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Concluding Remarks

The natural resources of Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary are in generally good condition. When the coral reefs of the Flower Garden Banks are compared to other reefs of the western Atlantic and Caribbean, they continue to surpass most in terms of coral cover, health and ecosystem conditions. Coral diversity, though lower in comparison to most Caribbean reefs, remains stable at these high-latitude banks (and may even be increasing). Recent events and observations, however, have identified potential warning signals, and suggest that the banks are not as isolated from threats as in the past. In the last few years, sanctuary staff, independent scientists, and frequent visitors to the banks have documented coral disease and coral bleaching events, the appearance of potentially invasive species, and evidence of a decline in the number and size of some prominent fish species, which could have cascading impacts on the bank ecosystem. Current regulations and enforcement capabilities may not be adequate to address the sources of some of these impacts. Further, recent human health problems stemming from ciguatera poisoning incidents, as well as evidence of mercury contamination in some fish species, will require enhanced research, monitoring, and management in these areas.

In this era of significant decline of coral reefs throughout the world, resilience is the key to survival of this critical ecosystem. It has been estimated that coral cover on reefs in the Caribbean has declined by an average of 80% in the last three decades (Gardner et al. 2003). It is generally agreed that these declines are not due to a single cause, but have resulted from multiple stressors acting together to alter ecosystem conditions and resulting in widespread deterioration. Some stressors (large-scale ocean warming, hurricanes, etc.) cannot be controlled by resource managers, but others (many of those associated with human uses) can be addressed through proper management. Coral reefs that have remained in good health during this period, such as those within the Flower Garden Banks sanctuary, may provide important insight in understanding resilience and other factors that sustain coral reef vitality. Therefore, it is more important than ever to protect remaining healthy reefs from impacts that can be addressed through management actions, both for their own sake and in order to help us promote the recovery of other coral reefs.

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