/year [28.5 ft/year]). Further west of this point to Sabine Pass, net deposition and shoreline advance (1.6 m/year [5.2 ft/year]) becomes dominant (Byrnes et al. 1995). This alternating trend of shoreline recession and advance shifts to net recession west of Sabine Pass to Rollover Pass, where beach erosion dominates shoreline dynamics (Figure 6.52), particularly when tropical cyclones impact the area (Byrnes and McBride 2009). Thin sand and shell beaches, perched on inland herbaceous marsh deposits, exist along the entire coast, and net shoreline recession rates average about 2.6 m/year (8.5 ft/year). Overall, temporal and spatial trends in shoreline response illustrate increasing shoreline recession with time (Byrnes et al. 1995). Besides being a function of incident wave energy, shoreline change data indicate that factors such as shoreline orientation to dominant wave processes, sediment supply, and engineering structures have a profound influence on coastal response. Texas Mid-Coast Barrier Islands

Barrier beaches along the central Texas coast extend approximately 300 km (186 mi) southwest between Rollover Pass and Packery Channel (North Padre Island) (Figure 6.53). The area between Rollover Pass and San Luis Pass encompasses Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston Island, a zone of sandy beaches and dune systems with ridge and swale topography (Bernard et al. 1970). In historical times, navigation structures at Bolivar Roads (Houston Ship Channel Entrance) have influenced sediment transport pathways along the southeast Texas coast. In addition, the Galveston seawall and groin system on the eastern part of Galveston Island, while protecting the island, has limited sediment to downdrift beaches, resulting in a net deficit to the sediment budget along south Galveston Island. These structures serve to compartmentalize the coast by blocking southwest-directed longshore sand transport to downdrift beaches. As a result of these structures and natural processes, approximately 88 % of the coast in this area illustrates long-term shoreline recession (Figure 6.53) (Paine et al. 2011). Net shoreline recession for the period 1882 to 2007 was about 0.2 m/year (0.7 ft/year). Although shoreline recession is dominant, small areas of net deposition occur at shoreline segments adjacent to the north and south jetties at Bolivar Roads, and the southwestern end of Galveston Island (Paine et al. 2011). Longshore sand transport measurements obtained by Rogers and Ravens (2008) for the surf zone on Galveston Island ranged from 86,000 m3/year (112,000 cy/year) to 231,000 m3/year (302,000 cy/year).

Figure 6.53
figure 53

Long-term shoreline change trends for the Texas Mid-Coast Barrier Islands (mid 1800s to 2007 for the area between Rollover Pass and San Luis Pass; 1930s to 2007 for the area southwest of San Luis Pass to Packery Channel). Shoreline change data from Paine et al. (2011). White arrows show the direction of net littoral sand transport. Image credit: Microsoft Bing Maps Aerial

The coast southwest of San Luis Pass to Pass Cavallo encompasses the headland of the Brazos and Colorado River deltas and associated barrier peninsulas called Follets Island and Matagorda Peninsula. Sediments eroded by waves reworking muddy and sandy deltaic headland deposits supplied sandy sediment to beaches adjacent to the headland deltas. Three navigation channels have been controlled with jetties along this section of coast, resulting in disruption of natural littoral transport to downdrift beaches. These include the Freeport Ship Channel jetties just north of the Brazos River entrance, the relatively short jetties that extend seaward from the Colorado River Navigation Channel entrance, and the Matagorda Ship Channel jetties. These structures and channels have effectively compartmentalized sediment transport patterns along this section of coast (Paine et al. 2011). According to Paine et al. (2011), approximately 85 % of this coastal segment recorded shoreline recession. South of the San Bernard River to Pass Cavallo, average long-term recession rates averaged about 1.2 m/year (3.9 ft/year), whereas north of this point to San Luis Pass, shoreline recession averaged about 0.2 m/year (0.7 ft/year) (Figure 6.53). Areas of significant long-term shoreline recession include Follets Island, the Brazos headland, and a segment of Matagorda Peninsula southwest of the Matagorda Ship Channel. Beaches illustrating net shoreline advance are focused along short segments of the Matagorda Peninsula, including 3 km (1.9 mi) of beach northeast of the Colorado River mouth, a 5.5 km (3.4 mi) segment adjacent to the north jetty at the Matagorda Ship Channel, and a 2 km (1.2 mi) long segment at the southwestern tip of Matagorda Peninsula (Figure 6.53) (Paine et al. 2011). Net longshore sand transport between San Luis Pass and the Brazos River is consistent with transport direction and rates for Galveston Island. South of the Brazos headland along the Matagorda Peninsula, Heilman and Edge (1996) and Thomas and Dunkin (2012) estimated net longshore transport at between 38,000 and 250,000 m3/year (50,000 and 327,000 cy/year) to the southwest.

Southwest of Pass Cavallo to Packery Channel, long-term shoreline recession is prevalent along most beaches (0.8 m/year [2.6 ft/year]; Figure 6.53). Coastal engineering structures that impact sand transport for this shoreline segment include jetties at the Matagorda Ship Channel entrance that restrict sand transport to Matagorda Island, jetties at Aransas Pass that interrupt sand transport between San Jose and Mustang Islands, and the small Packery Channel jetties (Paine et al. 2011). Paine et al. (2011) documented net shoreline recession along about 80 % of this shoreline segment. However, approximately half the Gulf shoreline of Matagorda Island has advanced at relatively low rates since 1937. Highest rates of net shoreline recession (averaging 9.7 m/year [31.8 ft/year]) were recorded along a 6 km (3.7 mi) segment of Matagorda Island southwest of Pass Cavallo (Figure 6.53) (Paine et al. 2011). Net recession rates greater than 1 m/year (3.3 ft/year) were measured along most of San Jose Island, the central portion of Mustang Island, and the southern end of Mustang Island. Net shoreline recession rates elsewhere were less than 1 m/year (3.3 ft/year).

Although limited information is available regarding longshore sand transport rates, the predominant transport direction appears southwestward north of Packery Channel and variable south of this point. As such, net transport rates decrease to the southwest as the difference between northeast- and southwest-directed transport becomes minimized. Based on wave simulations, Kraus and Heilman (1997) determined the net longshore sand transport rate for Mustang and north Padre Islands to be about 34,000 to 53,000 m3/year (39,000 to 69,000 cy/year) to the southwest. However, deposition at the Aransas Pass jetties between 1866 and 1937 suggests net northward transport (Figure 6.54). Conversely, Morton and Pieper (1977) document deposition at the southern end of San Jose Island, southward channel migration at Aransas Pass, and shoreline recession along the north end of Mustang Island prior to jetty construction as evidence of net southwest longshore transport. Williams et al. (2007) documented deposition adjacent to the Packery Channel jetties as nearly symmetrical with slightly greater deposition south of the jetty (Figure 6.54). Based on these and other observations, the coast southwest of Aransas Pass to Padre Island National Seashore appears to be a nodal area for changes in the dominant direction of littoral sand transport (McGowen et al. 1977).

Figure 6.54
figure 54

Patterns of deposition adjacent to the jetties at Aransas Pass and Packery Channel documenting variable transport directions. Shorelines from Miller et al. (2004). Image credit: ArcGIS World Imagery Laguna Madre Barrier Islands

The Laguna Madre of Texas and Tamaulipas is separated by the Rio Grande Delta at the United States–Mexico border and bounded by barrier islands and peninsulas along the GoM coast and mainland deposits along its western margin. The Laguna Madre extends approximately 445 km (277 mi) from Corpus Christi Bay to La Pesca at the mouth of the Rio Soto la Marina (Figure 6.55). The Texas and Tamaulipas lagunas each encompass approximately 185 km (115 mi) of coast, and the Rio Grande Delta occupies about 75 km (47 mi) between the lagunas (Tunnell 2002b). The delta lobe protrudes about 35 km (22 mi) into the Gulf relative to shoreline orientation adjacent to the delta. Padre Island extends the entire length of the Texas Laguna Madre, except for an inlet cut through southern Padre Island in 1962 called Mansfield Channel (Figure 6.55). The southern terminus of the Texas Laguna Madre is marked by Brazos-Santiago Pass, which connects Port Isabel to the GoM. Brazos Island State Park (Boca Chica beach) is located along the southern 12 km (7.5 mi) of Texas coast that terminates at the Rio Grande River mouth.

Figure 6.55
figure 55

Long-term shoreline change trends for the Laguna Madre Barrier Islands (1930s to 2007). Shoreline change data from Paine et al. (2011). White arrows show the direction of net littoral sand transport. Image credit: Microsoft Bing Maps Aerial

Along the Tamaulipas coast, a deltaic headland/peninsular beach called Barra el Conchillal protects the northern portion of the Mexican Laguna Madre from Gulf waves and currents. This relatively low-profile beach averages approximately 2 km (1.2 mi) wide where it fronts northern Laguna Madre and extends approximately 115 km (71 mi) from the Rio Grande to Boca de Sandoval. Three washover barrier islands, with widths of 500 m (1,640 ft) or less, protect Laguna Madre south of Boca de Sandoval to the mouth of Rio Soto la Marina at La Pesca. Between Boca de Sandoval and Boca de Catán, Barra los Americanos and Barra Jesus Maria encompass about 56 km (35 mi) of coast marked by ephemeral inlets and washover features formed during storm events (Figure 6.55; Tunnell 2002b). The southernmost 78 km (48 mi) of barrier shoreline fronting Laguna Madre (Barra Soto la Marina) extends to the jetties at the mouth of Rio Soto la Marina. Although all beaches along the Tamaulipas coast are prone to washover during storms, beach widths tend to decrease from the Rio Grande south and beach face slopes increase (Carranza-Edwards et al. 2007). Fine-grained terrigenous sands are dominant, with grain size increasing as beach slopes become steeper.

Longshore sand transport for Padre Island beaches varies depending on shoreline orientation. Although literature indicates that net littoral transport along northern Padre Island is to the south, sedimentation at the Packery Channel jetties indicates a nearly symmetrical deposition pattern, suggesting variable transport direction (Figure 6.54). Because transport direction varies depending on season and year along this section of coast, net transport rates are relatively low (Williams et al. 2007). Based on 8 years of wave data, Kraus and Heilman (1997) calculated net southward transport near Packery Channel at an average rate of 34,000 m3/year (44,500 cy/year). When shoreline orientation shifts from southwest to southeast along central Padre Island, net northward transport is well illustrated at jettied entrances (Figure 6.56). Heilman and Kraus (1996) calculated average net longshore transport rates along South Padre Island to be about 115,000 m3/year (150,000 cy/year) to the north. South of the Rio Grande, along the deltaic headland beach of Barra El Conchillal, net transport direction shifts southward based on shoreline orientation and dominant wave climate. This pattern of transport continues south to La Pesca. Although no information is available on net transport rates for beaches fronting the Tamaulipas Laguna Madre, deposition patterns at jettied entrances document the net direction of longshore transport (Figure 6.57).

Figure 6.56
figure 56

Shoreline offset at Mansfield Channel jetties illustrating net longshore transport to the north along South Padre Island, Texas. Image credit: ArcGIS World Imagery

Figure 6.57
figure 57

Shoreline offset at the El Mezquital and Boca de Soto la Marina entrances along the Tamaulipas Laguna Madre coast illustrating net longshore transport to the south. Image credit: Microsoft Bing Maps Aerial

Between Packery Channel and Mansfield Channel, a longshore sand transport convergence zone shifts north and south depending on annual variation in wave energy relative to shoreline orientation. As such, a 38-km (24-mi) section of beach along north central Padre Island illustrates net accretion (~0.1 m/year [0.3 ft/year]) since 1937 (Figure 6.55). Conversely, the 20-km (12-mi) shoreline segment to the north toward Packery Channel and the 53-km (33-mi) segment south toward Mansfield Channel recorded net shoreline recession of about 1.0 m/year (3.3 ft/year) and 0.9 m/year (3.0 ft/year), respectively. The shoreline recession rate increased substantially for the 7-km (4.3-mi) segment north of Mansfield channel to about 4.1 m/year (13.5 ft/year), perhaps due to interruption of north-directed longshore sediment transport by the jetties at Mansfield Channel entrance. South of the channel, sand deposition within 1.5 km (0.9 mi) of the south jetty resulted in beach accretion and shoreline advance of about 1.9 m/year (6.2 ft/year). However, south of this deposition zone for approximately 50 km (31 mi), shoreline recession was prevalent at an average rate of about 3.1 m/year (10.2 ft/year). Only the southern 5 km (3.1 mi) of beach fronting South Padre Island was net depositional (1.6 m/year [5.2 ft/year]), likely the result of beach nourishment. South of Brazos Santiago Pass, the coast was net depositional during the Holocene as fluvial sediment from the Rio Grande supplied sand to form barrier islands (Paine et al. 2011). Since 1937, the northern 4.5 km (2.8 mi) of beach recorded net deposition from north-directed longshore sand transport, resulting in average shoreline advance of 0.8 m/year (2.6 ft/year). Conversely, the southern 7.5 km (4.8 mi) of beach to the Rio Grande documented shoreline recession of about 2.9 m/year (9.5 ft/year).

Quantitative shoreline change data are not available for the Tamaulipas Laguna Madre beaches, however, Moreno-Casasola (2007) stated that the barrier island coast south of the Rio Grande is presently eroding or migrating landward due to storm impacts, rising sea level, and limited new sand supply to the coast. Beaches along this coastal segment are low profile and highly susceptible to storm overwash. Relatively low net recession rates have been observed along most of this coastal segment (Carranza-Edwards 2011). Laguna Morales Barrier Beaches to Barra del Tordo

This 85-km (53-mi) segment of coast extends from Boca de Soto la Marina at La Pesca to Barra del Tordo near the mouth of the Rio Carrizales (Figure 6.58). Narrow lagoons and waterways back beaches along this section of coast from Laguna Morales in the north to the estuary at Barra del Tordo. Beaches are relatively narrow and similar to those in the southern portion of the Laguna Madre region (Carranza-Edwards et al. 2007). Net longshore sand transport is to the south and onshore; however, deposition patterns at the mouth of Rio Carrizales, where a single jetty currently exists along the south side of the entrance, indicates that north and south transport is fairly balanced. Figure 6.58 illustrates sand spit development at the mouth of Rio Carrizales prior to jetty placement along the southern shoreline.

Figure 6.58
figure 58

North-south shoreline between Boca de Soto la Marina and Barra del Tordo illustrating bi-directional transport at Rio Carrizales in an overall net south-directed longshore transport system. White arrows show the direction of net littoral sand transport. Image credit: Microsoft Bing Maps Aerial Southern Gulf of Mexico Marine Ecoregion

The Southern GoM Marine Ecoregion extends from Barra del Tordo at the mouth of Rio Carrizales along the southern GoM shoreline through Veracruz, Tabasco, and Campeche to the northeastern tip of the Yucatán Peninsula (Figure 6.2), a shoreline distance of about 1,700 km (1,056 mi). These shorelines encompass a variety of coastal geological deposits primarily formed by the interaction between fluvial drainage systems and coastal processes in the GoM. Most coastal depositional systems are composed of terrigenous clastic sediment; however, limestone shoreline deposits are dominant east of Isla del Carmen along the Yucatán Peninsula. Furthermore, volcanic headlands exist along the Veracruz coast adjacent to barrier beaches and deltaic deposits. Three geographic areas are used to illustrate patterns of shoreline change within the Southern Gulf Ecoregion: (1) Veracruz Neritic Barrier Shoreline, (2) Tabascan Neritic Rocky and Deltaic Shoreline, and (3) Campeche/Yucatán Carbonate Beach. Veracruz Neritic Barrier Shoreline

Between Barra del Tordo and Tuxpan, the coast is composed of terrigenous clastic beaches, primarily sourced by Rio Panuco, that commonly form as barrier islands. The largest barrier island along this section of coast is Cabo Rojo, an island with extensive ridges and active dune fields (Figure 6.59). According to Stapor (1971), Rio Panuco is the primary source of sediment via southerly longshore transport leading to the development of Cabo Rojo. Sand beaches are generally wide and accretionary, and dune elevations are several meters high along most of the island. Between Barra del Tordo and Tampico, barrier islands are low profile, and beach widths are relatively narrow (<40 m [131 ft]) (Carranza-Edwards et al. 2007). Beaches are composed of terrigenous sand but shell fragments are frequently present. Three structured entrances that indicate net transport to the south are present along this section of coast. Croonen et al. (2006) analyzed the rate at which sand accumulated along the north jetty at the Port of Altamira and estimated south-directed transport at 300,000 m3/year (392,000 cy/year). The jetty is a significant littoral barrier for sand transport to downdrift beaches, thereby creating a narrow, erosive barrier island protecting the lagoon south of the Port. Shoreline recession rates in this area were reported at 5 to 10 m/year (16.4 to 32.8 ft/year) (Croonen et al. 2006).

Figure 6.59
figure 59

Veracruz Neritic shoreline between Barra del Tordo and Playa Salinas illustrating a net south-directed longshore transport system. White arrows show the direction of net littoral sand transport. Image credit: Microsoft Bing Maps Aerial

Between the Tampico Harbor jetties and Tuxpan, the most prominent coastal feature is Cabo Rojo, an extensive late-Quaternary barrier island extending approximately 100 km (62 mi) along the Gulf margin of Laguna Tamiahua (Figure 6.59) (Stapor 1971). Beaches are low profile and wide between Cabo Rojo and Tuxpan with extensive dune ridges behind the beaches. Net sand transport along the coast is to the south, as indicated by excess deposition along the north jetties at the Laguna Tamiahua and Tuxpan (Rio Pantepec) entrances and the prograding beach ridge plain along the southern leg of the cape. Although a net depositional feature, Cabo Rojo has experienced net erosion over the past few decades at rates of approximately 1 m/year (3.3 ft/year) (Peresbarbosa-Rojas 2005). Although net longshore transport quantities have not been estimated for this coastal segment, deposition patterns at jettied entrances suggest that transport rates are less than that identified for the beaches north of Tampico.

Except for a 7 km (4.3 mi) section of coast north of the mouth of Rio Cazones (Veracruz), where volcanic outcrops intersect the coast, beaches extending from Tuxpan to Playa Punta Delgada (50 km [31 mi] south of Nautla) are characterized as low, sandy mainland deposits that are relatively narrow. Rio Tecolutla and Rio Nautla supply relatively large volcanoclastic sediment loads directly to beaches along this section of coast (Figure 6.59) (Okazaki et al. 2001). However, dunes are absent in this area and beaches appear primarily erosional. Shorelines between Playa Punta Delgada and Playa Salinas are composed of bluffs and rocky points of volcanic origin (referred to as the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt), interspersed with small lagoons and narrow flood plains (Moreno-Casasola 2007). Sandy beaches are observed throughout this section of coast, and active dune fields are prominent north of Veracruz to Laguna de Farallón (Carranza-Edwards 2011). Although less common, rocky headlands persist as far north as Playa Punta Delgada, interrupting littoral sand transport along beaches. Most beaches within this ecoregion are undergoing erosion, as illustrated by active erosion or scarping of the primary dune ridge along the coast (Tanner 1975b). Sediment transport is primarily to the south but is variable in response to localized fluvial inputs, lithologic boundaries, and sedimentation accumulation landforms (Psuty et al. 2008, 2009). Tabascan Neritic Rocky and Deltaic Shoreline

This 570-km (354-mi) shoreline segment has the greatest variety of shoreline types and extends from southeastern Veracruz through Tabasco to southwestern Campeche (Figure 6.60). Coastal areas in Veracruz, particularly the barrier beaches in the Alvarado region, are low lying and vulnerable to storm surge and rising sea level (Moreno-Casasola 2007). Southeast of this area, between Punta Puntilla and Laguna Ostión, the coast is a mixture of low-lying sandy beaches and rocky headlands within Los Tuxtlas Biosphere Reserve (associated with the San Andres Tuxtla volcanic massif). East of Laguna Ostión to Coatzacoalcos, beaches are low profile and extensive dune fields are present. Between Rio Coatzacoalcos and Rio Tonalá, numerous small rivers supply clastic sediment to the coast; however, most beaches are erosional (Carranza-Edwards 2011). Sediment within the Tabascan coastal zone is terrigenous, primarily sourced from the Tonalá, Grijalva, Usumacinta, and San Pedro y San Pablo Rivers (Thom 1967). Sand grain size varies from fine to very fine, and heavy mineral concentrations are common (Carranza-Edwards et al. 2007). Beach ridges are associated with deltaic deposition during an accretionary phase of development when sediment loads were high. However, historical changes in coastal evolution have been dominated by beach erosion (Tanner and Stapor 1971). Deltaic shorelines extend east into Campeche, terminating at the channel between Zacatal and Isla del Carmen at Laguna de Términos (Figure 6.60). Isla del Carmen, a barrier island fronting Laguna de Términos, is located in the transition area between limestone of the Yucatán Peninsula and alluvial terrain of deltaic deposits to the west (Contreras-Espinosa and Castañeda-Lopez 2007).

Figure 6.60
figure 60

Tabascan Neritic shoreline between Playa Salinas and Isla Aguada illustrating variability in the net longshore transport system. White arrows show the direction of net littoral sand transport. Image credit: Microsoft Bing Maps Aerial

Based on aerial imagery and Stapor (1971), net longshore sediment transport rates vary in this east-west oriented coastal segment depending on local shoreline orientation and sediment supply from the river systems. Near Alvarado and the Papaloapan River system, net transport is to the east. This trend continues along the Tuxtlas shoreline, only to be interrupted by rapid changes in shoreline orientation at headland outcrops. Pocket beaches often are shielded from wave approach depending on headland size and orientation, meaning longshore transport may vary significantly relative to open-coast sandy beaches. South of Laguna Ostión, net transport is from west to east until the jetties at Coatzacoalcos. East of the jetties, transport appears balanced with slightly greater transport from east to west. However, at the entrance to Laguna del Carmen at Sánchez Magallanes (~60 km [37 mi] east of Coatzacoalcos), the offset in sand deposition at the east and west jetties illustrates dominant littoral transport from east to west (Figure 6.61). This pattern of transport continues to the mouth of Laguna de Términos. Net transport rate estimates do not exist for this area.

Figure 6.61
figure 61

Shoreline offset at the Laguna del Carmen jetties at Sánchez Magallanes illustrating net west-directed longshore sand transport (A; Image credit: Microsoft Bing Maps Aerial). Downdrift beach erosion west of the jetties has resulted in significant property damage (B; photo from Hernández-Santana et al. 2008, used with permission)

Although quantitative shoreline change information is not available for the coast between Playa Salinas and Rio Tonalá, Carranza-Edwards et al. (2007) indicated that coastal processes for most sandy beaches in this area are net erosional. East of Rio Tonalá, Tanner and Stapor (1971) recorded erosion along the seaward edge of the beach-ridge plain where younger beach ridges are truncated or scarped rather than tapered. Furthermore, trunks of dead trees were found in the surf zone as a result of beach erosion and shoreline recession. Ortiz-Pérez (1992) and Ortiz-Pérez and Benítez (1996) used historical maps to compare shoreline positions for the periods 1943 to 1958 and 1972 to 1984 to illustrate that shoreline recession is widespread for the deltaic shorelines of Tabasco and Campeche. At the mouth of Rio San Pedro y San Pablo, they found net shoreline recession was dominant at about 8 m/year. Hernández-Santana et al. (2008) supplemented these data with a 1995 shoreline and documented change between Rio Tonala and the Rio San Pedro y San Pablo entrance from 1943 to 1995. Estimates of shoreline change between 1984 and 1995 for the mouth of the Rio San Pedro y San Pablo were consistent at about −8 to −9 m/year (−26 to −30 ft/year) (Figure 6.62). Comparison of shoreline position for 1972, 1984, and 1995 at other coastal locations illustrated shoreline recession for most of the Tabascan/Campeche deltaic coast.

Figure 6.62
figure 62

Shoreline position change adjacent to Rio San Pedro y San Pablo for the periods 1943–1972, 1972–1984, and 1984–1995 (from Hernández-Santana et al. 2008), used with permission

Ortiz-Pérez et al. (2010) updated previous shoreline change studies to include a 2008 aerial imagery shoreline. Figure 6.63 documents net changes quantified for nine segments of coast east of Rio Tonalá for the period 1995 to 2008. The western portion of segment 1 shows shoreline advance (0.97 m/year [3.2 ft/year]) near Rio Tonalá and the eastern side indicates net erosion (0.5 m/year [1.6 ft/year]). Sánchez Magallanes is located on the western margin of the jettied entrance to Laguna del Carmen (Figure 6.64), where west-directed longshore sand transport is blocked by the east jetty (Figure 6.61). This interruption in littoral transport produces significant net erosion immediately downdrift of the entrance (3 to 5 m/year [9.8 to 16.4 ft/year] from 1972 to 2005) (Hernández-Santana et al. 2008), resulting in net erosion (0.5 m/year [1.6 ft/year]) for about 19 km (11.8 mi) west of the jetties. Although net deposition does occur adjacent to the east jetty, the next 28.5 km (17.7 mi) of coast (segment 2) east of the entrance is net erosional at approximately 1.05 m/year (3.4 ft/year) (Figure 6.63). From Boca Panteones east to Barra Tupilco (~17 km [10.5 mi]; segment 3) (Figure 6.64), shoreline recession is dominant at about 1.07 m/year (3.5 ft/year). The magnitude of erosion increases slightly along the 24.8 km (15.4 mi) shoreline east of Barra Tupilco (segment 4) to approximately 1.35 m/year (4.4 ft/year) but increases to 4.34 m/year (14.2 ft/year) over the next 5 km (3.1 mi) near Puerto Dos Bocas (Ortiz-Pérez et al. 2010). Between Rio Gonzaléz and the eastern flank of the Rio Grijalva delta (~73 km [45 mi]; segments 7 and 8), the shoreline experiences net advance of between 0.16 and 1.04 m/year [0.5 and 3.4 ft/year]. However, the coast adjacent to Rio San Pedro y San Pablo and east about 20 km (12.4 mi) eroded at about 3.05 m/year (10.0 ft/year) (segment 9) between 1995 and 2008 (Ortiz-Pérez et al. 2010) and has been consistently eroding since at least 1943 (Figure 6.62) (Hernández-Santana et al. 2008).

Figure 6.63
figure 63

Net annual rates of shoreline advance (avance) and recession (retroceso) from Rio Tonalá to the Rio San Pedro y San Pablo delta plain, 1995 to 2008 (from Ortiz-Pérez et al. 2010, used with permission). Arrows pointing to the Gulf indicate shoreline advance; arrows pointing toward land imply recession

Figure 6.64
figure 64

Shoreline change locations for the Tabasco/Campeche coast. Image credit: Microsoft Bing Maps Aerial

Torres-Rodríguez et al. (2010) and Bolongaro Crevenna Recaséns (2012) evaluated erosion trends along the Campeche coast at selected locations east of the Rio San Pedro y San Pablo between 1974 and 2002/2008. Seven locations were used to document erosion trends, including shorelines adjacent to the Rio San Pedro y San Pablo mouth that overlap with shoreline change information compiled by Ortiz-Pérez et al. (2010) (Figure 6.64). Bolongaro Crevenna Recaséns (2012) documents a change rate of −4.8 m/year (−15.7 ft/year) between 1974 and 2006 and Ortiz-Pérez et al. (2010) calculated a rate of about −3.1 m/year (−10.2 ft/year) for the period 1995 to 2008. Although rates differ, variations in time interval and/or beach extent perhaps had the greatest influence on change rates. East of Rio San Pedro y San Pablo, the Nitrogenoducto area illustrated shoreline recession of about 0.7 m/year (2.3 ft/year) (1974 to 2004) whereas the Atasta shoreline area recorded −14.3 m/year (−46.9 ft/year) (1974 to 2008) (Bolongaro Crevenna Recaséns 2012). The very eastern portion of the delta plain near Playa la Disciplina and the channel to Laguna de Términos recorded a change rate of −17.1 m/year (−56.1 ft/year) between 1974 and 2008 (Torres-Rodríguez et al. 2010). The large change rates at Atasta and Playa la Disciplina reflect the influence of hurricanes impacting this area in 2005 and 2007. Additionally, three shoreline areas were evaluated for Isla del Carmen at Playa Norte, Club de Playa, and Cases (Figure 6.64). Large change variations existed but the Gulf facing shoreline was net erosional at all locations and the eastern two locations illustrated greatest change (−5.2 m/year [−17.0 ft/year] at Club de Playa; −3.6 m/year [−11.8 ft/year] at Cases). Playa Norte is at the eastern end of Isla del Carmen, the downdrift end of the longshore transport system, and had the smallest net erosion rate (0.3 m/year [1.0 ft/year]) (Bolongaro Crevenna Recaséns 2012). Campeche/Yucatán Carbonate Beach

The Campeche-Yucatán carbonate beaches extend approximately 700 km (435 mi) from Isla Aguada at the eastern margin of Laguna de Términos to the northeastern end of Yucatán Peninsula near Cabo Catoche (Figure 6.65). The coast in this area is primarily a low-relief limestone platform through which rainfall filters and supplies coastal habitats with fresh water. Between Isla Aguada and Champotón, calcareous sand beaches are narrow and low relief. North of Champotón to Campeche, the coast is primarily limestone rock. Concrete bulkheads and other coastal structures protect the city of Campeche from flooding and erosion, and narrow calcareous sand and rock beaches are common south of the city. North of Campeche to Celestún, the shoreline is protected from energetic Gulf waves and the dominant shoreline type is mangrove. The northern Yucatán coast includes a beach-ridge plain overlying the limestone platform of the Yucatán Peninsula. Calcareous sand beaches along the Yucatán coast protect shallow and narrow lagoons from GoM waves and currents (Meyer-Arendt 1993). In many locations along northern Yucatán, beaches are quite narrow and low-relief dunes are common. River runoff is not present in this area, so beach sand is composed of carbonate particles derived from limestone deposits, coral reefs, and shells. As such, organic content in coastal waters is low and water clarity is excellent.

Figure 6.65
figure 65

Index map illustrating net longshore sediment transport pathway for the Campeche-Yucatán coast (Image credit: Microsoft Bing Maps Aerial). Two inset images indicate the net direction of transport via sand spit growth and differential shoreline change at structured entrances. (Image credit: ArcGIS World Imagery)

Carbonate sand beach ridges along the northern Yucatán coast reflect a period of sand abundance and accretion during the Holocene, but the present lack of sand in the littoral transport system has resulted in net erosion in recent years (Meyer-Arendt 1993). The dominant east-to-west longshore sediment transport system has produced several westward-curving sand spits (e.g., Celestún) and shoreline offsets at shore-perpendicular structures (e.g., jetties, groins) (Figure 6.65). Along the north-south shoreline between Celestún and Isla Aguada, net sand transport direction is to the south-southwest. The only section of coast where longshore transport is not a significant coastal process is along the low-energy coast between Celestún and Campeche where mangroves are dominant. Estimates of longshore transport magnitude are not available for the area between Isla Aguada and Celestún; however, shoreline change rates for the sandy beaches between Isla Aguada and Champotón are consistent with change rates along the northwestern Yucatán coast where transport rates vary from approximately 48,000 to 60,000 m3/year (63,000 to 78,000 cy/year) (Appendini et al. 2012).

Between Celestún and Cabo Catoche, numerous coastal communities and industrial ports are present among the carbonate beaches and shallow coastal lagoons. Navigation structures associated with port development have resulted in large differences in shoreline position on either side of entrances (e.g., Puerto de Sisal, Puerto de Chuburná, Puerto de Telchac) indicating the dominant direction of littoral transport. The net direction of longshore sand transport in this area is illustrated well based on sand accumulation at shore-perpendicular structures and the natural growth of sand spits; however, the magnitude of net longshore transport requires knowledge of wave and current processes or a time series of shoreline and hydrographic surveys for documenting long-term sediment erosion and accretion patterns. Long-term regional survey datasets are not available for the northern Yucatán coast, so Appendini et al. (2012) used 12 years of wave hindcast data to estimate potential longshore sediment transport rates. The reliability of transport estimates was verified by comparing calculated rates with infilling rates at a shore-perpendicular structure that acts as a total littoral barrier to longshore transport. Based on transport simulations, Appendini et al. (2012) determined a range in transport from approximately 20,000 to 80,000 m3/year (26,000 to 105,000 cy/year). Figure 6.66 illustrates variability in potential longshore sand transport rates for the northern coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, suggesting that approximately 60,000 m3/year (78,000 cy/year) is being transported from the northwestern coast toward Celestún, creating an extensive sand spit deposit (Figure 6.65).

Figure 6.66
figure 66

Potential longshore sediment transport estimates (m3/year × 1,000) for the northern coast of the Yucatán Peninsula (modified from Appendini et al. 2012). Areas of erosion and deposition are identified based on gradients in longshore transport rates. Negative and positive values represent westward and eastward transport, respectively

Torres-Rodríguez et al. (2010) document shoreline changes along the Campeche coast between Isla Aguada and Champotón for the period 1974 to 2002/2008. Greatest rates of change were recorded for a 10 km (6.2 mi) beach segment at Sabancuy (−6.8 m/year [−22.3 ft/year]) where jetties protecting navigation between Estero Sabancuy and the Gulf caused significant erosion downdrift of the entrance (Torres-Rodriguez et al., 2010). About 35 km (21.7 mi) north of this area, Torres-Rodríguez et al. (2010) document shoreline recession of about 4.4 m/year (14.4 ft/year) near Punta de Xen. Near Champotón, shoreline recession decreased to about 2.4 m/year (7.9 ft/year); however, much of the coast is rocky, implying a more stable shoreline type. The most stable carbonate beaches along the Campeche coast were identified near Isla Aguada where net shoreline recession rates of 0.2 m/year (0.7 ft/year) were calculated near the southwestern end of the littoral drift zone (Torres-Rodríguez et al. 2010). Sand accumulation from longshore transport perhaps resulted in lower net shoreline recession relative to updrift beaches.

Along the northern Yucatán coast, long-term accretion has been the primary process associated with barrier beach formation during Holocene time. However, during historical times, beach erosion has been the principal geomorphic response to coastal processes shaping the coast. Despite past accretion trends, dune scarping is common at several locations along the northern Yucatán coast, especially east of Progreso near Puerto de Chuburná (Meyer-Arendt 1993). Although shoreline recession rates of about 1.8 m/year (5.9 ft/year) have been documented by Gutierrez-Espadas (1983) for a 110-year period for this area, short-term rates averaged about 0.3 to 0.6 m/year (1.0 to 2.0 ft/year) for the period 1948 to 1978 (Meyer-Arendt 1993). Greatest shoreline changes along the northern Yucatán coast occur in response to jetty construction at harbor entrances and in association with sand spit growth (e.g., near Celestún). Natural coastal erosion generally is attributed to the passage of nortes (winter cold fronts) and hurricanes; normal waves and currents contain relatively low energy not capable of producing significant sand transport or shoreline changes. Caribbean Sea Marine Ecoregion: Cabo Catoche to Cancún

The northeast outer coast of Quintana Roo, from Cabo Catoche to Punta Cancún, is composed of Holocene carbonate sediment derived from marine and coral reef limestone of Upper Pleistocene and Holocene age (Ward 2003). Coastal ecosystems include coral reefs, beaches and dunes, and coastal lagoons (Figure 6.67). Beaches are composed of fine, well-sorted sand, primarily derived from ooliths with skeletal mollusk detritus and coral fragments, and sand sources are from reef degradation and onshore sand transport (Morán et al. 2007; González-Leija et al. 2013). Prominent features along the coast include barrier islands and sand spits connected to the mainland that create coastal lagoons (e.g., Isla Blanca), and offshore islands (Isla Contoy and Isla Mujeres) that formed partly as remnants of Upper Pleistocene dune ridges (Ward 2003). This part of the Quintana Roo coast is particularly vulnerable to tropical cyclones and nortes. As such, the coast is typically erosional (Molina et al. 2001). When storms impact the area, limestone rock ledges are often exposed until coastal sand transport processes cover the rock ledges during post-storm depositional periods. Most beaches in this region are narrow (40 to 400 m [130 to 1,300 ft] wide) and have low elevations (Molina et al. 2001).

Figure 6.67
figure 67

Index map illustrating net longshore sediment transport pathways for the northeast Quintana Roo coast. Image credit: Microsoft Bing Maps Aerial

According to Carrillo et al. (2015), the general pattern of surface water currents along the Quintana Roo coast is from south to north, as is the YucatÃn Current (Figure 6.68). Although reversals in longshore transport south of Cancún occur in the nearshore reef between rock headlands, the Yucatán Current, coupled with wave refraction, produces a net northward current for all littoral areas along the northeast coast of Quintana Roo (Krutak and Gío-Argáez 1994). Longshore sand deposition resulted in the formation of numerous Holocene beach ridges along the northern coast of Isla Blanca, illustrating the dominant direction of littoral transport. Overall, this information is consistent with the potential longshore sediment transport modeling estimates of Appendini et al. (2012); however, predicted transport for approximately 15 km (9.3 mi) east of Cabo Catoche is to the southeast, not to the north (see Figure 6.66). Review of aerial imagery for this section of coast indicates that a reversal in longshore transport is evident based on sand deposition patterns at entrances between the islands. This localized departure from overall transport trends does not diminish the fact that both studies recognize a dominant south to north, then east to west, longshore transport pathway for coastal flows around Cabo Catoche. Although transport direction in this area is well documented, the magnitude of longshore sand transport is lacking.

Figure 6.68
figure 68

Pattern of surface water currents along the Quintana Roo coast (reprinted from Carrillo et al., 2015, with permission from Elsevier)

The beach south of Punta Cancún was evaluated for shoreline change by Dibajnia et al. (2004) to document erosion trends relative to proposed beach replenishment in the area. They identified variations in shoreline response, illustrating net shoreline recession of about 1.5 m/year (4.9 ft/year) for beach extending approximately 3 km (1.9 mi) south of Punta Cancun, 0.5 m/year (1.6 ft/year) for the 6-km (3.7-mi) long central beach segment, and about 2.6 m/year (8.5 ft/year) for the 2 km (1.2 mi) segment south to Punta Nizuc for the period 1989 to 2000. Based on change measurements, Dibajnia et al. (2004) estimated beach losses at approximately 33,000 to 76,000 m3/year (43,000 to 99,000 cy/year). If one assumes beach changes primarily are associated with longshore transport processes, estimated quantities can be used to approximate littoral transport rates. Because equivalent shoreline studies are not available north of this area, and exposure to waves and currents is similar for both regions, the estimates of Dibajnia et al. (2004) may provide a proxy for beaches along the northeastern Quintana Roo coast. Greater Antilles Marine Ecoregion: Northwestern Cuba

The northwestern coast of Cuba, between Cabo San Antonio and Havana, has a coastline length of approximately 350 km (217 mi) and is highly diverse in terms of geology, soils, and plant communities (González-Sansón and Aguilar-Betancourt 2007). West of Havana to Bahía Honda, the coast is characterized by low cliffs and sandy beaches with inlets and bays (Figure 6.69) (Rodríguez 2010). Moving west of Bahía Honda, a chain of coral reefs and cays becomes the Archipelago de los Colorados, sheltering the inland coast and fringing mangrove habitat (González-Sansón and Aguilar-Betancourt 2007). Mangrove habitat flourishes when protected by sandy barrier beaches and spits or fringing coral reefs. Although narrow, fringing beaches are present between Havana and Mariel, sandy carbonate beach environments become more common west of Mariel where source material for carbonate sands (degrading reefs) becomes more abundant. Along the southwestern end of Golfo de Guanahacabibes is a limestone peninsula with rocky beaches with narrow carbonate sand deposits.

Figure 6.69
figure 69

Index map illustrating the location of sand beaches and net longshore sediment transport pathway for northwest Cuba. Image credit: Microsoft Bing Maps Aerial

The longshore sand transport system in this area is very complicated by the presence of coral reefs and limestone rock shores that dissipate and reflect wave energy depending on distance from shore and orientation relative to dominant wave approach. However, where sand beaches are present, the dominant direction of transport is from east to west due to predominant winds and waves from the east-northeast (Figure 6.69) (UNEP/GPA 2003; González-Sansón and Aguilar-Betancourt 2007). Sand spits at inlets and along the western ends of cays support this direction of net transport. Although longshore sand transport magnitudes are not available for the northwest coast of Cuba, predicted annualized sand transport rates for beaches at Varadero (east of Havana) are estimated at 89,000 to 134,000 m3/year (116,000 to 175,000 cy/year) (Kaput et al. 2007). Beaches along the northwest coast are more protected from predominant waves than those at Varadero, so net littoral transport rates are perhaps lower than those simulated by Kaput et al. (2007).

Shoreline change rates for northwestern Cuba beaches are lacking as well. Again, if measurements made for Varadero beaches over the past 30 years are indicative, the net rate of shoreline recession would be approximately 1.2 m/year (3.9 ft/year) (Kaput et al. 2007). Dead trees and stumps exposed on the beaches along the northwestern coast indicate chronic beach erosion (Figure 6.70); however, change rates are difficult to estimate. Using similar logic as stated for estimating net littoral transport rates, long-term shoreline recession rates would perhaps be on the order of 1 m/year (3.3 ft/year).

Figure 6.70
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Erosion along the northwest coast of Cuba; (a) Playa Las Canas (UNEP/GPA 2003) and (b) Cayo Levisa (photo credit: van Lieshout (2007), used with permission)

6.4 Biogeographic Setting

The coastal strand and its associated vegetated marine habitats consist of several characteristic habitats that are qualitatively similar throughout the world. These habitats include supratidal barrier islands and beaches; intertidal saline wetlands, including salt marshes and mangroves; subtidal seagrasses; and intertidal flats and subtidal soft bottoms (Christensen 2000; Mendelssohn and McKee 2000; Hester et al. 2005; and references therein). These habitats provide a suite of societal benefits as described in Section 6.4.4 of this chapter.

6.4.1 Introduction to Vegetated Marine Habitats The Barrier Strand

The barrier strand, composed of shore-parallel accumulations of sand and shell in the form of barrier islands, beaches, and related shoreline types, is best considered a habitat-complex. Several unique habitats, such as beach, dune, swale, maritime shrub and forest, salt pan, back barrier marsh, and submerged seagrass occur as part of the barrier strand complex (Figure 6.71a, b). Although the physiography of the barrier strand may differ in specific geographical locations in the GoM, the habitats therein and the primary factors controlling their biotic communities are quite similar. This introduction draws examples from the Deltaic Coastal Marshes and Barrier Islands Terrestrial Ecoregion (Figure 6.6).

Figure 6.71
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(a) Barrier strand habitats in the northern GoM (from Mendelssohn et al. 1983; used with permission from ASCE). (b) Oblique aerial photo of a segment of the Chandeleur Islands (photo credit: I. A. Mendelssohn)

The beach habitat is a strip of generally sandy substrate that extends from the low tide line to the top of the foredune, or in the absence of a foredune, to the farthest inland reach of storm waves (Barbour 1992) (Figure 6.72). This habitat is characterized by shifting sands, intense salt-spray, periodic saltwater inundation, and sand-washover. Only those plant species highly adapted to these stressors (e.g., Cakile edentula (sea rocket)) can survive on the beach.

Figure 6.72
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Beach habitat includes the foreshore and backshore of the barrier strand and is subject to periodic wave runup, shifting sands, and saltwater from salt spray and surf (photo credit: I. A. Mendelssohn)

Landward of the beach, sand dunes, which can vary greatly in height, form as accumulations of aeolian transported sand and fine shell (Figure 6.73). Some dunes remain unvegetated and mobile, while those that are more stable become vegetated, which further promotes stability. Dune vegetation is usually distinct from beach vegetation. Because sand dune habitat seldom experiences saltwater inundation, the substrate, although infertile, has little salt accumulation, and thus, plant salt tolerance is not necessary. However, salt spray, the salt-laden aerosol generated from onshore winds blowing across breaking waves, is a common environmental stressor on primary dunes, and vegetation, like Uniola paniculata (sea oats), must be adapted to this stressor to survive in the sand dune habitat.

Figure 6.73
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Dune habitat is characterized by accumulations of sand, either mobile or stabilized, depending on the extent of vegetation cover. As such, vegetation must be adapted to sand burial and salt spray, as well as moisture deficiency, to survive (photo credit: I. A. Mendelssohn)

Landward of the primary dune, and between secondary and tertiary dunes, are low elevation depressions called swales or dune slacks (Figure 6.74). Swales have greater soil moisture than beach or dune habitats, and the types of vegetation occurring in swales are more flood-tolerant than beach and dune vegetation. Because of generally greater plant growth in the swale habitat and the lesser probability of plant-derived litter being removed by tides, soils in the swale are relatively high in organic matter (compared to the dune and beach), and therefore, have a greater water holding capacity and are more fertile for plant growth (Dougherty et al. 1990). Many of the mostly herbaceous plants that dominate the swale occur only, or primarily, in this habitat. On wider and more stable barrier islands, protected portions of the swale are usually dominated by shrubs and trees, e.g., Myrica cerifera (wax myrtle) and Quercus virginiana (live oak), respectively, and have been termed maritime forests (Christensen 2000).

Figure 6.74
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Swale habitat is an interdunal topographical depression that occurs landward of the primary dune. Because the environment is more benign here, species diversity is generally high (photo credit: I. A. Mendelssohn)

On larger, more stable barrier islands, dune and swale topography often repeats multiple times, but when moving landward, elevation decreases and seawater inundation from backbarrier lagoons and bays occurs. This portion of a barrier island system is dominated by backbarrier salt marshes and in the more tropical climates, mangroves (Figure 6.75a, b). Salt pan habitat (Figure 6.76) generally occurs between the swale and the backbarrier wetlands. This is an area where infrequent tidal incursions result in salt accumulation in the soil and thus high soil salinities. Where salinities are exceptionally high (more than twice sea-strength), salt pans can be devoid of vegetation. However, more often than not, sparse populations of the most salt-tolerant halophytes dominate salt pans. At somewhat lower elevations, tidal incursions occur more frequently, but still not on a daily basis. This is the high marsh, which consists of salt-tolerant plants that can only withstand intermittent flooding, usually only on spring or wind tides. Further bayward is the low marsh, where tidal inundation occurs daily. Salt marshes and mangroves that occur in regularly flooded portions of backbarrier environments reach their greatest development here. Intertidal flats are only exposed at very low water, and therefore are generally unvegetated by macrophytes.

Figure 6.75
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Backbarrier marsh (a) occurs on the landward side of a barrier island/beach and is composed of both regularly flooded low marsh, dominated by Spartina alterniflora or Avicennia germinans, and (b) infrequently flooded high marsh, dominated by S. patens and Distichlis spicata, among other species (photo credit: I. A. Mendelssohn)

Figure 6.76
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Salt pan habitat has hypersaline soils in which few plant species can survive, and those that do are stunted and of low productivity (photo credit: I. A. Mendelssohn)

Within shallow waters landward of the barrier strand, seagrass beds may occur where turbidity conditions permit. Their presence is determined primarily by water clarity and low-nutrient conditions. Also associated with the barrier strand are intertidal flats (Figure 6.77), which occur throughout the GoM, and are herein considered an independent coastal habitat (see Section 6.5.6). Often they are associated with barrier islands, but they also occur along shorelines in bays and lagoons.

Figure 6.77
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Unvegetated tidal flats, adjacent to vegetated salt marshes, are exposed at low tides and provide habitat for wading birds and benthic fauna (photo credit: I. A. Mendelssohn) Marine Intertidal Wetlands

Salt marshes, mangroves, and reed beds generally are low-energy coastal shoreline intertidal wetlands. Salt marshes are dominated by halophytic forbs, graminoids, and shrubs that periodically flood with seawater as a result of lunar (tidal) and meteorological (primarily wind) water level changes. Like other wetlands, salt marshes are characterized by a pronounced hydrology, soil development under flooded conditions (hydric soils), and the dominance of vegetation (hydrophytes) adapted to saturated soil conditions (Lyon 1993). Salt marshes (Figure 6.78a) usually dominate in temperate climates, but to a lesser degree are also found in subtropical and tropical environments (Costa and Davy 1992). Mangrove habitats (Figure 6.78b), which primarily occur in tropical and subtropical climates, share many of the same characteristics, but are dominated by woody plant species. The word, mangrove, is an ecological term used to describe salt- and flood-tolerant trees and shrubs that inhabit the intertidal zone (Mendelssohn and McKee 2000). In addition to the typical saline wetlands that occur along the GoM coastline, reed beds, dominated by Phragmites australis, are a unique habitat of the northern GoM. The largest expanse of coastal reed beds in North America occurs along the coastal shorelines of the Mississippi River Birdfoot Delta (Figure 6.78c). Because it is a shoreline coastal habitat and occupies the position of saline wetlands elsewhere in the Gulf, it is included in this review of coastal habitats. The Phragmites reed habitat at the terminus of the Mississippi River is structured by the Mississippi River and the high subsidence rates that occur there. Salinities are fresh to intermediate and both native and European strains of Phragmites australis occur (Lambertini et al. 2012).

Figure 6.78
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Oblique aerial photographs of (a) salt marsh dominated by Spartina alterniflora, (b) mangrove islands dominated by Avicennia germinans, and (c) Phragmites australis-dominated reed beds, all located in coastal Louisiana (photo credit: I. A. Mendelssohn) Seagrass Beds

Seagrass beds or meadows are primarily composed of clonal marine flowering plants that occur in shallow, generally soft-sediment habitats along the shores of bays and estuaries in temperate and tropical environments (Williams and Heck 2001) (Figure 6.79). Seagrasses comprise a very important vegetative habitat in the GoM. These flowering angiosperms are entirely restricted to underwater habitats where water clarity, salinity, and substrate are suitable. They often are referred to as “submerged aquatic vegetation” or SAV. Five genera occur in the Gulf, including Thalassia, Halodule, Syringodium, Halophila, and Ruppia. Ruppia maritima is generally associated with low-salinity brackish waters in bays and estuaries and is not addressed in this chapter. Estimates of the areal extent of seagrass beds in the GoM range from approximately 17,000 km2 (4,250,000 acres) to 19,000 km2 (4,695,000 acres) (Table 6.2) (Onuf et al. 2003; Handley et al. 2007). They are unevenly distributed with sizable areas occurring along Cuba’s northwestern coast, the southern tip and Big Bend areas of Florida, the southern Texas coast, and Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. Lesser amounts of seagrasses are found along the northern GoM from the Florida Panhandle to north Texas. Areas of seagrass also occur in the Mexican states of Tamaulipas, Tabasco, and Veracruz.

Figure 6.79
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Mixed meadow of seagrasses from the Big Bend area of Florida (photo credit: Barry A. Vittor & Associates)

Table 6.2 Areal Estimates of Seagrass Extent for the GoM Intertidal Flats and Subtidal Soft Bottoms

Although GoM intertidal flats and subtidal soft-bottom habitats lack rooted vascular vegetation, they represent a significant interface between vegetated coastal habitats and nearshore waters. These sedimentary habitats adjoin or surround seagrass meadows, salt marshes, and mangroves, and many of their motile fauna move freely between vegetated and non-vegetated habitats. Non-vascular plants (marine macroalgae or “seaweeds”) do occur in intertidal and subtidal areas, but are a minor component of those habitats. Epibenthic and benthic fauna obtain some nutrients from seaweeds but primarily convert organic production by vegetated habitats to forms available to epifauna and nekton. This trophic linkage is critical to fishery resources in the GoM.

Intertidal flats are less prominent in the GoM than along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts because amplitudes of lunar tides are much lower in the Gulf, and exposure of these habitats results mainly from wind-driven tidal action, especially during winter months. Subtidal soft-bottom habitats encompass those substrates that are deeper than the beach swash zone, and for this chapter, extend seaward to a depth of less than 10 m.

Gulf seaweeds are associated primarily with hard substrates, but genera such as Avrainvillea, Caulerpa, Halimeda, Penicillus, and Udotea include species that are found mainly on sand or mud surfaces. Ceramium may occur in seagrass beds as well as on hard bottom. Other taxa, including Ulva, can occur on intertidal flats and subtidal soft-bottoms where there are hard surfaces on which to attach. Fredericq et al. (2009) listed 673 seaweed species in the GoM; however, only 50 of these species occur predominantly on sand or mud bottoms. Only three of these soft-bottom species have been reported from the Mississippi Estuarine or Texas Estuarine Ecoregions; most are found in the Eastern Gulf Neritic Ecoregion. Because seaweeds generally exhibit patchy distributions, no estimates of surface area coverage are available for the GoM.

6.4.2 Depositional Characteristics of Vegetated Marine Habitats

The ecological structure and function of coastal flora and fauna in the GoM varies in response to spatial changes in depositional environments and climatic regime (temperate to subtropical to tropical). As a result, the distribution of vegetated marine habitats and their depositional environments within the GoM can best be summarized from an ecoregion perspective, given that marine and terrestrial ecoregions are in large part climatically driven (Wilkinson et al. 2009; Yáñez-Arancibia and Day 2004). At the broadest geographical scale, coastal habitats of the GoM occur in five primary marine ecoregions: (1) South Florida/Bahamian Atlantic, (2) Northern GoM, (3) Southern GoM, (4) Caribbean Sea, and (5) Greater Antilles (Figure 6.2). Because coastal habitats represent transitional environments between marine and terrestrial ecosystems (see Section 6.2), ecoregions based on terrestrial characteristics will be used as necessary when describing coastal habitats and their distribution. South Florida/Bahamian Atlantic Marine Ecoregion

The most diverse area of the GoM coast is that of the southwestern Florida peninsula, where coastal habitats of the South Florida/Bahamian Atlantic Marine Ecoregion occur. The variety of habitats in this area is immense, where groundwater discharge is important and sandy beaches, mangroves, seagrasses, and coral reefs dominate. This marine ecoregion extends from the Florida Keys north to southern Keewaydin Island (just south of Naples, Florida) and comprises the Southern Coast and Islands Terrestrial Ecoregion. This part of the southwest Florida coast has many physiographic and hydrologic complexities associated with this biologically unique area. The entire Mesozoic and most of the Cenozoic geological sequence associated with the Florida peninsula is composed of carbonate rock (Hine and Locker 2011). As such, habitats of this region are often underlain by a calcium carbonate substrate, a driver of vegetation structure and function. As a consequence of this carbonate underpinning, the southwest Florida area is quite stable with little sediment compaction or subsidence.

The Southern Coast and Islands Terrestrial Ecosystem portion of the South Florida/Bahamian Atlantic Marine Ecoregion encompasses the Florida Keys and Ten Thousand Islands areas of southwest Florida (Figure 6.6). This highly diverse marine vegetated ecosystem consists of mangroves, seagrass beds, coral reefs, and marshes (Griffith et al. 2002) (Figure 6.80). Seagrass habitat has been cited as the largest in the northern hemisphere and is dominated by species such as Thalassia testudinum (turtlegrass), Halodule wrightii (shoalweed), and Syringodium filiforme (manatee grass) (Yarbro and Carlson 2011). Mangroves that dominate intertidal wetlands in the region consist of four primary tree species: Rhizophora mangle (red mangrove), Avicennia germinans (black mangrove), Laguncularia racemosa (white mangrove), and Conocarpus erectus (buttonwood). The southwestern Florida coast is characterized by a subtropical climate, modulated by the Gulf Stream, cold fronts, and hurricanes.

Figure 6.80
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Coastal habitats for and adjacent to the Southern Coast and Islands Terrestrial Ecoregion (data from Beck et al. 2000; FFWCC-FWRI 2003; Giri et al. 2011a; IMaRS/USF et al. 2010). Image credit: Microsoft Bing Maps Aerial. Inset photo: Chauta 2012, used with permission

The Ten Thousand Islands area north of Florida Bay to Marco Island is characterized by numerous mangrove-covered islands (Figures 6.80 and 6.81). Beaches generally are absent along the southwestern coast with only a few local accumulations of shell and skeletal debris (Davis 2011b). The coast is quite stable due to an abundance of mangrove vegetation. Although hurricanes are common in this area, their impact has had little influence on coastal geomorphology (Davis 1995).

Figure 6.81
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Image from Google Earth illustrating the Ten Thousand Islands area of southwest Florida. Map data: Google, U.S. Geological Survey

Ecosystem changes for the Southern Coast and Islands ecoregion have been documented using core data and information on historical hydrologic changes in the Everglades. Willard et al. (2001) and Wingard et al. (2007) documented long-term increases in salinity in Florida Bay and the Ten Thousand Islands area due to a combination of sea-level rise and hydrologic changes in the Everglades. These hydrologic changes produced a shift in wetland habitat from brackish/fresh-water marshes to dwarf mangrove stands. Although historical shoreline/wetland changes are primarily related to storm events and human activities (Section, Davis (2011a) suggests minimal long-term changes may be expected due to the stability of carbonate substrate in this relatively low-energy coastal region. Northern Gulf of Mexico Marine Ecoregion

The Northern GoM Marine Ecoregion is the most geographically expansive of the GoM ecoregions and extends from southern Keewaydin Island on the west coast of Florida to just south of Barra del Tordo in the State of Tamaulipas, Mexico, and includes coastal areas of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas (Figure 6.2). Climate within this region is temperate to subtropical, with relatively distinct seasonal patterns in temperature resulting from temperate cold fronts during the winter and warm tropical currents in the summer. The region generally has high nutrient loading and includes biotic communities such as mangroves, salt marshes, and seagrasses; coastal lagoons and estuaries; and low river basins. It contains approximately 60 % of tidal marshes in the United States, freshwater inputs from 37 major rivers, and numerous nursery habitats for fish (Wilkinson et al. 2009). Southwestern Florida Flatwoods Terrestrial Ecoregion

The barrier-inlet system along the central west Florida coast consists of approximately 27 barrier islands and inlets extending from Keewaydin Island (just south of Naples) to Anclote Key, just northwest of Tampa (Figure 6.82). Coastal habitats in this subtropical area include seagrasses, mangroves, and barrier islands and beaches. This ecoregion is underlain by a carbonate limestone on which sand and silts support large seagrass beds, dominated by Thalassia, that are key nursery, spawning, and feeding habitats for a variety of fish species (Zieman and Zieman 1989). Groundwater discharge is a notable source of freshwater and nutrients in the area. Mangroves are important intertidal wetland plants, but lose dominance at higher latitudes because of their relatively low cold tolerance (Mendelssohn and McKee 2000). Extensive barrier islands and the replacement of mangroves with herbaceous salt marshes characterize the northern reaches of this ecoregion.

Figure 6.82
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Coastal habitats for and adjacent to the Southwestern Florida Flatwoods Terrestrial Ecoregion (data from Beck et al. 2000; FFWCC-FWRI 2003; Giri et al. 2011a). Image credit: Microsoft Bing Maps Aerial

Davis (2011b) refers to this area as the most morphologically complex barrier system in the world. The barrier islands range from 1 kilometer to tens of kilometers long, and inlets include a wide variety of sizes and morphologies under natural and engineered conditions. This coastal segment is classified as microtidal (range <2 m [6.6 ft]) with a mean annual wave height of less than 0.5 m (1.6 ft). Furthermore, this part of the central West Florida coast generally has avoided significant hurricane landfall compared with the northern Gulf.

Tidal inlets associated with the central West Florida barrier island system show a wide variety of scales and morphologies. Tide-dominated inlets tend to be stable and have existed throughout the historical record. Mixed-energy inlets respond to a general balance in tide and wave energy, whereas wave-dominated inlets typically are unstable and tend to close due to the dominance of wave transport energy relative to the flushing capabilities of tidal flow. Overall, tidal prism and the volume of water that flows into and out of backbarrier estuaries/bays during each tidal cycle control the scale and stability of inlets. Flood tidal shoals are the largest sand bodies extending into estuaries in this region, often formed during hurricanes through breaching of barrier islands (Davis 2011b). Big Bend Coastal Marsh Terrestrial Ecoregion

North of Anclote Key, barrier islands cease to exist as sediment supply to the coast is negligible and coastal habitats are characterized by open-water marsh (primarily Juncus) in a tide-dominated environment (Figure 6.6). Coastal marshes experience spring tides up to 1.3 m (4.3 ft) and average wave heights of <0.3 m (1 ft). Because the coast is sediment starved, extensive limestone outcrops exist in subtidal and supratidal environments. As such, the Big Bend region of Florida has extensive seagrass beds, some extending into relatively deep water >12 m (39 ft) (Figure 6.83). Open-coast marshes that characterize the area can extend several kilometers inland, covering a karstic limestone surface along the coast (Hine et al. 1988). According to Davis (2011a), the Big Bend coastal area is similar to an open-water estuary with large freshwater discharge from springs that form the headwaters of rivers that empty into the Gulf. Linear oyster reefs that are fixed on the Tertiary limestone that crops out at the surface dominate the shallow inner shelf in this region. The presence of open-coast marshes indicates the degree to which wave and current processes rework coastal deposits. The broad, shallow shelf provides significant protection to coastal environments, and storms have had only minor impacts on the area, primarily by adding sediment to the marsh surface (Goodbred et al. 1998; Davis 2011a).

Figure 6.83
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Coastal habitats for and adjacent to the Big Bend Coastal Marsh Terrestrial Ecoregion (data from Beck et al. 2000; FFWCC-FWRI 2003; Giri et al. 2011a). Image credits: Microsoft Bing Maps Aerial (main); ArcGIS World Imagery (inset); FL Department of Environmental Protection, http://www.dep.state.fl.us/coastal/images2/spartina_marsh.jpg (inset photo) Gulf Barrier Islands and Coastal Marshes Terrestrial Ecoregion

Barrier islands and marshes of the northeastern GoM extend from the Apalachicola River Delta west to the Pearl River (Mississippi) (Figure 6.6). Coastal depositional systems include barrier islands, sand spits, mainland beaches, and backbarrier marshes. Inlets of various sizes separate coastal strand environments along this 550 km (342 mi) stretch of coast (Figure 6.84). A variety of shoreline orientations and ranges in shoreface slopes produce a complex pattern of longshore sediment transport associated with wave refraction patterns. However, a general east-west net transport direction is dominant along the coast (Section; Byrnes et al. 2010; Byrnes et al. 2012; Morang et al. 2012). Coastal sediments are terrigenous and derived from mainland and shoreface erosion under rising sea level.

Figure 6.84
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Coastal habitats for and adjacent to Gulf Barrier Islands and Coastal Marshes Terrestrial Ecoregion (data from Beck et al. 2000; FFWCC-FWRI 2003; Giri et al. 2011a; NOAA et al. 2004; NOAA et al. 2007; NOAA and DHS 2009). Image credits: Microsoft Bing Maps Aerial (main, inset); ArcGIS World Imagery (overview)

Coastal habitats of this ecoregion are characterized by a series of barrier islands and beaches that are separated from narrow mainland salt marshes by elongate sounds (Figure 6.84). Barrier islands and beaches are well developed with relatively large dune fields on which Uniola paniculata (sea oats) often dominates. Mainland salt marshes are generally infrequently flooded and Juncus roemerianus (black needlerush) is the primary salt marsh plant species, as is the case for the salt marshes of the Florida panhandle. Only one species of mangrove is present, Avicennia germinans, which is the most cold tolerant of the four new world mangrove species commonly found in south Florida (Sherrod and McMillan 1985). The northern limit of the black mangrove in the GoM occurs on Horn Island, Mississippi. Seagrass beds are also limited in this ecoregion because of a lack of clarity in coastal waters.

Along the eastern boundary of this region, barrier islands fringe the Apalachicola Delta, a large promontory that abruptly changes shoreline orientation west of the Big Bend. As such, the delta marks the western limit of the low wave-energy coast of the Florida Gulf Peninsula. Between Alligator Point, just west of Ochlockonee Bay on the eastern margin of the Apalachicola Delta, and Pensacola Pass (about 330 km [205 mi]), white sandy barrier island and mainland beaches characterize what is known as the Florida Panhandle coast (Davis 2011b). Inland bays and lagoons provide estuarine habitat for herbaceous marshes and seagrass meadows. The inner shelf adjacent to the Apalachicola Delta coast is broad and gently sloping; however, the shoreface west of this area is steeper and wider. Consequently, wave energy at this coast generally is higher. Beach erosion along southeast facing shorelines often is coupled with deposition along the southwest margin of barrier beaches (Donoghue et al. 1990). Littoral sediment transport along the coast and deposition and erosion patterns in bays are controlled by storm processes associated with tropical cyclone and winter cold front passage (Stone et al. 2004).

The western extension of the Florida Panhandle coast encompasses the Morgan Peninsula coast between Pensacola Pass and Mobile Bay entrance. Morgan Peninsula, the most prominent geologic feature along this 75 km (47 mi) coastal segment, forms the southeastern terminus of Mobile Bay and consists of an extensive beach backed by parallel dunes and numerous sub-parallel beach ridges, formed as a result of west-directed net longshore sediment transport processes (Bearden and Hummell 1990; Stone et al. 1992). The eastern Alabama coast is similar to Florida Panhandle coast where sandy barrier beaches are close to but separated from the mainland by lagoons.

Seafloor topography and Holocene sediment distribution on the Alabama shelf reflect a combination of processes, including regression during the late-Pleistocene and reworking of the exposed shelf surface by ancient fluvial systems, and reworking of the exposed shelf surface by coastal processes during the subsequent Holocene rise in sea level (Parker et al. 1997). Redistribution of sediment by waves and currents during transgression partially or totally destroyed geomorphic features associated with Pleistocene fluvial environments. Concurrently, these same processes formed modern shelf deposits as subaerial coastal features became submerged and reworked during relative rising sea level. As such, much of the shelf offshore Alabama and the Florida Panhandle is sand (Byrnes et al. 2010).

Along the western quarter of the Gulf Barrier Islands and Coastal Marshes Terrestrial Ecoregion (Figure 6.84), adjacent to the eastern margin of the Mississippi River delta (i.e., the St. Bernard delta complex), resides Mississippi Sound and barrier island coastal habitat. The barrier islands extend approximately 100 km (62 mi) from Dauphin Island (AL) to Cat Island (MS) and provide the first line of protection to mainland Mississippi and Alabama from storm waves and surge. The islands are composed of beach sand that is derived from updrift beaches east of Mobile Pass and from ebb-tidal shoals at the entrance. Four tidal passes between the islands promote exchange of sediment and water between marine waters of the GoM and brackish waters of Mississippi Sound. Tidal passes also interrupt the flow of littoral sand to the west from Mobile Pass ebb-tidal shoals and Dauphin Island.

According to Otvos and Carter (2008) and Otvos and Giardino (2004), the Mississippi Sound barrier islands formed during a deceleration in sea-level rise approximately 5,700 to 5,000 years ago. At that time, the core of Dauphin Island at its eastern end was the only subaerial feature in the location of the modern barrier island system through which predominant west-directed littoral sand transport from the Florida panhandle via Mobile Pass ebb-tidal shoals could transit and deposit as elongate sand spits and barrier islands. The laterally prograding barrier island system originally extended west to the Mississippi mainland shoreline near the Pearl River, marking the seaward limit of subaerial deposition and the formation of Mississippi Sound.

Beginning approximately 3,500 years ago, the Mississippi River flowed east of New Orleans toward Mississippi Sound, creating the St. Bernard delta complex (Figure 6.85) (Otvos and Giardino 2004). Delta deposition extended over the western end of the Mississippi barrier island system, west of Cat Island. By about 2,400 years ago, fluvial sediment from the expanding St. Bernard delta created shoals as far west as Ship Island (Otvos 1979), changing wave propagation patterns and diminishing the supply of west-directed littoral sand to Cat Island. With changing wave patterns and reduced sand supply from the east, the eastern end of Cat Island began to erode, resulting in beach sand transport perpendicular to original island orientation (Rucker and Snowden 1989; Otvos and Giardino 2004). Persistent sand transport from the east has been successful at maintaining island configuration relative to rising sea level for much of the barrier system; however, reduced sand transport toward Ship Island has resulted in increased island erosion and segmentation from tropical cyclones (Rucker and Snowden 1989).

Figure 6.85
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Barrier Island and St. Bernard delta lobe development as envisioned by Otvos and Giardino (2004) (reprinted with permission from Elsevier)

Mississippi Sound is considered a microtidal estuary because its diurnal tide range is only about 0.5 m (1.6 ft). The Sound is relatively shallow and elongate (east-west) with an approximate surface area of 2,000 km2 (772 mi2) (Kjerfve 1986) and a tidal prism of about 1.1 × 109 m3 (1.4 × 109 cy). Although tidal currents account for at least 50 % of flow variance, the Sound responds rapidly to meteorological forcing, as evidenced by subtidal sea-level variations of up to 1 m (3.3 ft) and persistent net currents in the tidal passes (Kjerfve 1986). The relatively shallow and large area of the Sound creates strong currents in tidal passes between the barrier islands, ranging from 0.5 to 1.0 m/s (1.6 to 3.3 ft/s) and 1.8 to 3.5 m/s (5.9 to 11.5 ft/s) on flood and ebb tides, respectively. Overall, circulation within Mississippi Sound is weak and variable, and the estuary is vertically well mixed.

Barrier islands protecting Mississippi Sound experience a low-energy wave climate. Littoral sand transport along the islands is predominantly from east to west in response to prevailing winds and waves from the southeast. Reversals in longshore transport occur at the eastern ends of the islands but their impact on net sediment transport is localized (Byrnes et al. 2012). Although beach erosion and washover deposition are processes that have influenced island changes, the dominant mechanism by which sand is redistributed along the barrier islands and in the passes is by longshore currents generated by wave approach from the southeast (primarily storms). Deltaic Coastal Marshes and Barrier Islands Terrestrial Ecoregion

The Mississippi River Delta Plain consists of large expanses of coastal wetlands within a geomorphologic framework of lakes, estuaries, and natural levee systems associated with active and abandoned distributaries (Figure 6.86). Locally, barrier island systems form the seaward edge of the delta plain, constituting an important component of the delta-plain ecosystem due to the habitat they provide, their storm-surge buffering capabilities, and their role in regulating marine to estuarine gradients (Kulp et al. 2005). Modern depositional models describe the Holocene history of the Mississippi River Delta Plain as a dynamic, multistage process that reflects the collective influence of changes in patterns of local relative sea-level rise and fluvial-sediment dispersal (Penland et al. 1988; Boyd et al. 1989). Sedimentary deposits of the Holocene delta plain consist of fine-grained sediment deposited within a variety of fluvial, deltaic, and coastal depositional environments. These sedimentary deposits formed in response to deltaic progradation and abandonment, resulting in an assemblage of overlapping regressive and transgressive units that consist of unconsolidated fluvial sediment (Kulp et al. 2005).

Figure 6.86
figure 86

Coastal habitats for the Deltaic Coastal Marshes and Barrier Islands Terrestrial Ecoregion (data from Beck et al. 2000; Giri et al. 2011a; NOAA et al. 2004; NOAA and DHS 2009). Image credit: Microsoft Bing Maps Aerial

The present Mississippi River delta consists of two active delta complexes (Balize and Atchafalaya) and several inactive delta complexes (Figure 6.87). A delta complex encompasses the sedimentary deposits from a sequence of smaller delta lobes that are linked to a common distributary (Kulp et al. 2005). According to Roberts (1997), deposition within a delta complex generally occurs for approximately 1,000 to 2,000 years. During delta expansion, wetlands fringing the delta front and distributary network grow laterally, creating wetland habitat dominated by fluvial distributaries and bays adjacent to active distributary networks. Aerial expansion of a delta complex produces elongated distributary networks, which lead to a reduction in hydraulic gradient and eventual abandonment of the delta for a shorter, more hydraulically efficient route. Distributary switching and delta abandonment are natural processes by which marine inundation and delta erosion commence as a result of decreased sediment supply and substrate compaction (Figure 6.88) (Roberts 1997; Williams et al. 2011). At abandoned deltaic headlands, relative sea-level rise results in erosional headland retreat as marine processes rework the shoreline. Sediment is dispersed laterally by waves and contributes to construction and nourishment of flanking beaches, beach ridges, and marginal deltaic deposits.

Figure 6.87
figure 87

Distribution and chronology of Holocene Mississippi River delta complexes (from Kulp et al. 2005; used with permission of the Journal of Coastal Research)

Figure 6.88
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Conceptual model of delta lobe evolution. Distributary abandonment results in erosion and reworking of the delta lobe, ultimately forming an inner-shelf, sand-rich shoal (from Penland et al. 1992)

As a result of high subsidence rates and diminished sediment supply to the coast from a controlled river system, the Mississippi-Atchafalaya River Deltaic and Chenier Plains experience the highest rates of laterally continuous shoreline retreat and land loss in the GoM. While land loss associated with shoreline change along the Gulf shore and around the margins of large coastal bays is extreme, loss of the interior wetlands is even more extensive due to submergence and destruction of the Mississippi River Delta Plain (Penland et al. 1990). The result has been substantial land loss on the delta plain since the 1930s (Figure 6.89).

Figure 6.89
figure 89

Wetland change on the Louisiana deltaic plain, 1932 to 2010 (data from Couvillion et al. 2011). Image credit: ArcGIS World Imagery Texas-Louisiana Coastal Marshes Terrestrial Ecoregion

The Texas-Louisiana Coastal Marshes Terrestrial Ecoregion encompasses marginal deltaic depositional environments indirectly influenced by high levels of riverine input from the Mississippi-Atchafalaya River system. The region includes coastal habitats of southeastern Texas and southwestern Louisiana, an area known as the Chenier Plain (Figure 6.6). Coastal waters in this ecoregion generally are variable in salinity, and water clarity is low because of sediment load. Bottom sediments tend to be fine clays and muds, and conditions are ideal for growth of marshes and oyster reefs (Beck et al. 2000) (Figure 6.90).

Figure 6.90
figure 90

Coastal habitats for the Texas-Louisiana Coastal Marshes Terrestrial Ecoregion (data from Beck et al. 2000; BEG 1995; Giri et al. 2011a; NOAA et al. 2004). Image credit: Microsoft Bing Maps Aerial. Inset photo: White 2011, used with permission

The Chenier Plain extends approximately 200 km (124 mi) from Southwest Pass at Vermilion Bay to eastern Texas (Figure 6.91). This Late-Holocene, marginal-deltaic environment is up to 30 km (19 mi) wide and is composed primarily of mud deposits that are capped by marsh and interspersed with thin sand- and shell-rich ridges known as cheniers. In the Chenier Plain, oak trees line these ridges, which are better drained and topographically higher than the surrounding marsh.

Figure 6.91
figure 91

General geomorphic characteristics of the Mississippi River Chenier Plain (modified from McBride et al. 2007)

The Chenier Plain evolved during the Holocene as a series of progradational mudflats that were intermittently reworked into sandy or shelly ridges to form the modern Chenier Plain physiography (Gould and McFarlan 1959; Byrne et al. 1959; McBride et al. 2007). Numerous cycles of deposition and erosion created alternating ridges separated by marshlands. Sediment of the Chenier Plain has been primarily supplied by longshore transport of fine-grained Mississippi River sediments (Hoyt 1969). These sediments, transported by westward-flowing nearshore currents, were eventually deposited along the Chenier shoreline as mudflats that built seaward. When deposition ceased or declined because of a shift in Mississippi River delta depocenters in the east, the previously deposited mud-rich sediment was reworked by coastal processes, concentrating coarse-grained sediments and forming shore-parallel ridges (Penland and Suter 1989). Renewed mudflat progradation, stemming from the introduction of new sediment by Mississippi River distributaries, resulted in isolation of these ridges by accretion of new material on the existing shoreline. Thus, repeated seaward growth and retreat along the Chenier Plain is a consequence of deltaic deposition farther east and the periodic cessation of sediment supply to the Chenier Plain as deltaic depocenters become abandoned and Chenier coast marine processes dominate. Currently, the Atchafalaya River is supplying the Chenier Plain with fine sediments by westward-directed longshore transport (Kineke et al. 2006). Distinct ridges, most of which represent relict shoreline positions, are interspersed in the mud-dominated coastal depositional system. Ridges typically are oriented shore-parallel to sub-parallel, are approximately 10 to 90 km (6.2 to 56.0 mi) long, 1 to 5 m (3.3 to 16.4 ft) thick, and 1 km (0.6 mi) wide (McBride et al. 2007).

Marginal deltaic coastal habitats evolved in a low-energy, microtidal, storm-dominated environment that experiences episodic sediment supply. Mean spring tide is mainly diurnal, ranging from 0.6 to 0.8 m (2.0 to 2.6 ft). Dominant nearshore currents are to the west and are controlled by winds and waves that are predominantly from the southeast (McBride et al. 2007). According to tide gauge data, the average rate of relative sea level rise for the Chenier Plain is 4.15 mm/year (0.16 in/year) (Figure 6.25), most of which can be attributed to compactional subsidence of Holocene sediment.

The upper Texas coast extends about 141 km (88 mi) from Sabine Pass to San Luis Pass. From a geologic perspective, Galveston Island is included with barrier island deposits south of Galveston Bay. Beach and marsh deposits east of Galveston Bay are more closely aligned with Chenier Plain deposits of southwestern Louisiana. Like southwestern Louisiana, the eastern portion of the upper Texas coast is characterized by a modern strandplain-chenier system with well-preserved chenier ridges with marsh-filled swales adjacent to Sabine Pass. These deposits reflect late-Holocene sedimentation associated with marginal deltaic environments of the Mississippi/Atchafalaya River system (McBride et al. 2007). Swales between relic chenier ridges are the sites of extensive brackish marshes. The strandplain-chenier system has gradually evolved through cycles of deposition, erosion, and compaction. The strandplain extends southeast along the Gulf shore toward High Island as thin sandy beach deposits perched on marsh. High Island is a salt dome near the Gulf shoreline with elevations exceeding 7.5 m (24.6 ft). Mid-Coast Barrier Islands and Coastal Marshes Terrestrial Ecoregion

This central east Texas terrestrial ecoregion extends approximately 300 km (186 mi) southwest from the Bolivar Peninsula to north Padre Island (Figures 6.6 and 6.92). Bolivar Peninsula, to the northeast of Bolivar Roads (Houston Ship Channel Entrance), is a sandy beach and dune system that has accretionary topography and is characterized by two large relict flood-tidal shoal/washover fan deposits extending into East Bay. These fans are the sites of extensive salt and brackish marshes. Adjacent to Bolivar Roads, Galveston Island is a modern progradational barrier island with well-preserved ridge-and-swale topography (Bernard et al. 1970). Relict beach ridges and intervening swales have an orientation roughly parallel to the present island shoreline marked by the Gulf beach. Bayward of the ridge and swale features on Galveston Island are numerous truncated channels, the remnants of past tidal inlets and storm washover channels along with extensive marshes. Galveston Island is relatively wide along its northeastern half and tapers and narrows toward San Luis Pass to the southwest (White et al. 2004b). Landward of Galveston Island is Galveston Bay. Although impacted by human activities including the Houston Ship Channel and extensive industrial and petrochemical activities, Galveston Bay has extensive intertidal wetlands dominated by Spartina alterniflora. Seagrasses are of lesser importance in this bay. South of Galveston Bay, the barrier strand continues with a series of backbarrier lagoons and, in some cases, adjacent bays. Coastal habitats including salt marshes, mangroves, seagrasses, tidal flats, and barrier beaches and associated dunes and swales are present (Figure 6.92). Although riverine freshwater input has been altered in many of these areas, hypersaline conditions do not normally occur because of sufficient rainfall. However, this situation progressively changes approaching Laguna Madre.

Figure 6.92
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Coastal habitats for the Mid-Coast Barrier Islands and Coastal Marshes Terrestrial Ecoregion (data from Beck et al. 2000; BEG 1995; Giri et al. 2011a). Image credit: Microsoft Bing Maps Aerial

The segment of coast between San Luis Pass and Pass Cavallo encompasses the headland of the Brazos and Colorado River deltas with flanking barrier peninsulas called Follets Island and Matagorda Peninsula (about 143 km [89 mi] long). Primary natural geomorphic features along the shoreline include the Brazos and Colorado deltaic headlands, consisting of muddy and sandy sediments deposited by the Brazos and Colorado Rivers and overlain by a discontinuous, thin veneer of sandy beach deposits; a narrow, sandy peninsula extending northeastward from the Brazos headland toward San Luis Pass; and a narrow, sandy peninsula extending southwestward from the Colorado headland toward Pass Cavallo (Paine et al. 2011).

Sediments eroded by waves reworking deltaic headland deposits supplied sandy sediment to the flanking barrier peninsulas. Furthermore, the Brazos and Colorado Rivers supply sediment to the coast from their drainage basins. The drainage basin of the Brazos River encompasses approximately 116,000 km2 (44,800 mi2) of Cretaceous, Miocene, and Pleistocene sedimentary deposits, but the river capacity for carrying sediment to the coast during major floods has been reduced by completion of several dams and reservoirs between 1941 and 1969 (Paine et al. 2011). The drainage basin of the Colorado River is slightly smaller (103,000 km2 [40,000 mi2]), and nine dams completed in the upper and central basin between 1937 and 1990 have reduced its sediment-carrying capacity.

Further south, between Pass Cavallo and Packery Channel, much of the coast illustrates net shoreline recession. This section of shore includes Matagorda Island, San Jose Island, and Mustang Island. These sand-rich islands are characterized by broad sandy beaches and dune systems that reflect the position of the islands within a longshore current convergence zone between the Brazos/Colorado and Rio Grande deltaic headlands (White et al. 2002). Although tidal inlets separate these islands, no rivers supply water/sediment directly to the Gulf. Instead, rivers provide freshwater and sediment to the headwaters of Corpus Christi Bay, Copano Bay, and San Antonio Bay. Laguna Madre Barrier Islands and Coastal Marshes Terrestrial Ecoregion

This ecoregion encompasses parts of Texas and Mexico included in the Western Gulf Coastal Plain Terrestrial Ecoregion and the Texas Estuarine, Laguna Madre Estuarine, and Western Gulf Neritic Marine Ecoregions (see Figures 6.6 and 6.3, respectively). The southern Texas coast comprises about 183 km (114 mi) of beach where the principal natural geomorphic feature is Padre Island, a long Holocene barrier island system with a well-developed dune system (Figure 6.93) that extends from Packery Channel near Corpus Christi Bay south to a narrow peninsula at Brazos Santiago Pass (White et al. 2007) (Figure 6.94). Padre Island developed initially as a spit extending from the relict Rio Grande Holocene deltaic system that has been eroding for hundreds of years. The Rio Grande enters the GoM along the border with Mexico and has created a large fluvial-deltaic headland that forms the southern boundary of a regional longshore current cell bound on the north by the Brazos-Colorado headland. The Rio Grande has a large drainage basin (558,400 km2 [215,600 mi2]) that extends into Mexico, New Mexico, and Colorado, but dams constructed in the middle and lower parts of the basin, combined with extensive irrigation use of Rio Grande water on the coastal plain, have reduced sediment delivered to the coast (Paine et al. 2011). Most of Padre Island is undeveloped, except for the town of South Padre Island. Engineering structures for this stretch of coast include the jetties and channels at Brazos Santiago Pass and the shallower Mansfield Channel.

Figure 6.93
figure 93

Generalized barrier island profile for Padre Island illustrating prominent features (modified after Paine et al. 2011)

Figure 6.94
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Coastal habitats for the Laguna Madre Barrier Islands and Coastal Marshes Terrestrial Ecoregion (data from Beck et al. 2000; BEG 2000; Giri et al. 2011a; Green and Short 2003). Image credit: Microsoft Bing Maps Aerial

The Laguna Madre of Texas and Tamaulipas (Mexico) is the only set of coastal, hypersaline lagoons on the North American continent. Extending along approximately 485 km (301 mi) of shoreline in south Texas and northeastern Mexico, the lagoons are separated by 85 km (53 mi) of Rio Grande Delta. The Laguna Madre system lacks significant precipitation, riverine input, and tidal flux, and in combination with high evapotranspiration rates and shallow depths, results in a classic hypersaline lagoon. The Texas lagoon is about 190 km (118 mi) long and the Mexico lagoon is about 210 km (130 mi) long, and each contains extensive tidal flats (Figure 6.94). Adjacent coastal habitats reflect this arid and hypersaline environment. Because the climate is harsh north and south of the Rio Grande, many bayshores are fringed by sparse vegetation and open sand flats, and barrier islands are characterized by sparsely vegetated dune fields. Extreme salinities have been moderated in recent decades due to channel dredging and the cutting of passes in the Texas Laguna Madre (Beck et al. 2000). The lagoons are protected on the east by barrier islands and peninsulas, and on the mainland side by large cattle ranches, farmlands, and the brush country. Laguna Madre also has the most extensive wind-tidal flats and clay dunes in North America (Beck et al. 2000).

The coast from Brazos Island State Park in Texas to Barra del Ostión in Mexico is dominated by deltaic sediment from the Rio Grande. This area also is referred to as the Mexican Laguna Madre region, where riverine sediment is dominant along the mainland coast of the lagoon and reworking of deltaic deposits by coastal waves and currents along the GoM provides vast quantities of sand to barrier beaches along the Tamaulipas coast (Moreno-Casasola 2007). Furthermore, the Mexican Laguna Madre in Tamaulipas consists of extensive barren tidal flats from which salt is commercially collected (Tunnell 2002a). Moving south from the Rio Grande, beach widths generally decrease and beach slopes increase. Terrigenous particle size is smaller on gentle slopes and larger on steep slopes. The predominant sediment size along Tamaulipas beaches is fine-grained sand, and sand distribution tends to be well sorted (Carranza-Edwards et al. 2007). Beaches in this region tend to be erosional (Figure 6.95).

Figure 6.95
figure 95

Distribution of coastal types and geological sediment trends for the southern GoM coast of Mexico (modified from Moreno-Casasola 2007; basemap from French and Schenk, 2005)

The Laguna Madre is a region of high humidity but low precipitation, and consequently, emergent salt marshes fringing the Laguna Madre are dominated by succulent halophytes (salt loving plants) that have very high salt tolerances. Taxa such as Salicornia (glasswort), Batis (saltwort), Distichlis (saltgrass), Borrichia (sea oxe-eye), and Limonium (sea lavender), all common salt pan inhabitants, dominate the hypersaline wetlands of the Laguna Madre. Black mangroves dwarfed by the hypersaline conditions also occur. In addition to hypersaline marshes, extensive fringing tidal flats, which are virtually unvegetated except for cyanobacteria algal mats, are common in the Laguna Madre. Interestingly, seagrass beds are much more abundant in the Laguna Madre than in other Texas bays due to clear and shallow waters of the former, resulting from the absence of riverine sediment input and the presence of a sandy lagoonal substrate. Barrier islands in this region are relatively simple compared to those on the Atlantic Coast (Judd 2002) and lack the multi-layer shrub-tree canopy structure of barrier islands in much of northern and eastern GoM. For example, virtually all plant species on southern Padre Island are herbaceous, although woody black mangroves occur sporadically. Opuntia spp. (prickly pear cactus) and Prosopis glandulosa (mesquite) also occur as individuals on these barrier strands. The live oak, Quercus virginiana, which is considered the climax habitat of barrier islands in the rest of the GoM, is absent except for a small stand on the Laguna Madre side of northern Padre Island (Judd 2002). Southern Gulf of Mexico Marine Ecoregion

The Southern GoM Marine Ecoregion extends from approximately Barra del Tordo (about 40 km [25 mi] south of the terminus of the Laguna Madre Ecoregion) south and then east along the southern GoM shoreline to the northeastern tip of the Yucatán Peninsula (Figure 6.2), a shoreline distance of approximately 1,700 km (1,056 mi). This ecoregion includes the shorelines of Veracruz, Tabasco, Campeche, and Yucatán. Shorelines encompass a diverse suite of coastal habitats that include barrier beaches and islands, deltaic systems, coastal lagoons, estuaries, mangroves, seagrass beds, and coral reefs. Although climate in this area is primarily tropical, low-pressure cold fronts (locally called nortes) episodically traverse the region during autumn, winter, and spring, producing cooler conditions. High aquatic productivity in this region is thought due to wind-driven nutrient upwelling and freshwater input to the Gulf from the Usumacinta-Grijalva River, the second largest river system in the GoM (Table 6.1). Veracruz Neritic Marine Ecoregion

The northern boundary of the Veracruz Neritic Marine Ecoregion begins just south of Barra del Tordo, where the arid environment of Laguna Madre and the Rio Grande basin gives way to higher precipitation coastlines of the Veracruz barrier beaches (Britton and Morton 1989). Summer rainfall increases greatly, allowing a moderately diverse tropical flora to occur. Coastal topography of central Veracruz consists of fluvial and marine sediment draped around volcanic promontories (Psuty et al. 2008). Between Barra del Tordo and Tuxpan, the coast is composed of terrigenous clastic beaches that commonly form as barrier islands. The most extensive barrier island along this section of coast is Cabo Rojo, an island with extensive ridges and active dune fields, the highest of the western GoM (Figure 6.96). Rio Panuco is the primary source of sediment via southerly longshore transport leading to the development of Cabo Rojo (Stapor 1971). The island protects Laguna de Tamaihua, where mangroves are common along the shoreline, and extends from Tampico to Tamaihua (about 120 km [75 mi]). Seagrass is present along the Gulf shoreline of Cabo Rojo and seaward of the beaches fronting Veracruz and Playa Salinas. Sand beaches are generally wide and accretionary, and dune elevations are several meters high along most of the island. North of Tampico to Barra del Tordo, low-profile barrier islands with relatively narrow beach widths protect shallow, narrow lagoons (Carranza-Edwards et al. 2007). Beaches are composed of terrigenous sand, and shell fragments are frequently present.

Figure 6.96
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Coastal habitats for the Veracruz Neritic Marine Ecoregion (data from Giri et al. 2011a; Green and Short 2003). Image credits: Microsoft Bing Maps Aerial (main); ArcGIS World Imagery (inset)

Beaches extending from Tuxpan to Playa Punta Delgada (50 km [31 mi] south of Nautla) are characterized as low, sandy mainland deposits that are relatively narrow, except for a 7-km (4.3-mi) section of coast north of the mouth of Rio Cazones (Veracruz), where volcanic outcrops intersect the coast. Dunes are absent in this area and beaches appear primarily erosional. Coastal habitat between Playa Punta Delgada and Playa Salinas is composed of bluffs and rocky points of volcanic origin, interspersed with small lagoons and narrow flood plains (Moreno-Casasola 2007). Sandy beaches are observed throughout this section of coast, and active dune fields are prominent north of Veracruz to Laguna de Farallón. Although less common, rocky headlands persist as far north as Playa Punta Delgada, interrupting littoral sand transport along beaches. The port of Veracruz occurs along this shoreline, but in a relatively low relief section. Most beaches within this ecoregion are undergoing erosion, as illustrated by active erosion or scarping of the primary dune ridge along the coast (Tanner 1975b). Tabascan Neritic Marine Ecoregion

Tuxtlas Volcanic Coast. A prominent volcanic feature along the coastal portion of the Tabascan Neritic Marine Ecoregion in the State of Veracruz is an area known as Sierra de los Tuxtlas (Figure 6.97). The coastal area west of Tuxtlas is known as the Papaloapan region where an extensive sand barrier protects the Alvarado estuarine system (Figure 6.97) (Moreno-Casasola 2007). The 70 km (43 mi) stretch of coast between Playa Salinas and Punta Puntilla contains relatively wide sandy beaches with elevated dune fields that extend up to several kilometers inland. It is classified as a stable to accreting coast (Figure 6.95); however, Tanner (1975b) documented dune scarping by waves 2 to 3 km (1.2 to 1.9 mi) south of Alvarado Lagoon. The area between Punta Puntilla and Playa Linda (Los Tuxtlas region) is characterized by mixed abrasive-accumulative coastlines, alternating between projections of volcanic rocks and sandy beaches. Within this matrix of coastal geologic deposits are Laguna de Sontecomapan and a prominent sandy beach fronting the lagoon. Moving east along the coast from Laguna del Ostión, an abrupt change in shoreline orientation is encountered at the lagoon entrance to the Gulf, just west of Coatzacoalcos.

Figure 6.97
figure 97

Coastal habitats for the Tabascan Neritic Marine Ecoregion (data from Giri et al., 2011a; Green and Short, 2003). Image credits: Microsoft Bing Maps Aerial (main); Ela 2016, distributed under a CC-BY 2.0 license (left inset); ArcGIS World Imagery (right inset)

Tabascan Barrier Beaches and Marshes. The area east of Laguna del Ostión to Isla Aguada (Campeche) is within the Tabascan Neritic Marine Ecoregion where riverine input to the coast influences the sedimentological character of beaches. The non-calcareous deltaic shoreline extends along the southernmost arc of the GoM to a point just north of Laguna de Términos, where bedrock gradually changes to limestone of the Yucatán (Britton and Morton 1989). West of Laguna de Términos, coastal deposits are dominated by deltaic sedimentation from the Grijalva, Usumacinta, and San Pedro Rivers (Figure 6.95) (Thom 1967). As fluvial sediment accumulated at the Gulf shoreline, waves and currents redistributed sediment as ridges along the eastern Campeche and Tabascan coast. Modern sedimentation processes in the eastern portion of this area are dominated by fluvial input from the Grijalva and Usumacinta Rivers, the two longest rivers in Mexico, as they meander through mountainous uplands and lowlands of the Centla Marsh Biosphere Reserve. Beaches along the Tabascan lowlands are composed of light brown to gray, fine-grained clastic sediment of riverine origin, in contrast to the bright white calcareous sand of the Yucatán/Campeche area. Isla del Carmen, a barrier island fronting Laguna de Términos, is located in the transition area between limestone of the Yucatán Peninsula and alluvial terrain of deltaic deposits to the west (Figure 6.98) (Contreras-Espinosa and Castañeda-Lopez 2007). Beaches are wider and more elevated in the Isla Aguada transition area than beaches to the east, but carbonate sediment composition is very similar for both areas. Moreno-Casasola (2007) indicates that deposition in coastal beach and marsh habitat dominates Holocene sedimentation patterns along the coast (Figure 6.95).

Figure 6.98
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Habitats associated with Laguna de Términos in the Southern GoM Marine Ecoregion (data from Giri et al. 2011a; Rojas-Galaviz et al. 1992). Black arrows indicate water circulation pattern. Image credit: ArcGIS World Imagery

Large wetland and barrier beach systems are associated with Tamiahua Lagoon, Alvarado Lagoon, Términos Lagoon, and lagoons adjacent to the west and north coasts of the Yucatán (Herrera-Silveira and Morales-Ojeda 2010). The most extensive mangrove stands in the GoM occur along the southern GoM shorelines (Dugan 1993; Thom 1967). Of all the coastal systems in the Southern GoM Ecoregion, Términos Lagoon (Laguna de Términos) has probably received the most scientific attention. Barrier islands and beaches, seagrass beds, mangroves, and even freshwater marshes are found in the Términos ecosystem (Figure 6.98), which occupies approximately 1,500 km2 (580 mi2). These are some of the most productive natural habitats in the southern GoM.

Coastal processes along the Tabascan shore and beach-ridge plain are presently causing beach erosion along most of the coast. Tanner and Stapor (1971) recorded erosion along the seaward edge of the beach-ridge plain where younger beach ridges are truncated or scarped rather than tapered. Furthermore, trunks of dead trees were found awash in the surf zone as a result of beach erosion and shoreline recession. Finally, Tanner and Stapor (1971) found no evidence of beach ridges presently forming, implying that coastal erosion is a dominant process along the Tabascan shore. Although erosion along the beach-ridge plain does not appear extensive, beach ridges are eroding rather than growing. Campeche/Yucatán Inner Neritic Marine Ecoregion

The Campeche-Yucatán carbonate beaches and mangroves are located adjacent to the Campeche-Yucatán Inner Neritic and Contoyan Neritic Marine Ecoregions (Figure 6.3). The coast extends approximately 700 km (435 mi) from Sabancuy, just north of Términos Lagoon, to the northeastern end of the Yucatán Peninsula near Holbox Lagoon (Figure 6.99). The Yucatán Peninsula is mainly a low-relief karst limestone platform. Few streams and no rivers drain the flat land or reach the sea, but rainfall filters through porous limestone and is stored underground (Britton and Morton 1989). Along the northern Yucatán coast, calcareous sand beach deposits provide low-relief coastal strands often fronting shallow and narrow lagoons (Meyer-Arendt 1993). Seagrass fronting Gulf beaches is dominant along the entire coast. Beaches can be quite narrow, and low-relief dunes are common. This area has limited mangrove habitat due to low precipitation and little terrestrial freshwater runoff. However, mangrove habitat can occur locally where lagoons persist, such as Rio Lagartos and Holbox Lagoons along the northeastern tip of the Yucatán peninsula and the coast between Campeche and Celestún (Britton and Morton 1989; Herrera-Silveira and Morales-Ojeda 2010).

Figure 6.99
figure 99

Coastal habitats for the Campeche/YucatÃn Inner Neritic Marine Ecoregion (data from Giri et al., 2011a; Green and Short, 2003). Image credits: Microsoft Bing Maps Aerial (main); ArcGIS World Imagery (inset)

North of Sabancuy to Champotón, seagrass beds are common in nearshore areas and mangroves populate lagoonal areas landward of the beach. Calcareous sand beaches become wider in this area but relief remains low (Figure 6.99) (Moreno-Casasola 2007). A few limestone cliffs are present along the coast between Champotón and Campeche, but most limestone shores in this ecoregion are low, narrow platforms that have elevations approximately 2 m (6.6 ft) above the surrounding sand veneer (Britton and Morton 1989). Concrete bulkheads and other coastal structures protect the city of Campeche from flooding and erosion, and narrow calcareous sand and rock beaches are common south of the city. North of the city of Campeche to Celestún, the inner coast is dominated by mangroves and low-relief calcareous lagoonal deposits landward of the shoreline, and the nearshore area has extensive seagrass beds.

As orientation of the coast shifts from north-south to east-west, a large calcareous sand peninsula at Celestún marks the terminal location to dominant westward longshore sand transport adjacent to the primarily low-energy mangrove coast to the south (Figure 6.99). This location is nearly coincident with the boundary between the Mexican States of Yucatán and Campeche, and is characterized by low precipitation (less than 50 cm/year [1.6 ft/year]) and shallow lagoons, which during drought, evaporate and form salt pans. The lagoons become hypersaline when precipitation allows. In spite of these conditions, much of the region north of Celestún to Progreso consists of relatively extensive, low stature mangroves (Britton and Morton 1989; Herrera-Silveira and Morales-Ojeda 2010). Caribbean Sea Marine Ecoregion Contoyan Neritic Marine Ecoregion

The Contoyan Neritic region (extends from the northern part of the Yucatán Peninsula adjacent to Holbox Lagoon to Cancun; named after Isla Contoy) along the northeastern margin of the Yucatán Peninsula is characterized by coral reefs, seagrass meadows, and mangrove forests (Figure 6.100). Coralline beaches are narrow and dunes are low and not very extensive due to the presence of thick mangrove wetlands (Moreno-Casasola 2007). Lagoons in the region are shallow and often contain extensive seagrass beds and mangrove habitat. Low annual rainfall combined with severe dryness has eliminated rivers from the landscape. As such, freshwater necessary for productive mangrove ecosystems comes from springs (groundwater). Figure 6.95 illustrates that the barrier beach shoreline along the northern Yucatán Peninsula is net erosional, but beaches along the northeast margin of the Yucatán are net depositional, primarily due to longshore sedimentation processes (Moreno-Casasola 2007).

Figure 6.100
figure 100

Coastal habitats for the Contoyan Neritic Marine Ecoregion (data from Giri et al., 2011a; IMaRS/USF et al., 2010; Green and Short, 2003). Image credits: Microsoft Bing Maps Aerial (main); Maas 2006, distributed under a CC-BY 2.0 license (inset) Greater Antilles Marine Ecoregion

Although Cuba was not specifically classified by Wilkinson et al. (2009), a quite comprehensive classification of marine ecoregions by Spalding et al. (2007) placed Cuba in their Greater Antilles Marine Ecoregion. The Cuban archipelago is typically Caribbean with regard to its marine ecosystems (González-Sansón and Aguilar-Betancourt 2007), composed primarily of small islands, mangroves, coral reefs, and seagrasses (Figure 6.101). Much of the underlying substrate for coastal habitats in this ecoregion is mixed calcium carbonate sands over which organic plant materials create mangrove swamps. The nearshore subtidal seafloor generally consists of unconsolidated sediment, either devoid of vegetation or forming large seagrass meadows dominated by Thalassia testudinum (turtle grass) or rocky bottom with extensive corals. Mangroves (Rhizophora mangle, Avicennia germinans, Laguncularia racemosa, and Conocarpus erectus) also are prevalent in protected, intertidal habitats along the northwestern Cuban shoreline (Figure 6.101) (Green and Short 2003; Sullivan-Sealey and Bustamante 1999). The Greater Antilles Marine Ecoregion has a wet-tropical climate characterized by a rainy season (May to October) and a dry season (January to March), interrupted by random, large-scale disturbances, primarily hurricanes and tropical storms. Similar to the Southern GoM Ecoregion, the northwestern Cuban coast is subject to nortes that punctuate the dry season. Predominant winds blow from the east and northeast.

Figure 6.101
figure 101

Coastal habitats for northwestern Cuba (data from Giri et al., 2011a; IMaRS/USF et al., 2010; Green and Short, 2003; Sullivan-Sealey and Bustamante, 1999). Image credits: Microsoft Bing Maps Aerial (main); ArcGIS World Imagery (bottom and upper right insets); Ji-Elle 2015, distributed under a CC-BY 2.0 license (left inset)

Sullivan-Sealey and Bustamante (1999) describe four depositional systems encompassing the northwestern and southwestern Cuban coast. The Western High Energy Rocky Shore/Fringing Reef Coastal System faces Yucatán Channel, where water flowing from the Caribbean Basin funnels to the eastern GoM and the Florida Straits, forming the Loop Current in the GoM (Figure 6.101). The coastline to the south is mostly rocky with long sandy beaches facing a narrow shelf that drops steeply to the southern entrance of the Yucatán Channel (Sullivan-Sealey and Bustamante 1999). Reefs fringe the entire edge of the shelf (Figure 6.101). Beaches along most of the western coast of Cuba are relatively stable due to the presence of offshore reefs to dissipate wave energy.

The Northwestern Mixed Mangrove-Reef-Seagrass Coastal System has a coastline length of about 375 km (233 mi), a mangrove-coastline length of about 355 km (221 mi), and is highly diverse in terms of geology, soils, and plant communities. Mountains of moderate height, sandy plains, lagoons, marshes, and flat and conical karst outcrops characterize the landscape (Borhidi 1996). This region includes an offshore barrier reef and an extensive shelf that is particularly wide in the Gulf of Guanahacabibes (Figure 6.101) (Sullivan-Sealey and Bustamante 1999). The shallow water Gulf contains numerous mangrove cays, seagrass beds, and patch reefs that extend to westernmost Cuba near Cabo San Antonio. Barrier reefs run along the outer border of the shelf, parallel to the Archipelago las Coloradas, which is composed of hundreds of mangrove cays.

The Havana-Matanzas Mixed Shore/Fringing Reef coastline is a coral reef dominated system that has a coastline length of 280 km (174 mi), of which about 30 km (19 mi) is populated with mangroves (Figure 6.101). This mixed-shore fringing reef system has an extensive rocky shore with terraces and cliffs with extended beaches (Sullivan-Sealey and Bustamante 1999). The coastal system is relatively narrow, and the continental shelf seaward of the coast is 1 to 3 km (0.6 to 1.9 mi) wide. The largest Cuban coastal population centers (Havana and Matanzas) are located within this coastal system.

6.4.3 Introduction to Aquatic Fauna of Vegetated Marine Habitats

Faunal components of vegetated marine habitats considered in this section, as well as adjacent intertidal flats and subtidal soft bottoms, are primarily macrobenthic epifauna (living on the sediment surface), infauna (living within the sediments), and nekton (natant or swimming organisms). The habits and distributions of these faunal components often overlap in coastal habitats. Some nekton are associated with the surface and mid-level depths of the water column, but many others have a distinct orientation toward the bottom, placing them in close proximity to the macrobenthic invertebrate assemblages. These demersal forms (e.g., flatfishes, gobies, natant decapod crustaceans) may also be categorized among epifaunal assemblages that dwell largely on the surfaces of sediments, submerged vegetation, or other structural elements in wetlands. This section does not include benthic meiofauna (organisms that pass through a 0.5 mm (0.02 in) mesh sieve usually used to collect macrofauna) nor does it include nektonic taxa (e.g., sea turtles, dolphins) that are the focus of other contributions to this collection of white papers.

Invertebrate assemblages of the GoM have been described in numerous reports and publications. Large-scale ecosystem surveys, such as the Bureau of Land Management (now Bureau of Ocean Energy Management [BOEM]) benchmark programs in the South Texas Outer Continental Shelf (STOCS) (Flint and Rabalais 1980), Mississippi-Alabama-Florida (MAFLA) (Dames and Moore 1979), and Southwest Florida Shelf (SOFLA) (Woodward-Clyde Consultants 1983), included some inshore sampling and characterized assemblages comprising a large array of decapod and stomatopod crustaceans, relatively small crustaceans such as cumaceans and amphipods, mollusks (especially gastropods), echinoderms, cnidarians, and some polychaetous annelids.

Defenbaugh (1976) grouped the epifauna of the northern Gulf into 12 assemblages. In zones immediately seaward of the coastal strand, decapods such as the portunid Callinectes similis, spider crab (Libinia), shame-faced crab (Calappa), purse crab (Persephone), and hermit crab (Pagurus) are common scavengers. Mud shrimp (e.g., Callianassa) form burrows in silty sand substrates while the stomatopod Squilla is more motile and carnivorous. Sea pansies (Renilla) are less common but noteworthy indicators of higher salinity waters. The gastropods Nassarius, Littoridina, and Cantharus and the bivalves Mulinia and Nuculana are common inhabitants of muddy sand and sand substrates throughout the GoM. Mollusks are generally most diverse in the southern Gulf, where sediments contain more carbonate and fewer large rivers discharge into the coastal area, but most dominant taxa in the southern Gulf also are found in other Gulf coastal habitats (Solis-Marin et al. 1993). Echinoderms such as the ophiuroid Hemipholis and the asteroids Astropecten and Luidia are associated with muddy sand and sand sediments throughout the Gulf. The echinoids Diadema and Encope are typical of subtidal waters in the Southern GoM Ecoregion (Solis-Marin et al. 1993). Figure 6.102 illustrates the distributions of three echinoid species in the GoM. The habitats of these species range into greater water depths than coastal wetlands but echinoids are common in clear, shallow waters off sandy beaches and in seagrass beds. Few echinoderms are found in littoral mud habitats, although some ophiuroids are detritivores and burrow in soft sediment.

Figure 6.102
figure 102

Distributions in the GoM of three echinoids found in seagrass, reefs [A, B] or sandy unvegetated sediments including beaches [C]. The GoM base map and species distributions were modified after data downloaded from http://www.eol.org on 21 March 2014

Some epifaunal invertebrates, such as the penaeids Farfantepenaeus aztecus, Farfantepenaeus duorarum, and Litopenaeus setiferus also are nektonic and occur throughout the GoM, migrating offshore to spawn. Prevailing currents and behavioral adaptations allow their larvae to return to the estuaries that serve as primary nursery grounds. Blue crab (Callinectes sapidus), another key commercial epifaunal nektonic invertebrate species, exhibits similar migratory behavior. Coastal wetlands serve as the principal nursery areas for many commercially harvested decapod crustaceans, including penaeid shrimp (Figure 6.103).

Figure 6.103
figure 103

Distributions of important nursery areas for juveniles of three species of penaeid shrimp in the GoM. The GoM base map was modified from http://www.eol.org on March 21, 2014 and species distributions were modified from maps of penaeid nursery areas downloaded from http://www.ncddc.noaa.gov/website/DataAtlas_1985/atlas.html in March 2014. Photo images from the Identification Guide to Marine Organisms of Texas web site, http://txmarspecies.tamug.edu/index.cfm, used with permission

Distributions of the juveniles of these species are closely linked with coastal wetlands. While some species, such as F. aztecus (Figure 6.103a) and L. setiferus (Figure 6.103c) are common in most coastal wetlands throughout the GoM, others such as F. duorarum (Figure 6.103b) seem dependent on specific wetland types (e.g., seagrass beds). Epifaunal invertebrate assemblages in vegetated habitats such as seagrass meadows generally exhibit higher densities and diversity than those on adjacent unvegetated soft bottoms; those metrics are often significantly correlated with aboveground plant biomass (Heck and Wetstone 1977).

Coastal benthic macroinfauna are among the best-known groups of marine invertebrates because they feed on detrital material produced in coastal wetlands and convert it to biomass production usable by secondary consumers of commercial value such as penaeid shrimp (e.g., Zimmerman et al. 2000). Infauna also are important indicators of habitat quality and the effects of environmental perturbation because they represent an integration of chronic and persistent natural and anthropogenic conditions (Rakocinski et al. 1998). Benthic surveys often are conducted to address specific potential or actual environmental impacts in the GoM, including effects of navigation dredging, oil spills (especially IXTOC in 1979) (Boehm and Fiest 1982), petroleum exploration and production, brine discharges from salt caverns, and effluent outfalls. Shallow-water benthic assemblages are sometimes categorized by substratum type (i.e., mud, sandy mud, muddy sand, or sand assemblages), but there are many species that occupy a wide range of sediment types. Mud habitats are depositional areas that support an infaunal assemblage adapted to elevated organics and periodic dissolved oxygen (DO) depletion; at the other extreme, sand habitats are characterized by species that require higher DO concentrations and greater flushing, with fewer burrowing taxa such as deposit-feeding polychaetes. The amphipods Ampelisca abdita and A. cristata occur mainly on silty-sand bottoms, but differences in the species’ distributions within the GoM (Figure 6.104) suggest that habitat factors other than sediment type are also important. Uebelacker and Johnson (1984) described 593 polychaete species alone on the continental shelf of the United States regions of the Gulf; most of these were reported from coastal waters. They noted that some common polychaete species exhibited a faunal break east of Mobile Bay; some syllids were only found east of this area while some magelonids and ampharetids were only found west of the break. Other polychaetes exhibited disjunct distributions and were present in both the Eastern Gulf Neritic and Texas Estuarine subregions but not in the Mississippi Estuarine subregion. Tubicolous filter feeders and surface-dwelling carnivores are more abundant in sand habitats, and diversity overall is higher in the Southern GoM Ecoregion and in the South Florida/Bahamian Atlantic Ecoregion.

Figure 6.104
figure 104

Distributions of two benthic amphipods associated with intralittoral bay, estuarine and beach island habitats in the GoM. The GoM base map and distributions were modified after data downloaded from http://www.eol.org on 22 March 2014

Seagrasses, salt marshes, and mangroves provide habitat for diverse assemblages of infaunal organisms, especially crustaceans, mollusks, and polychaetes. Diversity and abundance of infauna in seagrass meadows are greater than in surrounding non-vegetated areas (Lewis 1984), while salt marsh and mangrove infaunal assemblages generally exhibit lower diversity and abundance than adjacent mudflats, possibly due to the presence of thick roots, dense rhizome mats, and dense organic sediments (Sheridan 1997). However, lower levels of diversity and abundance in marsh and mangrove habitats also may be attributed to lesser degrees of inundation and oxygenation. Dominant species of infauna in these habitats are generally ubiquitous in the GoM, with very little difference among assemblages in the Southern GoM Ecoregion, Northern GoM Ecoregion, and South Florida/Bahamian Atlantic Ecoregion. Fiddler crabs (Uca spp.) can be found within any saline or brackish marsh as well as mangrove-dominated areas, but within such common genera, there can be distinctly different distributions among species (Figure 6.105).

Figure 6.105
figure 105

Distributions of three species of fiddler crabs (Uca spp.) commonly found in salt marsh and/or mangrove habitats of the GoM. The GoM base map and distributions were modified after data downloaded from http://www.eol.org on 22 March 2014. Photographs by Richard W. Heard, University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast Research Laboratory Campus, used with permission (Heard, 1982)

The term nekton describes an animal type that resides in water all or most of the time and is capable of self-directed propulsion through that medium even against currents. The ability to achieve deliberate and sustained horizontal movements in a dynamic fluid environment separates this group of aquatic organisms from plankton and places a lower limit on the size of nekton at about 2 cm in most estuarine/marine circumstances (Aleyev 1977). Although fishes usually comprise the highest species diversity among nekton, coastal habitats of the GoM are used by a variety of other groups classified as nekton, including some natant decapod crustaceans (penaeid and caridean shrimps, portunid crabs and lobsters), molluscs (squid, octopus, scallops), reptiles (turtles, alligators and crocodiles) and mammals (dolphins, whales and manatees). No nekton studies have targeted the full suite of nekton species (invertebrates, fishes, reptiles and mammals) that occur in coastal wetlands of the GoM. This discussion focuses primarily on the fishes and decapod crustaceans of vegetated marine habitats because these nekton groups are the most abundant and species-rich, but information on other groups is provided where appropriate.

There are more than 1,500 fish species, 150 natant decapod crustacean species, and less than 100 cephalopods represented among the GoM nekton, but as with the macrobenthos, relatively few species are endemic or even characteristic of the GoM (McEachran 2009; Felder et al. 2009; Judkins et al. 2009). The GoM nekton communities are derivatives of assemblages found in the Carolinian Atlantic and the Caribbean Sea. Fishes of the GoM include fewer than 5 % endemics, and many of these have sibling species in adjacent waters (McEachran 2009). However, a substantially higher proportion of such endemic species among fish families are typically associated with the shallow, intertidal vegetated coastal habitats of the GoM, particularly within the Eastern Gulf Neritic, Mississippi Estuarine and Texas Estuarine regions. For example, among the 28 species within the fish families Poeciliidae (live-bearers), Fundulidae (fundulids), and Cyprinodontidae (killifishes), which are commonly found in coastal wetland habitats of the GoM, 20, 46, and 60 %, respectively, are endemic. This is approximately an order of magnitude more than the average proportion of endemics among GoM fishes. One likely reason for the higher rate of endemism among these families is that species tend to be small, lack a planktonic life stage, and are not strong swimmers, so they do not travel extensively over their usually brief lifespans (1 to 3 years). All of these species are closely associated with coastal wetland habitats and never venture far from shore. Some are tolerant of a wide range of environmental conditions and are broadly distributed throughout the coastal wetlands of the GoM, while others may be so closely tied to specific habitats that their ranges are very limited (Figure 6.106). There is no single principal reason for constrained GoM distributions of small nekton species with relatively weak swimming abilities.

Figure 6.106
figure 106

Distributions of three fundulids (killifishes) found in vegetated coastal wetlands (marshes, mangroves, and seagrass beds) of the GoM. F. grandis [A] also occurs along the Atlantic coast of Florida, but F. jenkinsi [B] and F. grandissimus [C] are GoM endemics. The GoM base maps and distributions were modified after data and references downloaded from http://www.eol.org on 10 March 2014

For example, the goldspotted killifish, Floridichthys carpio, is a very hardy species that inhabits only the quiet, shallow waters of mangroves, marshes, and coastal impoundments along the western coast of Florida and the Yucatán (Figure 6.107a) while the dwarf seahorse, Hippocampus zosterae, tolerates a narrow range of environmental conditions and is restricted largely to seagrass habitats (Figure 6.107b). This dependence on a single habitat type exposes seahorse populations to increased risk associated with habitat degradation (Musick et al. 2000; Hughes et al. 2009), in addition to negative pressures connected to their commercial exploitation in the GoM to meet demand in the aquarium trade and overseas medicinal markets (Baum and Vincent 2005).

Figure 6.107
figure 107

Examples of two habitat-restricted nekton species in the GoM. The GoM base map and species distributions were modified after data downloaded from http://www.eol.org on 21 March 2014

Greater mobility of most other nekton, coupled with the location of coastal wetlands near the boundary of freshwater and marine environments, results in spatially and temporally dynamic nekton assemblages that may draw representatives from a range of marine, brackish, and freshwater groups within each ecoregion of the GoM. Consequently, most nekton assemblages found in these transitional habitats comprise a limited number of small, stress-tolerant species of year-round estuarine residents (Figure 6.106), as well as a complement of transient species (Figures 6.104 and 6.108) composed of seasonally abundant juvenile fishes and decapod crustaceans whose entire habitat within the GoM is more extensive, but encompasses coastal wetlands (Kneib 1997, 2000; Minello 1999; Heck et al. 2003).

Figure 6.108
figure 108

Distributions of three species of abundant schooling nekton in the GoM. The GoM map and distribution shown in [A] were modified after data and references downloaded from http://www.eol.org on 10 March 2014. Distributions for [B, C] were modified after distribution maps downloaded from http://www.ncddc.noaa.gov/website/DataAtlas1985/atlas.html in March 2014 and show only principal spawning/nursery areas for these species, which otherwise range throughout the GoM

Short-term (e.g., diel or tidal) and long-term (e.g., seasonal or ontogenetic) migrations also commonly occur between adjacent coastal wetlands (e.g., mangroves and coral reefs), with nekton providing a source of connectivity and the transfer of production among otherwise isolated environments comprising more sessile species (e.g., Kneib 1997, 2000; Deegan et al. 2000; Ellis and Bell 2008; Hammerschlag and Serafy 2009; Jones et al. 2010).

Major transfers of production from coastal wetlands occur when large numbers of species that use these habitats as nurseries (e.g., Figures 6.103 and 6.108) undertake offshore or coastal migrations as schooling species mature from juveniles to adults, or when coastal predators (e.g., Figure 6.109) forage on small resident nekton and benthic/epibenthic invertebrates in shallow coastal wetlands. Common predatory nekton associated with coastal wetlands in the GoM also exhibit a range of tolerances and preferences for certain environmental conditions. For example, spotted seatrout (Cynoscion nebulosus) and red drum (Sciaenops ocellatus) may be widely distributed throughout the Gulf (Figure 6.109a, b) and elsewhere, while snook (Centropomus undecimalis) prefer clear waters associated with seagrass and mangrove habitats mostly in the southern GoM (Figure 6.109c).

Figure 6.109
figure 109

Three common predatory nekton species in coastal wetland habitats of the GoM. The GoM base map was modified after data downloaded from http://www.eol.org on 10 March 2014. Distributions were modified after maps downloaded from http://www.ncddc.noaa.gov/website/DataAtlas1985/atlas.html in March 2014

In general, species richness of plants and animals in the GoM tends to be inversely related to water depth and is greatest along the south Florida coast, north through the Eastern Gulf Neritic (NOAA 2011). Approximately 40 % of fishes, 60 % of natant decapod crustaceans, and 12 % of cephalopods known from the GoM are from bay, nearshore, beach, coral reef, or estuarine habitats (McEachran 2009; Felder et al. 2009; Judkins et al. 2009) where they could be considered a source assemblage of nekton species for coastal wetland habitats. As with macrobenthos, most nekton families, and many species, are ubiquitous within the GoM. Fishes in the families Sciaenidae (drums), Ariidae (sea catfish), Gobiidae (gobies), Engraulidae (sardines), Clupidae (herrings), Mugilidae (mullets), and Sparidae (porgies) are among the most widely distributed according to trawl samples within Gulf estuaries (see McEachran 2009), but these groups are not always abundant in coastal wetland habitats, which are not usually sampled by trawling. Among the natant decapod crustaceans, species representing the families Penaeidae (penaeid shrimps), Palaemonidae (grass shrimps), and Portunidae (swimming crabs) are among the most widespread and abundant but there are major gaps in knowledge concerning these and other crustacean groups, particularly in the southern GoM (Felder et al. 2009). Only a few species of cephalopods, mostly within the family Loliginidae (inshore squids), are widespread in shallow estuarine waters associated with coastal wetlands (Judkins et al. 2009).

Table 6.3 is a summary of nekton families comprising the most abundant species closely associated with shallow coastal wetland habitats within most of the major nearshore ecoregions of the GoM. It suggests that fishes dominate coastal wetland assemblages in most ecoregions except in the Mississippi and Texas Estuarine regions, where natant decapod crustaceans may be far more abundant. Sedimentary environment characteristics and influence of freshwater riverine input and nutrients from extensive watersheds supplying these regions (Figure 6.15, Table 6.1) may favor the production of crustaceans, or the observation could be related to differences in the emphasis of research efforts within each region. For example, the 22 studies summarized in Minello (1999), which represent nekton samples primarily in the Mississippi and Texas Estuarine regions (Table 6.3) were all collected with small enclosure samplers usually deployed from the bow of small boats primarily sampling the edges of tidal marshes (e.g., Baltz et al. 1993; Minello et al. 1994). This presents a perspective on the nekton assemblages that may differ from that obtained using other methods applied in flooded intertidal habitats and smaller channels/ponds within interior marshes (e.g., Weaver and Holloway 1974; Herke and Rogers 1984; Felley 1987; Peterson and Turner 1994; Rozas and Minello 2010). Samples collected from the flooded interior portions of tidal marshes in the northern GoM are dominated by few very abundant species in the families Cyprinodontidae, Fundulidae, and Palaemonidae (Rozas 1993).

Table 6.3 Dominant Nekton Families in or Adjacent to Vegetated Marine Habitats (mangroves, marshes, seagrass) Within GoM Ecoregions

Nekton sample collection in the Campeche/Yucatán Inner Neritic Ecoregion used beach seines and trawls with a focus on fishes, and as such, did not report the abundance of any decapod crustaceans occurring within samples. However, penaeid shrimps (Litopenaeus spp., Farfantepenaeus spp.) and Mayan octopus (Octopus maya) support valued fisheries harvests presumably associated with the nursery function of lagoonal estuaries along the Mexican coast (Yáñez-Arancibia and Day 2004; Yáñez-Arancibia et al. 2009). Consequently, it seems reasonable to infer that natant decapod crustaceans are an important component of nekton in coastal wetlands of these regions as well. Shrimps in the family Hippolytidae are commonly associated with seagrass beds and while they appear to be abundant among the nekton of southern Florida, one might also expect this group to be well represented in the seagrass-dominated lagoonal systems of the southern GoM ecoregion (e.g., Barba et al. 2005). The presence of schooling species in the fish families Atherinidae (silversides), Clupeidae (herrings), and Engraulidae (anchovies) listed among the dominants suggests that samples were collected in, or very near, open water and not within structurally complex habitats (e.g., mangrove prop roots or among the stiff, dense stems of emergent marsh vegetation) where fishes would be unable to maintain the group integrity of a school.

Relatively few species (averaging 26 to 41 per study) seem to compose the bulk of nekton assemblages from coastal wetland habitats in the GoM (Table 6.3). Most individuals are the juveniles of estuarine transient species (e.g., mullets, menhaden, drums, penaeid shrimps, portunid crabs), and all life stages of small estuarine resident species (e.g., gobies, killifishes, livebearers, grass shrimp) (Rozas 1993; Rozas and Reed 1993). At least one of these (i.e., Fundulus jenkinsi) is considered a species of special concern (Lopez et al. 2011) due to its apparent limited distribution (Figure 6.106b).

Although more species are associated with the southern neotropical portions of the GoM (Florida Bay and Campeche/Yucatán Inner Neritic) than the temperate northern regions, it should be noted that no attempt was made to standardize the collecting methods or focus of studies across regions (Table 6.4). Still, such a pattern would be expected and corresponds with the general spatial pattern of species richness around the GoM (NOAA 2011).

Table 6.4 Species Comprising the Dominant Nekton Families Accounting for >85 % of Individuals in Field Studies Within or Immediately Adjacent to Vegetated Marine Habitats (e.g., marshes, mangroves, seagrass beds) in Each of the Listed Ecoregions.

Many species of nekton are widespread within the GoM but only a few are both ubiquitous and abundant. Anchoa mitchilli (Figure 6.108a) is a clear standout among the fishes and is a dominant nekton component in all regions. Others (e.g., Brevoortia patronus) are distributed throughout the GoM (Figure 6.108c), but are among the most abundant nekton only within the Mississippi/Texas Estuarine Ecoregion (Table 6.4), suggesting a connection between riverine discharges and production of certain groups. The Mississippi/Texas Estuarine also includes a relatively high species richness of demersal gobiids (e.g., Gobiosoma spp., Gobionellus spp.) among the dominant nekton. Although gobies are common in estuarine habitats almost everywhere, their abundance in the Mississippi/Texas Estuarine region is noteworthy. A similarly high species richness of engraulids (Anchoa spp.) occurs in the Campeche/Yucatán Inner Neritic. Tropical waters of southern Florida and Yucatán include the greatest number of fish species that are not dominant elsewhere (Table 6.4). Greater species richness and lower abundance of fishes in these tropical regions may explain this observation (i.e., more species are required to account for at least 85 % of the individuals). However, these areas also contain extensive seagrass beds and/or coral reefs, which contribute substantially to diversity of fishes found in adjacent coastal wetlands, such as mangrove forests. Snappers (e.g., Lutjanus spp.) and mojarras (e.g., Eucinostomus spp.) tend to be among the dominants in mangroves. Pipefishes (e.g., Syngnathus spp.), sea horses (e.g., Hippocampus spp.) and porgies (e.g., Lagodon rhomboides) are dominant in areas where extensive seagrass habitats exist, such as in the Florida Bay (Table 6.4). The Mississippi/Texas Estuarine appears to include more dominant natant decapod crustaceans than are counted among the dominants in other regions. The lack of dominance among the fundulids (Fundulus spp.) collected from the Mississippi/Texas Estuarine is surprising, given that this region of the northern GoM contains most of the tidal marsh, which is usually the principal habitat of fundulids (Table 6.4, Figure 6.106). One possible explanation is that a majority of nekton samples from this region have been collected at the interface between vegetated tidal marshes and adjacent open waters (i.e., marsh edge), and fundulids may be more closely associated with the interior portions of shallow vegetated coastal habitats (e.g., Peterson and Turner 1994).

A pairwise comparison of the percentage of abundant fish species shared in common between ecoregions (Table 6.5) shows that the most abundant fishes of the neotropical southern GoM (Campeche/Yucatán Inner Neritic) are relatively distinct from those in all other regions, including southern Florida. The neotropical environment of Florida Bay and the Florida Keys share a substantial number (about 25 %) of abundant species with temperate wetlands of the Western Florida Estuarine and Eastern Gulf Neritic, but less similarity in the most abundant fishes is found on the coast of the Mississippi/Texas Estuarine compared with other regions. This is likely due to the higher diversity of habitat types and species found in the eastern GoM compared with more productive regions of the northern GoM, which tend to be dominated by tidal marshes and fewer nekton species at higher densities. Coastal currents (Figure 6.17) may contribute to the similarity in nekton assemblages along the west coast of the Florida peninsula, while the Mississippi River may function as a physical barrier to east-west movement of certain nekton species associated with shallow coastal waters.

Table 6.5 Matrix of Pairwise Comparisons Between Indicated Ecoregions Showing the Percentage of Species from Abundant Fish Families That are Shared in Common. Referenced studies are the same as in Table 6.3.

Quantitative information on nekton from vegetated marine habitats in the extreme southeastern portion of the GoM along the northwestern coast of Cuba is scarce, so data were not included in Tables 6.3 through 6.5. However, Ortiz and Lalana (2005) provide some useful qualitative insights from their general description of the marine biodiversity of the Cuban Archipelago. The families and species reported as noteworthy in seagrass beds, mangroves, and coastal lagoons include fishes in the families Lutjanidae (snappers), Serranidae (sea basses), Atennariidae (frogfishes), Ogocephalidae (batfishes), Synodontiae (lizardfishes), Pomadacidae (damselfishes), Gerridae (mojarras), Mugilidae (mullets), and Centropomidae (snooks). Other fishes associated with shallow subtidal flats included Scaridae (parrotfishes)—especially adjacent to coral reefs—and Dasyatidae, specifically the bluntnose stingray (Dasyatis say). Except for frogfishes and batfishes, which are rarely reported as abundant or important in other regions of the GoM, the nekton of the Cuban coast, at least at the family level, is similar to that of the southern Florida and Yucatán assemblages, with substantial contributions from coral reef and mangrove nekton assemblages (e.g., snappers, mojarras, damselfishes). Likewise, nektonic decapod crustaceans associated with shallow macroalgal beds, mangroves, and coastal lagoons included Portunidae (crabs in the genera Portunus and Callinectes) and shrimps in the family Penaeidae, with specific mention of Farfantepenaeus notialis and Litopenaeus schmitti (Ortiz and Lalana 2005). Most of these are either the same or sibling species that occur throughout the GoM (e.g., the northern white shrimp, Litopenaeus setiferus and the southern white shrimp, L. schmitti are sibling species as are the northern pink shrimp Farfantepenaeus duorarum and the southern pink shrimp F. notialis).

Some nekton species are restricted to narrow regional coastal reaches by their habitat requirements or physiological tolerances to variable environmental factors. For example, the American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) occurs in the neotropical regions of the southern GoM, primarily from the Florida Keys, Florida Bay, Shark River Estuarine, and southwest through the Veracruzan Neritic, including a large population in Cuba. Crocodiles are limited to the southern GoM largely because of a low tolerance for cold even for short periods (Kushlan and Mazotti 1989). The related American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis), which can tolerate water temperatures below 8 °C (46 °F) for extended periods (Lance 2003) is distributed in the GoM throughout inshore coastal wetlands from south Florida north and west through the Texas Estuarine Ecoregion. Although alligators are more widely distributed within the GoM, crocodiles have a higher salinity tolerance and are more likely to be abundant in saline wetlands within their range, including mangrove habitats throughout the southern Gulf. Both species of crocodilians are top predators within the region, feeding on a diverse diet that includes other nekton (especially fishes) as well as terrestrial mammals, reptiles, and insects.

The diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin) is another nektonic reptile that is even more characteristic of tidal marshes and mangroves of the GoM than crocodilians, and is considered by some to be among the imperiled species of special regional interest (Beck et al. 2000). The distribution of terrapin subspecies within the GoM is particularly interesting because the subspecies appear to follow the distribution of Level III Ecoregions shown in Figure 6.3. Although there are seven recognized subspecies of diamondback terrapin, only four of these occur within the GoM (Ernst and Lovich 2009). M. terrapin rhizophorarum (mangrove diamondback terrapin) is restricted to mangrove habitats of the Florida Keys, Florida Bay, and the Shark River Estuarine Ecoregions (Ernst and Lovich 2009; Hart and McIvor 2008). M. t. macrospilota (ornate diamondback terrapin) occurs primarily within the marshes of the Western Florida Estuarine and Eastern Gulf Neritic. M. t. pileata (Mississippi diamondback terrapin) ranges within the tidal marshes of the Mississippi Estuarine. The fourth subspecies, M. t. littoralis (Texas diamondback terrapin) occupies the Texas Estuarine from western Louisiana to Corpus Christi, Texas. The conformity between the distributions of the subspecies of diamondback terrapins and Level III Ecoregions within the GoM is matched by few other nekton. Diamondback terrapins consume a variety of estuarine invertebrates including snails, crustaceans, and bivalves. Although strong swimmers, they tend to have limited home ranges, which may help to explain how the distinct subspecies persist.

Water depth, salinity, seasonal temperatures, dissolved oxygen, freshwater inputs, sediment type, availability of physical or biogenic structure (Day et al. 1989), as well as the size and spatial configuration of aquatic habitats within the coastal landscape (Boström et al. 2011), are among the multiple interacting factors controlling the composition and structure of nekton assemblages within coastal wetlands. Environmental variability on multiple spatial and temporal scales is a hallmark of estuarine systems, but the high mobility of nekton allows assemblages to persist by emigrating in response to unfavorable environmental conditions that might develop over the short-term or on limited spatial scales, and quickly immigrating to repopulate the same areas when conditions improve (Hackney et al. 1976; Day et al. 1989; Tyler et al. 2009).

Water depth usually affects the size of the species or life stages of nekton found in coastal wetlands. Shallow waters associated with most coastal wetlands generally are dominated by smaller (mostly <15 cm) individuals. Mean size and species richness of nekton assemblages tends to decrease from deeper to shallower waters, as does swimming ability, but densities often increase along the same depth gradient, with greater nekton densities occurring in shallow water (e.g., Peterson and Turner 1994; Eggleston et al. 2004; Ellis and Bell 2004). Within shallow vegetated habitats of the coast, the fish families Fundulidae (fundulids), Cyprinodontidae (killifishes), and Poecilidae (live-bearers) are abundantly represented (e.g., Rozas 1993; Peterson and Turner 1994). Water depth and physical structure (emergent and submergent plants and reefs) attract a subset of the Penaeidae (white, brown, and pink shrimp), Palaemonidae (grass shrimp), and Portunidae (swimming crabs such as the blue crab), at least near the edges of intertidal wetland habitats (e.g., Minello et al. 2008).

Aquatic accessibility to coastal wetlands is a key factor controlling the composition and abundance of nekton assemblages, particularly in intertidal habitats (Rozas 1995; Kneib 1997; Minello et al. 2012). Several factors may affect the accessibility of coastal wetlands to nekton including the frequency and duration of tidal or storm-driven inundation of intertidal habitats (e.g., marshes, mangroves, tidal flats) and the presence of structural landscape features (e.g., passes, creek channels, and ditches) that facilitate nekton movements (Saucier and Baltz 1993; Raynie and Shaw 1994) among otherwise isolated aquatic elements (e.g., lagoons, ponds, and impoundments) embedded within coastal landscapes (Knudsen et al. 1989; Herke 1995). Unlike most coasts, which experience semidiurnal tides (i.e., two high and two low tides daily), much of the GoM experiences diurnal tides (i.e., 1 high and 1 low tide daily) as illustrated in Figure 6.16. Mixed tides have the characteristic of exhibiting appreciably different amplitudes in successive high and low water events and may be either diurnal or semidiurnal. All tides within the GoM are considered microtidal in that tidal amplitude is considerably <2 m. Note that tides along the west coast of Florida, as well as most of the Cuban coast, are semidiurnal while all other portions of the GoM experience diurnal tides. Increased accessibility to intertidal habitats associated with twice daily high tides (semidiurnal) in the eastern GoM may explain at least some of the greater similarities in dominant nekton species shared by these regions (Table 6.5).

The dominance of small amplitude diurnal tides within the GoM may restrict the extent to which nekton have access to coastal wetlands and sometimes limit the effective use of these habitats to edges adjacent to open water (Baltz et al. 1993; Minello et al. 1994) or to habitats that remain submerged, such as subtidal seagrass beds and permanent or ephemeral ponds and impoundments. Even in the latter case, physical access routes in the form of passes between barrier islands into lagoons or embayments, or channels connecting natural ponds or artificial impoundments to open estuarine waters, are essential for immigration and emigration of most transient species of nekton that use these habitats as juvenile nurseries but spawn elsewhere (Day et al. 1989; Raynie and Shaw 1994; Herke 1995).

The association between productivity of inshore waters and nutrient dynamics of vegetated marine habitats has long been recognized (Odum 2000; Chesney et al. 2000; Beck et al. 2001), as have relationships between the area of vegetated coastal wetlands and fisheries production (e.g., Turner 1977, 1992), particularly in the northern GoM. However, in the neotropical southern GoM, the area of emergent vegetated wetlands appears to be less important in controlling fishery production than river discharge and freshwater inputs (Deegan et al. 1986; Yáñez-Arancibia and Day 2004), which are delivered to the coastal wetlands via relatively small watersheds compared to those in the northern GoM (Figure 6.15, Table 6.1). Secondary productivity in the GoM, as elsewhere, is driven by primary productivity and water quality, which control habitat quality and the production of higher trophic levels such as nekton (Yáñez-Arancibia and Day 2004). Although some coastal wetland nekton species have digestive tracts capable of assimilating energy from diets of algae and detritus (e.g., Cyprinodon variegatus, Poecilia latipinna, Mugil cephalus, Brevoortia patronus) (Odum and Heald 1972; Deegan et al. 1990), many supplement their diet by feeding on small invertebrates (Harrington and Harrington 1961, 1982). For the most part, nekton found in coastal wetlands are omnivorous and opportunistic, relying primarily on small surface-dwelling or epibenthic invertebrates as their primary food source (Stoner and Zimmerman 1988; Kneib 1997; Llansó et al. 1998). These benthic invertebrate food resources are capable of using algal and microbial assemblages associated with detritus as their primary energy source (see Figure 1 in Kneib 2003), and thus are likely to provide the most important links between coastal wetland primary production and nekton populations.

The role of different coastal wetland habitat types (e.g., seagrass, salt marsh, mangrove) in support of nekton secondary production remains a topic of some debate, but it does not appear that all types of wetland habitats contribute equally to estuarine nekton production. Beck et al. (2001) hypothesized that seagrass, marsh, and oyster reef habitats serve a nursery role in contributing to the production of nekton, but mangroves, tidal flats, and intertidal beaches do not provide a significant source of nekton production, though may serve a role as predator refugia for some species.

6.4.4 Ecosystem Services and Societal Benefits of Vegetated Marine Habitats

Natural ecosystems provide a suite of goods and services that have societal benefits (Costanza et al. 1997). These benefits are especially important relative to coastal ecosystems given that 41 % of the world population lives within 100 km (62 mi) of the coast (Martínez et al. 2007). Ecosystems of the GoM are no exception in providing goods and services that support human populations.

Although there are many definitions for ecosystem services, the Gulf of Mexico Ecosystem Services Workshop (Yoskowitz et al. 2010) specifically defined GoM ecosystem services as “…the contributions from Gulf of Mexico marine and coastal ecosystems that support, sustain, and enrich human life.” The central concept of this definition, and most others commonly used, is the emphasis on services that support human well-being and the identification of different classes of ecosystem services such as: (1) Ecosystem Foundation or Support Services, which are regulatory in nature and consist of processes that maintain the structure and function of ecosystems, (2) Provisioning Services, which are goods and services produced by or dependent on the support services, and (3) Outcomes and Benefits to Society, which include a suite of direct societal benefits (Table 6.6).

Table 6.6 Ecosystem Services of the GoM (from Yoskowitz et al. 2010; republished with permission of the Texas A&M University Press)

This organization has the advantage of being hierarchical in nature. Level I (Support Services) provides the foundation upon which all other ecosystem services depend. The higher the level, the more closely linked things are to direct human benefits. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (WHO 2005) uses a similar classification that groups ecosystem services into Supporting, Regulating, Provisioning, and Social and Cultural Services.

Nineteen ecosystem services provided by the GoM can be segregated by coastal habitat and prioritized as illustrated in Table 6.7. Specific ecosystem services provided by any particular coastal habitat vary with habitat. For example, ecosystem services performed by salt marshes are qualitatively and quantitatively different from those provided by barrier strand dunes or maritime forests. The importance of each service for a particular habitat is indicated. Although it can be argued whether or not the list is complete and/or the priorities correct, the table provides a summary from 30 coastal scientists and resource managers relative to their perceptions of ecosystem services provided by a suite of coastal habitats of which those presented in Table 6.6 are just a subset.

Table 6.7 Coastal Habitats and Their Ecosystem Services (modified from Yoskowitz et al. 2010)

The goods and services provided to society by one particular coastal habitat, mangrove forests, have been studied and reviewed (Ewel et al. 1998). Although their relative importance varies among forest types and geographic locations, the primary goods and services include shoreline stabilization, buffering storms and hurricanes, sediment trapping, sinks for nutrients and carbon, nursery grounds for commercially important fisheries, wildlife habitat, and recreation opportunities. All mangrove forests contribute to soil formation and help stabilize coastlines; however, fringe forests dominated by Rhizophora mangle (e.g., in Florida) may be especially important in this regard. Sediment trapping is a related function most often attributed to riverine forests (e.g., the Shark River in the Everglades, Florida) (Ewel et al. 1998), but the scrub mangrove habitats found in the Mississippi River Delta along secondary waterways may also capture sediment (Perry and Mendelssohn 2009). Depending on geomorphology and hydrodynamics, mangroves may act as sinks or sources for nutrients and carbon. Basin forests are thought to be sinks for organic matter and nutrients (Twilley 1985; Twilley et al. 1986). Scrub or dwarf forests may also be sinks due to their restricted hydrology. Forest types with more open exchange (fringe, overwash island) may be sources of nutrients and carbon to adjacent estuaries. Mangrove forests are also thought to protect human communities against storm surge, with the trees contributing to wave attenuation (Bao 2011). Additionally, mangrove forests serve as nurseries and refuge for a variety of marine organisms of commercial or sport value, such as snapper (Lutjanus spp.), tarpon (Megalops atlanticus), barracuda (Sphyraena barracuda), jack (Caranx spp.), sheepshead (Archosargus probatocephalus), and red drum (Sciaenops ocellatus). In addition to serving as habitat for a variety of wildlife such as birds, reptiles, and mammals, mangrove forests also provide habitat for threatened or endangered species such as the West Indian manatee and American crocodile. Mangrove forests are important in terms of aesthetics and tourism; many people visit these areas to engage in fishing, boating, bird watching, and snorkeling.

Various scientists have identified the ecosystem services ascribed to coastal habitats differently. For example, Peterson et al. (2008) listed the following ecosystem services for tidal marshes, which include salt marshes: habitat and food web support, buffer against storm wave damage, shoreline stabilization, hydrological processing (flood water storage), water quality, biodiversity preservation, carbon storage, and socioeconomic services for humans. Many of these services are similar to those listed for salt marshes in the Yoskowitz et al. (2010) classification (Table 6.6). Costanza et al. (1997) estimated the economic value of tidal marshes and mangroves at $9,990/ha/year. Seagrass habitats were valued even higher at $22,832/ha/year. The coastal barrier strand, although not given a monetary evaluation, per se, provides a number of ecosystem services including protection of the mainland from storms and waves; buffering of wave energy to allow for formation of marshes and estuaries; creation of habitat for a variety of fish, shellfish, waterfowl and shorebirds, furbearing mammals, and endangered species such as sea turtles; recreation; vacation and retirement living; and economic benefits for tourism for coastal communities (Wells and Peterson 1982). In total, the ecosystem services provided by coastal habitats, including tidal marshes, mangroves, and the offshore coastal zone, were estimated at $63,563/ha/year (Costanza et al. 1997).

6.5 Coastal Habitat Ecology

Coastal habitats that occur in the GoM represent a relatively finite list and are similar to those occurring worldwide. Factors such as climate, wave energy, water clarity, salinity, submergence, propagule availability, among others, determine the specific coastal habitat present in any particular geographic location and the flora and fauna comprising these habitats. In addition, factors such as disturbance type and frequency, biotic interactions such as herbivory, soil chemical condition, and others modulate many of the large-scale controls.

Coastal habitats are generally characterized by their dominant vegetation type. For example, mangrove trees define mangrove habitat, while seagrasses identify the seagrass habitat; halophytic graminoids and forbs distinguish a salt marsh. Barrier islands, in contrast, are primarily identified by their geomorphological characteristics (e.g., beach, dune, swale, etc.). Regardless, coastal habitats are important and conspicuous biogeomorphic features in the GoM. Intertidal wetlands are found throughout the GoM, but as mentioned briefly before, salt marshes dominate in the more temperate environments of the GoM, and mangroves dominate in more tropical settings. Mangroves, which are intertidal tropical and subtropical trees, are restricted to certain parts of the GoM by temperature. They dominate in the Southern GoM and Greater Antilles (Cuba) Marine Ecoregions, and become less prevalent and of lower stature in the more temperate regions of the Gulf (Mendelssohn and McKee 2000). The geographic limit of mature mangrove stands in the GoM is approximately 29.2°N latitude in coastal Louisiana in the Northern GoM region. Here, both plant communities co-occur (Patterson and Mendelssohn 1991); this ecotone also exists along the Florida and Texas shorelines. Mangrove plants also occur on the Chandeleur Islands (~29.8°N latitude) in Louisiana, and recent observationsFootnote 1 have identified black mangroves on Horn Island, Mississippi (~30.2°N latitude), which, if persistent, is the farthest northern population in the GoM. Seagrass habitats in the GoM also have a somewhat restricted distribution due to low water clarity and/or low temperatures in much of the northern GoM. Seagrasses reach their dominance in clear waters of the subtropical and tropical southern Gulf, and their distribution is further limited in the Northern GoM Ecoregion by high turbidity associated with Mississippi River-influenced coastal waters (Hale et al. 2004). Barrier islands and beaches, as well as tidal flats, occur throughout the GoM wherever physical conditions allow. The following is a description of the major coastal strand habitats and their associated wetlands.

6.5.1 Barrier Strand Habitats Dominant Forcing Functions

The barrier strand is a stressful environment where factors such as salt spray from saline waters of the GoM, soil moisture deficiencies, limited nutrient supply, and soil instability may negatively affect biota, especially barrier strand vegetation (Barbour et al. 1985; Packham and Willis 1997). Salt spray occurs when effervescence in the surf propels droplets into the air where they are concentrated and transported inland by the wind. The active agent in salt spray is the chloride ion, which enters the windward portions of plant parts through cracks and lesions in the epidermis. The degree of injury is related to the wind speed above the critical value of 7 m/s, where an abrupt increase in salt spray intensity occurs as turbulent air flow increases. In addition to affecting growth, salt spray is the primary environmental factor determining the distribution, architecture, and zonation of maritime plant species (Christensen 2000). Many plants that grow on foredunes (e.g., Uniola paniculata [sea oats]) are resistant to salt entry and can survive the intense salt-spray zones of the barrier strand. Plants that are less well adapted (e.g., Andropogon (=Schizachyrium) spp. [broomsedge]) are found in the lee of dunes or other vegetation. Salt spray is an important factor, along with sand burial, in preventing the establishment of some annual species (Van der Valk 1974; Miller et al. 2008).

Although dune species may be stressed by water deficits, especially on tall sand dunes, freshwater availability is greater than one might expect. Sand below the top few centimeters of a dune is often moist, even though the soil surface is dry. In fact, it has been suggested that the dry surface acts as a vapor trap, which impedes drying of deeper substrate. The water table, which may be several meters from the active root zone depending on the size of the dune, acts as an indirect source of water via vapor phase diffusion upward to the rooting zone. Because the capillary rise of water from a free water surface in very fine sand is not more than 40 cm, the water table in a dune of only a few meters can make no direct contribution to the moisture requirements of most dune plants. Rainfall and condensation provide important sources of water to dune vegetation. Regardless of the source of water, dune plants have evolved mechanisms to control their water requirements and acquire water. Many beach and dune species control water loss via a number of mechanisms including sunken stomates, strong stomatal control, and waxy leaf surfaces. Also, numerous beach and dune species are succulent and accumulate water in their leaf tissue. Still other plant species, especially dune grasses, have a high capacity for the acquisition of water via deep roots that penetrate into moist soil. Because of these multiple adaptations to conserve and acquire water, water deficiency stress is not generally a major constraint to barrier strand species (Barbour et al. 1985).

A primary limitation to plant growth and expansion is the relatively nutrient-deficient sandy soils that compose the barrier strand. Major nutrient inputs to the dune system are salt spray, precipitation, and nitrogen fixation by both symbiotic and free-living bacteria. The mineralization of organic matter in the dunes is of limited importance because aeolian processes remove most lightweight organic matter; however, in protected swales and backbarrier marshes, soil organic matter may accumulate. Nitrogen is generally the primary plant-limiting nutrient, although phosphorus can be of secondary importance (Dahl et al. 1974; Dougherty et al. 1990; Laliberté et al. 2012). In fact, research on nutrient limitations of European dunes and swales indicates that phosphorus often co-limits primary productivity, especially in early stages of dune development (Lammerts et al. 1999).

Soil instability, and resulting sand burial, is another problem that dune vegetation encounters (Maun and Perumal 1999). Plants have a more difficult time becoming established in shifting windblown sand than in a stable substrate and can easily be buried with sand in large mobile dune fields. Dune plants, in particular, have adapted to this environment by developing the capacity to grow upward through considerable accumulations of sand. In fact, moderate sand burial has a stimulatory effect on the growth of dune grasses, but too much sand burial can cause plant mortality. In general, however, perennial grasses are more resistant to sand burial than annual forbs (20 cm limit for annuals and more than a meter for grasses) (Van der Valk 1974).

Although less investigated, herbivory is another factor that can limit the growth and expansion of dune vegetation (Hester et al. 1994). Grazing by rabbits, deer, nutria, and other mammals can dramatically reduce the structure of vegetation. However, this disturbance is often missed in the absence of adjacent areas where herbivores are excluded. Plant Communities and Associated Vegetation

Because barrier strand vegetation throughout the GoM is subject to similar environmental stressors, as described above, plant form and habitat structure vary little. Even species composition can be quite similar, especially within the same latitudinal bands. Beach species are often prostrate herbaceous perennials capable of vegetative reproduction by stolons or rhizomes. Leaves are frequently small and lobed, with waxy surfaces and exhibiting succulence to various degrees. These are adaptations to plant water loss and/or low water availability, whether the cause is high transpiration, low water availability, soil salinity, or a combination (Barbour et al. 1985). Dune species are often grasses, like Uniola paniculata (sea oats) or Panicum amarum (bitter panicum), whose long roots can tap moisture deep in the soil, and whose rapid growth rates allow for tolerance to sand burial. Non-grass herbs, like Hydocotyle spp. (pennywort), found in the dune environment often have shallow roots to readily absorb frequent but short episodes of precipitation and strong stomatal control to reduce water loss. A mixture of graminoids and herbaceous dicots usually dominates swales. Because swales are generally protected from many of the stressors influencing beach and dune species, they do not show these same adaptations. However, swales often have higher water tables, and species such as Spartina patens, Schoenoplectus olneyi, and Andropogon (=Schizachyrium) scoparius (shore little bluestem) tolerate high soil moisture and even flooding. The swale habitat is the location where maritime forests and shrub thickets occur. Trees such as pines (Pinus spp.) and live oak (Quercus virginiana), and shrubs like Myrica cerifera (wax myrtle) and Baccharis halimifolia (groundsel bush), dominate swales located on more stable barrier islands and beaches. Backbarrier salt marshes, dominated by Spartina alterniflora (smooth cordgrass) and S. patens (wiregrass), and where climate allows, Avicennia germinans, are frequent occurrences, as are seagrass beds.

The beach and foredune vegetation on the backshores of barrier strands in the GoM can be divided into four geographic clusters: (1) a western region consisting of shorelines south of Galveston, Texas, (2) a northwest region of Louisiana beaches, (3) a northeast region consisting of Mississippi, Alabama, and the Florida panhandle, and (4) the south Florida beaches (Barbour et al. 1987). These groupings are separated by geographical and environmental discontinuities, such as differences in parent material of the sand and geological stability, as well as the influence of the Mississippi River. The beach survey of Barbour et al. (1987), which covered a shoreline distance of 2,500 km (1,550 mi), found that the northern GoM from the Texas-Mexico border to south Florida was dominated by a changing mixture of approximately a dozen plant species in nine genera. Only five of these dominants, and nine species overall, occurred in all four regions. Uniola paniculata was the dominant, except along the Louisiana coastline, where Spartina patens (wiregrass) replaced it. Other widespread beach species throughout the GoM were Ipomoea stolonifera (fiddle leaf morning glory), Croton punctatus (beach tea), Sporobolus virginicus (seashore dropseed), and Heterotheca subaxillaris (camphorweed), with the dune grass Panicum amarum (bitter panicum) prevalent, but decreasing in an eastward direction. Table 6.8 presents the distinguishing beach species for each region.

Table 6.8 Characteristic and Distinguishing Beach Flora in Each of the Four Regions of the Northern GoM as Identified by Barbour et al. (1987)

Considerable local variation occurs depending on the age and successional stage of the barrier strand. Figure 6.110 presents an elevation-vegetation transect across a young (12 years from formation) segment of Crooked Island West in northwest Florida (Johnson 1997). The embryo dunes along this profile are dominated by grasses, such as Panicum amarum var. amarulum (=P. amarulum, coastal panicgrass). More mature and stable shorelines formed as long as 53 years before the study on Crooked Island West show a transition from grasses to shrubs as dominants. The oldest and most stable dune ridges (some older than 100 years) are dominated by shrub species (Johnson 1997). One or two species dominate each community across the island: Foredunes—Panicum amarum var. amarulum and Uniola paniculata (with Iva imbricata (seacoast marsh elder) and Schizachyrium maritimum (gulf bluestem) as frequent associates); Swales—although diverse, species such as Fimbristylis castanea (marsh fimbry) and Paspalum distichum (knotgrass) are prevalent, as well as Andropogon virginicus (broomsedge) and Dichanthelium aciculare (needleleaf rosette grass); Maritime Forests—Pinus clausa (sand pine) and P. elliottii (slash pine) communities with Ilex glabra (inkberry) and I. vomitoria (yaupon), and many other small trees and shrubs in the understory.

Figure 6.110
figure 110

Vegetation—elevation profile along a dune-swale transect (A–A′) (from Johnson 1997; used with permission of the Journal of Coastal Research) on Crooked Island, located east of Panama City in northwest Florida. Letters indicate dominant plant species on each numbered ridge and swale (Pa = Panicum amarum var. amarulum, Sm = Schizachyrium maritimum, Pd = Paspalum distichum, Ee = Eragrostis elliotii, Av = Andropogon virginicus)

Barrier strand communities associated with barrier islands and beaches of the Mississippi River Deltaic Complex in Louisiana are distinctly different from those to the east. Because of a limited sand supply, frequent winter cold fronts and episodic hurricanes, and rapid subsidence of the coastal deltaic landscape, barrier strand development is quite limited. Sand dunes are generally small in stature (Figure 6.111) and subject to frequent overwash. Consequently, beaches are predominantly erosional and relatively narrow. Some of these environmental and geologic features are, in part, responsible for the almost complete absence of Uniola paniculata (sea oats) along the Louisiana barriers, west of the Mississippi River (Hester and Mendelssohn 1991). Figures 6.111 and 6.112 present many of the common coastal strand species found in Louisiana.

Figure 6.111
figure 111

Vegetation—elevation profile across one section of the Caminada-Moreau Beach, west of Grand Isle, LA (modified from Mendelssohn et al. 1983). (Andropogon scoparius = Schizachyrium scoparium; Scirpus americanus = Schoenoplectus olneyi; Lippia = Phyla)

Figure 6.112
figure 112

Vegetation—elevation profile across the northern segment of the Chandeleur Islands, Louisiana (modified after Mendelssohn et al. 1983) (Andropogon scoparius = Schizachyrium scoparium)

Shorelines of southeastern Texas are very similar to those in southwestern Louisiana, but progressing southward, differences develop. Sand dunes and beaches become larger and more expansive and Uniola paniculata (sea oats) again gains dominance. Common plant species on Padre Island are provided in Table 6.9 (Smith 2002).

Table 6.9 Common Plant Species on the Barrier Strand of Padre Island (data from Smith 2002)

Beaches and barrier islands occur throughout the southern GoM (Figure 6.95). Coastal strand vegetation of this region has been described in a series of papers (Moreno-Casasola and Espejel 1986; Moreno-Casasola 1988, 1993, 2007; Silvia et al. 1991). As expected, the barrier strand flora of northern Tamaulipas is similar to that of southern Texas. Just south of the United States-Mexico border at Playa Washington, Uniola paniculata (sea oats) and Ipomoea pes-caprae (goat foot morning glory or bayhops) frequently occur along exposed parts of the dune and are sometimes replaced by Croton punctatus (beach tea) and Scaevola plumieri (gullfeed). Landward of this zone, Croton mixes with other species like Clappia suaedifolia (fleshy claydaisy), Phyla cuneifolia (wedgeleaf), Sabatia arenicola (sand rose gentian), and others. In southern Tamaulipas and northern Veracruz, dunes generally reach a height of 3–5 m (10 to 16 ft), with the exception of 30 m (98 ft) dunes in Cabo Rojo, and include the same species as previously mentioned, plus others like Sesuvium portulacastrum (shoreline sea purslane), Coccoloba uvifera, and Canavalia maritima. In general, tropical species like those present in south Florida are more prevalent. Figure 6.113 presents a vegetation profile at Bocatoma, Tamaulipas (Moreno-Casasola 1993). Uniola does not occur here, but rather Sporobolus virginicus (seashore dropseed) becomes the primary beach and dune grass. Lippia (=Phyla) nodiflora (frog fruit or fogfruit) is a typical swale species, and the mangrove associate, Conocarpus erecta (=C. erectus), (buttonwood or button mangrove), dominates the lagoonal shoreline.

Figure 6.113
figure 113

Vegetation profile at Bocatoma, Tamaulipas, Mexico (Conocarpus erecta = C. erectus) (modified after Moreno-Casasola 1993)

One of the most interesting features of the Tamaulipas shoreline is Cabo Rojo, which has been described as a tombolo extending into the sea (Britton and Morton 1989). Because of the difference in shoreline orientation between the northern and southern sections of Cabo Rojo, the northern section of the barrier strand receives the full force of frequent winter nortes, while the southern section is somewhat protected. This difference both affects topography and species composition. Because of the extensive presence of aeolian sands on the northern leg, the dunes here can reach more than 30 m (98 ft). Strong winter winds and wave energy create a steep beach backed by sand dunes. Stable vegetated dunes occur behind the primary dune line, forming shrub thicket and forest habitats. Coccoloba uvifera (seagrape) is the most common leading species in the northern section. The southern section is composed of a series of old beach ridges that shield the strand from winds and accumulating sand. As a result, dunes are virtually absent, and Ipomoea pes-caprae (goatfoot morning glory) and Croton punctatus (beach tea) dominate the leading vegetation on the beach. Plant diversity of strand vegetation in the northern section (25 species) is much greater than in the southern section (12 species) probably because the frequent washovers and disturbances in the northern leg create greater habitat heterogeneity and more microenvironments suited for more species (Poggie 1962).

The Veracruz shoreline is complex and gives rise to a variety of barrier strand physiognomies from narrow beaches in some areas in the northern part to the enormous dune systems along the central Veracruz shoreline (Britton and Morton 1989). Sands can vary from primarily light-colored quartz to dark, heavy mineral sand, derived from volcanic rocks. Uniola paniculata (sea oats), a dominant dune grass in the northern GoM, basically disappears south of the state of Tamaulipas. Plant zonation is generally distinct with definable plant communities extending from the beach landward to the large fixed dunes and semi-deciduous tropical forests (Figure 6.114a). Numerous microenvironments occur within such large coastal strands, including wet swales and inter-dunal lagoons. Common species and their zonation are depicted in Figure 6.114b (Moreno-Casasola 1993, 2007).

Figure 6.114
figure 114

(a) Idealized vegetation profile of a mature dune system from beach to maritime forest (from Moreno-Casasola 2007). (b) Plant species composition and distribution of a dune system in the central part of Veracruz, Mexico (from Moreno-Casasola 1993; used with permission)

Further to the east is the state of Tabasco, which has a relatively small coastline. Here, a complex of active and abandoned river channels and their associated deltas characterize the coastal plain. Quartz-sand beaches occur along the shoreline between the river mouths. Although dunes occur in scattered places, the area is characterized by a low-elevation beach-ridge system (Figure 6.115) (Moreno-Casasola 1993). In some areas (e.g., San Pablo), sand dune-ridges are backed by mangroves, which are further fringed by marsh shrubs, e.g., Borrichia frutescens (marsh elder) and Hibiscus tiliaceus (sea hibiscus). In the wet swales between beach ridges, a distinct community of low palms such as Bactris (bactris palm) and Paurotis (Everglades palm) alternate with solid stands of Xylosma sp. (logwood).

Figure 6.115
figure 115

Vegetation profile from Las Flores, Tabasco, Mexico (modified after Moreno-Casasola 1993)

The State of Campeche, on the Yucatán peninsula, is characterized by its karst basement material and its almost continuous low-elevation barrier beach composed of shell and other calcareous materials (Moreno-Casasola 1993). The beach is often separated from the mainland by shallow, but wide lagoons and salt flats. The sand flats flood during the winter when nortes push seawater through the inlets. Where calcareous sands dominate, the coastal vegetation becomes more Caribbean-like with inclusions of Coccoloba uvifera (seagrape), Scaevola plumieri (gullfeed), Suriana maritima (bay cedar), and others (Figure 6.116).

Figure 6.116
figure 116

Vegetation profile from Champotón, Campeche, Mexico (modified after Moreno-Casasola 1993)

Along the northern Yucatán shorelines, beach sand is primarily calcareous, and the beach is narrow with a parallel ridge (1 to 2 m [3.3 to 6.6 ft]). As described by Moreno-Casasola (1993), a vegetation gradient exists from beach to mainland. Pioneer vegetation consists of species such as Chamaesyce buxifolia (coastal beach sandmat), Croton punctatus (beach tea), Scaevola plumieri (gullfeed), Sesuvium portulacastrum (shoreline seapurslane), Suaeda linearis (annual seepweed), and Tournefortia gnaphaloides (sea rosemary). The pioneer zone ends at a shore-parallel thicket dominated by Suriana maritima. The landward swale consists of species such as Hymenocallis littoralis (beach spiderlily), Agave silvestris (agave), Scaevola plumieri, and others. Along other parts of the northern Yucatán, Coccoloba uvifera (seagrape) is the dominant species, gradually increasing in height landward from the beach. Species of wild cotton (Gossypium hirsutum and G. punctatum) are interesting inclusions in this flora. Gossypium punctatum, closely related to commercial cotton, grows on the outer beach ridges and overlaps with the distribution of Coccoloba uvifera (seagrape) (Sauer 1967). Figure 6.117 presents a generalized vegetation profile for the northern Yucatán coastline.

Figure 6.117
figure 117

Vegetation profile for beach and wide ridge system in Yucatán, Mexico (from Moreno-Casasola 1993; used with permission). 1=beach; 2=embryo dune and foredune; 5=sheltered zone; 6=fixed dunes; 4=humid and wet slacks

Along the northwestern coast of Cuba, beach and dune habitats are especially well developed in the Guanahacabibes Peninsula and the shoreline between Havana and Varadero (Borhidi 1996) (Figures 6.101 and 6.118). This coast consists mainly of Pliocene limestone, which is seldom interrupted by muddy or sandy beaches. Flat karsts and cliffs are most common, with some rocky hills. The vegetation in this region consists of coastal thickets, dry evergreen forests and shrubwoods, fragments of semi-deciduous forests on the slopes, and small stands of mangroves. The dominant pioneer species of the strand line are Ipomoea pes-capre (goat foot morning glory) and Canavalia maritima (baybean). Landward of the pioneer species, but still on the beach, are combinations of species such as Sporobolus virginicus and Baccharis halimifolia (groundsel bush), Borrichia arborescens (tree seaside tansy), Tournefortia gnaphaloides (sea rosemary), Spartina juncea (=S. patens), and others. Many of these species also occur on the northern shoreline of the Yucatán. The primary dunes are often covered by the shrub seagrape, Coccoloba uvifera. Further landward the coastal gradient terminates with dry coastal evergreen shrubs (Figure 6.118) (Borhidi 1996).

Figure 6.118
figure 118

Vegetation of beach and dune habitats in the Casilda Peninsula, near Trinidad, Cuba (from Borhidi 1996, used with permission)

A somewhat unique coastal habitat present along the shoreline is the coastal rock pavement community. Although widespread along the southern coast of eastern and central Cuba, it also occurs at Havana and Matanzas. The more open pioneer community is composed of succulent creepers such as Lithophila muscoides (talustuft), Trianthema portulacastrum (desert horse purslane), and Sesuvium spp. Landward is the coastal rocky shrub zone composed of Rachicallis americana (seaside rocket shrub), Borrichia arborescens (tree seaside tansy), Conocarpus erecta (mangrove button), Opuntia dillenii (erect pricklypear), and others. On cliffs exposed to salt spray and winds, Rachicallis sp. (seaside rocket shrub) and Conocarpus form a community. Sometimes Coccoloba uvifera (sea grape) will occur further landward on shallow sands, or thorn shrubs, dominated by species of Mimosa (mimosa), may dominate (Figure 6.119) (Borhidi 1996).

Figure 6.119
figure 119

Vegetation of coastal rock pavement communities. (a) Aroya Blanco near Jibacoa, Cuba and (b) Punta Guanal near Matanzas, Cuba. Em Eugenia maleolens, Tm Tabebuia myrtifolia, Ph Piscidia havanensis (from Borhidi 1996, used with permission) Fauna: Swash Zone and Shallow Tidal Pass Habitats

Relatively few studies in the past 20 to 30 years have focused on faunal assemblages associated with shallow (3 to 15 m [10 to 50 ft]) water swash zone habitats in the GoM. These sandy habitats are pervasive on mainland beaches from Texas to Florida and beaches found on the Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida barrier islands. Sandy beach and beach flat habitats in the Northern GoM are under continual pressure due to population growth along coastal areas, coastal resource utilization, recreational development, shoreline manipulation, tropical storms, and sea-level rise. Sandy sediments define coastal beaches; their geomorphology can be either narrow and steep (reflective) or wide and flat (dissipative) (Aagaard et al. 2013; Schlacher et al. 2008). Erosional beaches are typical in the Northern GoM (Buster and Holmes 2011). Their geological origin and the sorting effects of waves and currents influence the particle size of beach sand. Short-term geomorphic dynamics of sand beaches are typically linked to a source of sand and the energy to move it (Aagaard et al. 2013). Sand transport is greatest in the exposed surf zone and sand storage greatest in coastal dunes and nearshore sandbars. The intertidal and subtidal beach habitats and the shallow tidal pass habitats represent harsh habitats for organisms and often are characterized by steep gradients of environmental factors including wave action, currents, water depth, sediment composition, temperature, food availability, and regional/seasonal climatic factors (e.g., hurricanes) (Rakocinski et al. 1993; Schlacher et al. 2008). Biotic Community Structure

A number of large-scale surveys and summaries have listed marine invertebrate species that occur in habitats throughout the GoM, including shallow, swash zone habitats (e.g., Rakocinski et al. 1991, 1993, 1998; Felder and Camp 2009). Barry A. Vittor and Associates, Inc. (2011) studied beach zone macroinfauna for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Mississippi Coastal Improvements Program (MsCIP). The USACE Mississippi Sound and Adjacent Areas study (Shaw et al. 1982) broadly characterized benthic habitats based on sediment texture and macroinvertebrate assemblages, and feeding guilds present. Considerable variability in faunal assemblages occurred in similar sediment types. For example, sandy sediments of shallow sound habitats were characterized as having a macroinvertebrate assemblage dominated by the small bivalve, Gemma gemma, the polychaete, Paraonis fulgens, and the amphipod, Lepidactylus triarticulatus. This habitat had the lowest average taxa richness, the highest station mean density, and the lowest taxa diversity. The large variability in taxa richness and abundance seen between stations was due to the clumped distribution of G. gemma and L. triarticulatus. In contrast, a shallow tidal pass habitat with >95 % sand was characterized as having a macroinvertebrate assemblage dominated by surface and subsurface deposit feeders, including the polychaetes Polygordius spp., Mediomastus spp., and Spiophanes bombyx; the chordate Branchiostoma spp.; the crustacean Acanthohaustorius spp.; and suspension/filter feeders such as the bivalve Crassinella lunulata.

Rakocinski et al. (1991) studied the macroinvertebrate assemblages associated with barrier islands bordering the mainland of Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. The Mississippi and Alabama barrier islands provide a wide range of environmental conditions for macroinvertebrate assemblages, the most influential being protected beaches on the north or “sound” sides of the islands versus exposed beaches located on the south or GoM sides of the islands. Early studies have also shown that macroinvertebrate assemblages on barrier island beaches have lower taxa richness and abundance than mainland beach habitats. A variety of environmental variables play a role in determining the macroinvertebrate assemblage in a given barrier island habitat, including wave action, sediment properties (primarily the percentage of sand), turbulence, salinity, dissolved oxygen (the occurrence of hypoxia), water depth, the frequency of tropical storms//hurricanes, and seasonal variability in these factors. Rakocinski et al. (1993) also studied benthic habitats seaward from the swash zone at Perdido Key (Florida) in an attempt to determine zonation patterns in macroinvertebrate assemblages. The authors sampled at 0, 25, 50, 75, 100, 150, 300, 500, and 800 m along a transect perpendicular to the beach. Crustaceans and polychaetes made up 75 % of the total number of individuals and species, with taxa richness and abundance increasing with depth (seaward). Total densities increased an order of magnitude from the shore to the deeper seaward stations and ranged from 2,000 individuals/m2 to 20,000 individuals/m2. The authors identified four unique zones along the depth gradient and land/sea interface: (1) the swash zone had a macroinvertebrate assemblage composed of motile, burrowing and/or tube-dwelling suspension feeders of medium body size; the dominant taxa were the polychaete, Scolelepis squamata, the decapod crustacean, Emerita, and the bivalve, Donax; (2) an inner subtidal zone which ranged from the shoreline to 100 m (330 ft) with depths <2 m (6.6 ft) and including nearshore troughs and sand bars; this habitat was dominated by small to large deposit and suspension feeding crustaceans and polychaetes; (3) a subtidal transition zone which ranged from 10 to 300 m (33 to 984 ft) offshore with depths of 2 to 4 m (6.6 to 13.1 ft); the macroinvertebrate assemblage was dominated by small and large bodied polychaetes; and (4) an outer subtidal zone which ranged from 300 to 800 m (984 to 2,625 ft) offshore, with depths between 4 and 6 m (13.1 and 19.7 ft); and a macroinvertebrate assemblage dominated by polychaetes, gammarid amphipods, gastropods, and the chordate Branchiostoma.

The macroinvertebrate assemblages at the shallow sand pass stations associated with the Mississippi barrier islands (Barry A. Vittor and Associates, Inc. 2011) were similar to the Shallow Sound Sand and Tidal Pass habitats characterized in the MSAW study (Shaw et al. 1982), and the Shallow Subtidal and Inner Subtidal (shoreline to 100 m [328 ft], depths <2 m [6.6 ft]) habitats recognized by Rakocinski et al. (1991, 1993). The macroinvertebrate assemblages characteristic of the Inner Subtidal habitat recognized by Rakocinski et al. (1993) were also similar to assemblages associated with the barrier islands in the MsCIP study with a dominance of polychaetes, haustorid amphipods, and bivalves; in addition, macroinvertebrate assemblages in the Shallow Subtidal habitats recognized by Rakocinski et al. (1991) were similarly dominated by polychaetes and amphipods.

Taxa richness and density data collected from sandy beach stations at distances of 3, 6, and 16 m (9.8, 19.7, and 52.5 ft) from shore in the MsCIP study had low taxa richness, extremely variable densities based on the patchy distribution of several habitat-specific macroinvertebrate taxa, and no discernible seasonal patterns. One factor that consistently separated macroinvertebrate assemblages on Petit Bois, Horn, and Ship Islands was whether or not the stations were located on the Mississippi Sound side of the islands or on the Gulf side. Stations located on the Mississippi Sound side of the islands had two to four times as many taxa and an order of magnitude higher densities than stations located on the GoM side of the islands. These data were similar to those found by Rakocinski et al. (1991) for Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida barrier islands with exposed GoM beaches and protected Sound beaches.

Epifaunal organisms associated with swash zone and shallow tidal pass habitats are typically opportunistic, large, active predatory and grazing organisms. The swash zone habitats in the GoM are dominated by various highly mobile decapod taxa (hermit crabs, Pagurus; blue crabs, Callinectes; ghost crabs, Ocypode; pinnixid crabs; portunid crabs, Arenaeus), shallow burrowing decapods (mole crabs, Emerita), echinoderms (sand dollars, Mellita), bivalves (Donax), and various gastropods (naticid moon snails; olives, Olivella).

Nekton assemblages associated with the waters surrounding the beaches along the barrier strand habitat are generally dominated by very few species, most of which are larval and juvenile life stages (Ruple 1984; Ross et al. 1987). Samples collected over several years along Horn Island, part of a barrier chain along the Mississippi-Alabama coast, included >75 species of fishes and natant decapod crustaceans, but >95 % of the individuals were represented by only four fish families (Clupeidae—herrings, Engrualidae—anchovies, Sciaenidae—drums, Carangidae—jacks) and one family (Portunidae) of natant decapod crustacean (Modde and Ross 1980; Ross et al. 1987). Only a few species within each family were abundant. Harengula jaguana (scaled sardine) dominated the clupeids. Anchoa lyolepis (dusky anchovy), A. hepsetus (striped anchovy), and A. mitchilli (bay anchovy) comprised almost all of the engraulids. The most abundant carangids were Trachinotus carolinus (Florida pompano) and Caranx hippos (crevalle jack), and the sciaenids were mostly Menticirrhus littoralis (gulf kingfish) and Leiostomus xanturus (spot). Callinectes sapidus (blue crab) was the most abundant portunid. A similar assemblage of surf zone fishes occurred along the beaches of Padre Island, Texas in the northwest GoM (Smith and Smith 2007), where in addition to the species listed above, mullet (Mugil cephalus and M. curema) were among seasonal dominants (M. cephalus in winter and M. curema in spring).

Although surf zone nekton have not been a focus of many studies throughout the GoM, samples collected from barrier strands along the Atlantic coasts of the United States (e.g., Layman 2000; Wilbur et al. 2003) and South America (e.g., Monteiro-Neto et al. 2003) are remarkably similar, even with respect to the dominant species. For example, Trachinotus carolinus is a prominent carangid and Menticirrhus spp. represent most of the sciaenids along barrier strand beaches at all of these locations. In some areas, mullet (Mugilidae) and silversides (Atherinidae) are also abundant (Layman 2000; Monteiro-Neto et al. 2003).

Shallow waters have been recognized as potentially important predator refugia for coastal marine and estuarine species, particularly in areas where SAV has been reduced or is absent (Ruiz et al. 1993). The shallow waters along barrier strand beaches of the GoM may serve a similar function, but a number of factors affect the occurrence and abundance of nekton along beach habitats, including seasonal reproductive patterns (Modde and Ross 1980; Gibson et al. 1993; Monteiro-Neto et al. 2003), diurnal or tidal foraging activity (Robertson and Lenanton 1984; Ross et al. 1987; Gibson et al. 1996), wind direction and intensity (Ruple 1984), and changes in beach configuration or composition of sediments resulting from storms or anthropogenic activities such as beach nourishment (Wilbur et al. 2003). Short-term episodic changes in physical attributes of nearshore waters, such as the onshore movement of hypoxic bottom waters, may drive onshore migrations of nekton populations as occurs at infrequent intervals in Mobile Bay, where the well-known summer phenomenon has been termed “Jubilee” (Loesch 1960; May 1973).

The physically dynamic nature of the barrier strand often results in the creation and extirpation of ponded aquatic habitats at different distances inland from the surf zone. These semi-permanent pools serve as habitat for a sometimes-ephemeral assemblage of nekton (Ross and Doherty 1994). Depending on distance from the shore, frequency of aquatic connections with the surf zone, and colonization dynamics, these assemblages are either dominated by nekton commonly found in back-barrier marsh habitats (e.g., Cyprinodontidae, Fundulidae, Poeciliidae), which exhibit a moderate level of stability, or a much less persistent assemblage of accidental colonists (Engraulidae, Sciaenidae, Carangidae, Clupeidae, Mugilidae) from the surf zone. Pools containing marsh colonists include reproductively active adults, thereby maintaining a persistent assemblage over time. However, surf zone colonists are represented only by juveniles that are unlikely to survive, and hence, form only ephemeral nekton assemblages.

6.5.2 Salt Marshes Dominant Forcing Functions

Salt marshes generally occur along shorelines with sufficient protection from wave action, e.g., in protected shallow bays and estuaries, lagoons, and on the landward sides of barrier islands. Excessive wave action prevents establishment of seedlings, exposes the shallow root systems, and limits deposition of fine sediments that promote plant growth. Salt marshes are more extensive along low-relief coastlines where tidal intrusion reaches far inland and where there is abundant availability and accumulation of silts and clays, such as found in the north central GoM.

The hydrologic regime exerts a tremendous influence on the structure and function of wetlands, including salt marshes. Hydrology affects abiotic factors such as salinity, soil moisture, soil oxygen, and nutrient availability, as well as biotic factors such as dispersal of seeds. These factors, in turn, influence the distribution and relative abundance of plant species and ecosystem productivity. The tides constitute both a stress and a subsidy (Odum and Fanning 1973) for salt marsh development (Mendelssohn and Morris 2000). Tidal inundation leads to soil anaerobiosis and, depending on the flood tolerance of species, may inhibit survival, growth, and expansion. For salt marsh species, effects of low oxygen may limit vegetative spread via rhizomes (underground stems) and/or seed germination. Tides also import high concentrations of potentially toxic ions such as Na+ and Cl. Tidal fluctuation, however, acts as a subsidy to salt marsh systems by importing nutrients, aerating the soil porewater, flushing accumulated salts and reduced compounds (e.g., hydrogen sulfide) that are phytotoxic, and enhancing the dispersion of seeds and/or vegetative fragments. The tidal subsidy effect is readily apparent along hydrodynamically active creekbanks, where marsh grasses, like Spartina alterniflora, are taller and more productive than in the interior of the marsh, where belowground tidal water movement is minimal (Mendelssohn and Seneca 1980; Howes et al. 1986).

Although salt marshes achieve best development on fine-grained sediments, they occur on a variety of substrates, including sands and volcanic lava. Terrigenous sediments are carried by rivers from inland areas to be deposited along the GoM or may originate from adjacent eroding shorelines. Fine silts and clays contain abundant exchangeable ions that fertilize and enhance productivity of the plants. Marshes may also develop on sandy substrata, particularly in stable, sheltered areas where the sand mixes with silt or organic matter (Chapman 1976). In the case of autochthonous deposits, the marsh vegetation itself contributes to sedimentation and soil development through production of organic matter, primarily below ground (Nyman et al. 1993; Turner et al. 2000). The organic matter content of soils may vary from <10 to >90 %, depending on the relative contribution of organic versus mineral deposits. High rates of root production combined with slow decomposition rates in the anaerobic soil environment may promote large accumulations of organic matter. Other biogenic deposits include carbonate skeletons of calcareous algae (e.g., Halimeda spp.), which are the major source of sand in the Caribbean, and shells of oysters and other invertebrates, which can be important constituents of salt marsh sediments.

Salt marsh soils are typically saline, but salinity varies depending on freshwater input, the ratio of rainfall to evapotranspiration, and hydrology (Thibodeau et al. 1998). In the low marsh, regular tidal inundation maintains salinities near that of seawater. At higher elevations, the interaction between frequency and duration of tidal flooding, on one hand, and evapo-transpiration and freshwater runoff, on the other, results in substantial variability in soil salinity. During periods of high rainfall or in regions receiving freshwater runoff, salinities may be low between tidal flooding events. Salt marshes immediately adjacent to the Mississippi River, for example, may experience wide fluctuations in porewater salinity with average salinities less than 15 ‰ (ppt) (Mendelssohn and Kuhn 2003). Areas with high evapotranspiration rates and irregular tidal flushing develop hypersaline conditions with porewater salinities sometimes exceeding 70 ‰. Salt marsh plants are able to survive and grow at elevated salinities due to a number of unique adaptations. Localized freshwater discharges in seasonally dry regions may also prevent hypersaline conditions and promote vegetative development. However, along some arid tropical and subtropical coasts, for example the Laguna Madre of southern Texas and northern Mexico, extended periods of hypersaline conditions may stunt or even prevent the survival of perennial vegetation.

Inundation of salt marsh soils with water leads to anaerobic conditions due to a 10,000-times slower diffusion rate of oxygen in aqueous solution compared to air (Gambrell and Patrick 1978). Once oxygen is depleted by soil and plant root respiration, it is not quickly replaced and anaerobic conditions prevail. In the absence of oxygen, soil microorganisms utilize alternate oxidants (NO3−, Mn+4, Fe+3, SO4 2−) as electron acceptors. This process results in an increased soil oxygen demand, variation in availability and form of plant nutrients, and a build-up of toxic, reduced compounds in the soil. Soil Eh is a measure of the intensity of soil reduction, and low (≤−100 millivolts [mV]) values are characteristic of strongly reducing conditions. Values ranging from +300 to −250 mV are typical of flooded soils and vary depending on soil texture, concentrations of redox elements, and flooding regime. The oxidation–reduction status of marsh soils is influenced by the presence of plant roots (Mendelssohn and Postek 1982; McKee et al. 1988). Leakage of oxygen from the plant roots into the surrounding soil creates an oxidized rhizosphere in which redox potentials can be higher than in the bulk soil. Thus, the growth of salt marsh vegetation is influenced by the anoxic condition of the soil substrate, but the plants themselves also modify the oxidation–reduction status.

The nutritional status of salt marshes is greatly influenced by tidal and riverine processes. Tides distribute mineral sediment and affect the redox status of the substrate, which in turn controls nutrient transformations, form, and/or availability. Rivers deliver nutrient-rich sediments to coastal salt marshes, resulting in some of the highest productivities (Sasser et al. 1995). The primary productivity of the vast majority of salt marshes is nitrogen limited (Mendelssohn and Morris 2000). Availability of phosphorus in anaerobic sediments typically exceeds that of ammonium, the dominant nitrogen form (Mendelssohn 1979), and is therefore of lesser importance. Numerous fertilization experiments in salt marshes have consistently demonstrated that nitrogen is the primary growth-limiting nutrient (see Mendelssohn et al. 1982 and references therein), although phosphorus can limit plant growth in sandy environments where phosphorus availability is low (Broome et al. 1975).

Another important controller of plant production, in addition to nutrients, is phytotoxin accumulation, which can occur in anaerobic sediments. In the marine environment a major phytotoxin produced under anaerobic conditions is hydrogen sulfide, which results from the bacterial reduction of sulfate to sulfide. Sulfate is the second most abundant anion in seawater and begins to be reduced under anaerobic conditions after NO3−, Mn+4, and Fe+3 have been reduced. The reduction of sulfate is carried out by true anaerobes, e.g., Desulfovibrio, and is thus dependent on anoxic conditions. Considerable research has demonstrated that sulfide is a primary driver of salt marsh primary productivity by impairing nitrogen uptake and assimilation (Mendelssohn and Morris 2000 and references therein).

On the broadest scale, climate, in particular temperature and rainfall, are primary controllers of species distribution and productivity. In the GoM, salt marshes are restricted in both growth and distribution in arid regions that generate high soil salinities. High temperature, per se, is not a direct constraint on the distribution of salt marsh vegetation but, as discussed previously, allows for development of mangroves, which outcompete salt marsh plants and thereby prevent salt marsh dominance (Mendelssohn and McKee 2000). Vegetation Structure and Zonation

Salt marsh communities are relatively species-poor and, in fact, along some shorelines of the northern GoM consist of monospecific stands of Spartina alterniflora (smooth cordgrass). Species richness generally decreases with increasing salinity (Mendelssohn and McKee 2000). For example, while as many as 93 species have been documented in Louisiana’s coastal freshwater marshes, species richness in nearby salt marshes does not exceed 17 and, as previously mentioned, most individual salt marshes contain far fewer species (Chabreck 1972).

Most salt marshes are composed of plant communities dominated by graminoids such as grasses, sedges, and rushes; non-graminoid herbaceous communities dominated by forbs and succulents; and dwarf-shrub communities, especially common along arid and semi-arid coasts (Adam 1990). Unlike forests, which contain a number of strata, the vertical structure of salt marshes is relatively simple. Minor strata development is generated by different plant growth forms and the presence of benthic and epiphytic algae, where light penetration through the canopy allows.

Two physiographic zones, differing in hydrology and resulting soil and vegetation, occur in salt marshes. The low marsh, or regularly flooded marsh, is inundated by each tidal event, once or twice a day depending on whether the tides are diurnal or semidiurnal, respectively. The high marsh, sometimes referred to as the irregularly flooded marsh, is higher in elevation than the low marsh and thus is flooded less frequently, sometimes only during spring tides or extreme wind tides. Species richness tends to increase along an elevation gradient from the sea to the marsh/terrestrial ecotone. The low marsh has very low species richness, sometimes with only one species present, whereas the high marsh often exhibits a much greater number of species, especially where freshwater runoff from adjacent uplands occurs. The highest elevations of the salt marsh can develop into hypersaline areas called salt pans. The salt pan is inundated only by the highest spring tides, and then may not be inundated again until the next spring tide. As a result, salt often accumulates to lethal or near-lethal levels due to evapotranspiration in the absence of tidal dilution and leaching. Consequently, salt pans are often devoid of vegetation or are characterized by stunted halophytes and low species richness (Hoffman and Dawes 1997).

Zonation of species is a frequently observed characteristic of plant communities in habitats with strong physical and/or chemical gradients. In wetlands, spatial segregation of species often occurs in conjunction with elevation gradients that determine depth and duration of flooding and edaphic conditions influencing plant growth (Pielou and Routledge 1976; Vince and Snow 1984). Much work has centered on the role of abiotic factors as determinants of plant growth and distribution. However, the capacities of species to tolerate environmental conditions along elevation gradients greatly overlap, suggesting that factors other than environmental must play a role in generating zonation. In fact, biotic factors such as dispersal, competition, and herbivory may play a major role, along with abiotic constraints, in determining actual zonation (Pennings et al. 2005; Keddy 2010).

In salt marshes, species zonation is generally a ubiquitous feature, although species within a zone may vary from one geographical location in the GoM to another. However, where elevation gradients are shallow and/or occur over large distances, such as in the Mississippi River delta, zonation is visually less apparent, although quantifiable at larger spatial scales. Plant salt marsh zonation occurs along the elevation gradient from the seaward limit of the wetland to the terrestrial border. This elevation gradient is a complex gradient composed of multiple environmental factors that vary in time and space. The two most important abiotic factors controlling zonation along this gradient are inundation and salinity. Salt marsh species exhibit differential tolerances to these stressors. For example, Spartina alterniflora, a low marsh dominant, is more flood-tolerant than S. patens, a high marsh dominant, as documented in a Virginia salt marsh (Gleason and Zieman 1981). However, the species’ tolerance limits to both inundation and salinity overlap considerably so that, for example, where inundation and salinity stresses are minimal many of these species could theoretically coexist. Thus, as briefly mentioned previously, abiotic factors alone cannot completely explain the observed zonation in salt marshes.

Competition also influences species zonation. Bertness and Ellison (1987) demonstrated in a New England salt marsh that zonation of Spartina alterniflora and S. patens is controlled by both environmental tolerances and competition. Competition between the species plays a more important role at the less stressful landward boundary of the marsh while abiotic factors control species pattern along the more stressful seaward end of the elevation gradient. For example, Spartina patens (wiregrass or saltmeadow cordgrass) does not occur at the most seaward limit of salt marshes because it cannot tolerate the inundation conditions. In contrast, S. alterniflora cannot exist at higher elevations because it is outcompeted by S. patens. As a result, competitive subordinates, in this example, S. alterniflora, are displaced to the more stressful zones of the gradient, while competitive dominants, in this case, S. patens, occupy the more benign areas. Similar conclusions were drawn from a number of studies throughout North America and elsewhere (Snow and Vince 1984; Bertness and Ellison 1987; Pennings et al. 2005).

Disturbance in the form of wrack deposition or herbivory can also influence zonation patterns in salt marshes. Bertness and Ellison (1987), for example, found that the pattern of species occurrence in a New England high marsh was generated by tidal deposition of large mats of dead plant material (wrack), causing differential plant mortality. Spartina alterniflora and Distichlis spicata (saltgrass) are more tolerant of wrack burial than other marsh plants and their relative abundance increases in disturbed areas. When the disturbance is more severe and of longer duration, all the underlying vegetation can be killed by the wrack and bare patches are generated. Distichlis spicata, Salicornia europaea (glasswort), and Spartina alterniflora rapidly colonize these patches and dominate compared to adjacent non-disturbed areas. However, over time, these disturbance communities are outcompeted and replaced by the surrounding communities of Spartina patens and Juncus gerardii (saltmeadow rush). This pattern mosaic can reoccur or even persist if wrack disturbance is frequent. Disturbances, such as wrack deposition, also promote greater plant species richness by opening gaps in the canopy and thereby facilitating species recruitment and establishment (Ellison 1987; Bertness 1992). Salt Marsh Zonation and Distribution in the Gulf of Mexico

The GoM contains the largest area of salt marshes in North America, 55 % of the United States total (Mendelssohn and McKee 2000). Although the majority of these salt marshes occur in the northern GoM, salt marshes occur sporadically in the more southerly locations of the Gulf. The plant species composition and salt marsh area vary greatly due to a combination of factors including differential climate, tidal range, local relief, and wave energy.

Although salt marshes are limited within the South Florida Ecoregion, they do occur, often in association with mangroves, in areas of disturbance, or associated with salt pans (Figure 6.120). Where mangroves dominate the shoreline, salt marsh vegetation generally occurs along the seaward and landward intertidal fringes (Montague and Wiegert 1990). At the landward edge, where seawater inundation is infrequent, narrow bands or larger of Juncus roemerianus (black needlerush) and high marsh plant communities often occur. Farther landward, high marshes can become salt pans with little vegetation or dominated by Cladium jamaicense (sawgrass) in the presence of freshwater. In contrast, at the seaward edge of Rhizophora mangle (red mangrove) forests, a narrow fringe of Spartina alterniflora (smooth cordgrass) can occur (Figure 6.121) (Montague and Wiegert 1990). In the Ten Thousand Islands region of southwestern Florida (Figures 6.80 and 6.81), mangrove coverage has increased by approximately 35 % over 78 years, probably due to sea-level rise and possibly altered freshwater input (Krauss et al. 2011). Hence, the prevalence of coastal herbaceous marsh in the South Florida Ecoregion may be at risk.

Figure 6.120
figure 120

Salt marsh distribution in Florida and physical features of the coast; tidal range in cm (small numbers), relative wave energy (block letters), and relative sea-level rise in cm per century (numbers in parentheses) (from Montague and Wiegert 1990; Figure 14.2. Occurrence of salt marshes in Florida and physical features of the coast, from “Salt Marshes” by Clay L. Montague and Richard G. Wiegert in Ecosystems of Florida, Edited by Ronald L. Myers and John J. Ewel. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1990, pp. 483. Reprinted with permission of the University Press of Florida.)

Figure 6.121
figure 121

Typical south Florida mangrove-associated salt marsh. Notice Spartina alterniflora on the seaward fringe and Juncus roemerianus on the landward fringe (modified from Montague and Wiegert 1990)

Salt marshes of the eastern GoM (western Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi) are primarily irregularly flooded marshes dominated by Juncus roemerianus. Twenty-eight percent of U.S. J. roemerianus marshes occur in the eastern region of the GoM, an area containing only 8 % of U.S. marshland (Stout 1984). Other common salt marsh species in this region include Spartina alterniflora, S. patens, S. cynosuroides (big cordgrass), Distichlis spicata, Salicornia spp., Schoenoplectus americanus (=Scirpus olneyi) (chairmaker’s bulrush or three-square), and Schoenoplectus robustus (=Scirpus robustus) (sturdy bulrush or leafy three-square) (Figure 6.122). Spartina alterniflora frequently occurs as a narrow fringe seaward of the Juncus zone, and Distichlis spicata and S. patens may occur at higher elevations landward of Juncus (Figure 6.122). About half of all salt marshes in Florida occur between Tampa Bay and the Alabama border (Montague and Odum 1997). This region, called the Big Bend area, where wave energy is low, shoreline relief is shallow, and tide range relatively high, has the greatest development of salt marshes in Florida. Similar to Alabama and Mississippi, the salt marshes here are irregularly flooded and dominated by J. roemerianus. In fact, about 60 % of northwest Florida salt marshes are covered with monospecific stands of J. roemerianus (Montague and Wiegert 1990). Juncus throughout the northeast GoM often occurs as two growth forms: tall Juncus near shorelines and open water and short Juncus more inland. Further landward of the short Juncus is a suite of common high marsh species (Figures 6.122a, b). At the southern extent of the Florida Big Bend area at Cedar Key, J. roemerianus co-dominates with the black mangrove, Avicennia germinans.

Figure 6.122
figure 122

Generalized profiles of irregularly flooded gulf coast salt marshes as found in the northeastern GoM for (a) protected low energy shorelines and (b) open moderate energy shorelines (modified from Stout