The Gulf of Mexico - A Resource at Risk
The Gulf of Mexico covers more than 617,600 square miles (1.6 million square kilometers) and receives freshwater from 33 major river systems, 207 estuaries, and the Mississippi River, draining approximately two thirds of the contiguous land mass of the United States. The average flow rate for water entering the Gulf of Mexico from the Mississippi river system is 500,000 cubic feet per second (142,000 cu meters/sec). Gulf of Mexico coastal wetlands are an essential habitat for many migratory waterfowl and provide a home to gulls, terns and other shorebirds. The Gulf of Mexico's diverse and productive ecosystem provides a variety of valuable resources and services including transportation, recreation, fish and shellfish, and petroleum and minerals, not only benefiting shoreline communities, but the entire nation.
Despite the vastness and importance of the Gulf of Mexico, environmental problems affecting estuaries and near-coastal areas are increasingly identified. Fish kills and toxic "red tides" have increased in number and severity. Many of the shellfish-producing areas along the Gulf Coast are conditionally closed as a result of contamination from increasing human and animal populations in coastal areas. Hypoxic zones have been documented off the Texas and Louisiana coasts, the largest of these hypoxic areas estimated to be greater than 4,000 square miles (9,000 square kilometers). Many of the environmental quality problems may result from natural processes as well as from anthropogenic (human-induced) pollution or combinations of stressors, such as variations in climate and pollution.