A&M-Corpus Christi Professor Researches Threatened Reef Sanctuary

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – “Catastrophic changes don’t happen overnight,” said Dr. Xinping Hu, soon to be associate professor of chemical oceanography at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. “Like with the accumulation of plastics in the ocean, people didn’t pay much attention as it was gradually starting to build up, but now there are large garbage patches. We need to observe these issues before they reach disastrous levels.”  

Colorful corals cover sea mountains 115 miles out into the Gulf of Mexico and provide a home to corals, fish, sharks, crustaceans, and jellyfish. The northernmost coral reef in the continental United States is part of  the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, one of 14 federally designated underwater areas protected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. However, the habitats and protection this reef offers to our marine life could be threatened, according to Hu. If fish including grouper, cobia, snapper, and sharks flee, then sportfishing would be seriously impacted and scuba diving would lose its allure, causing some of our greatest ecological wonders and economic drivers to vanish.  

“If ocean acidification continues to increase – as it has in the past years – then it could have major effects on marine life in the long run,” said Hu, who recently published his research on carbon chemistry changes in the water at the Flower Garden Banks. “It could prevent corals, shellfish, and oysters from producing their skeletal structures and hard outer shells, and cause them to die out eventually.”

Ocean acidification is the increases in the amount of carbon dioxide that dissolves in water caused by the growing level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. At the Flower Garden Banks, Hu’s study revealed an additional carbon dioxide contribution in the seawater from likely more microbial respiration compared with data collected on a research cruise from ten years ago, when Hu was a postdoc researcher working at the University of Georgia. This higher carbon dioxide is accompanied by lower oxygen levels. If this phenomenon continued, fish could leave the Flower Garden reefs and organisms on the seabed that can’t swim away would suffocate due to the lack of oxygen.

With such monumental changes happening in the environment, Hu plans to continue his research on the Flower Garden Banks to gain more detailed observations. Currently, the National Marine Sanctuary is using Hu’s data for their annual reports, but he also hopes his research will provide support for doubling the size of the perimeter surrounding the area considered a protected marine sanctuary.

“I want to spread awareness about this change,” shared Hu. “The Flower Garden Banks play an ecologically important role by providing habitat and protection to many species that we don’t get to appreciate unless we travel beneath the surface.”