The Gulf of Mexico Ecosystem, Watershed, and Economy

Photo of water from the Gulf of Mexico

Azure waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Photo credit: Gulf of Mexico Alliance Governors' Action Plan

The Gulf of Mexico is the ninth largest water body in the world and teems with sea life, from killer whales to unexplored deepwater corals living hundreds of feet below the surface. Its coastal region contains half the coastal wetlands in the United States and is home to abundant wildlife resources, including colonial waterfowl rookeries, sea turtles, oysters, and fisheries. These resources are supported by rich natural habitats, including bays, estuaries, tidal flats, barrier islands, hard and soft wood forests, and mangrove swamps. The Gulf region’s ecological communities are essential to sustaining nationally-vital economic and recreational industries.

Photo of bald cypress and tupelo trees

Bald cypress and tupelo are native in the wettest areas of the Northern and Southern Backswamps along the Gulf. Photo credit: Louisiana Natural Heritage Program, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries

The Mississippi River begins below Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota, and flows approximately 2,350 miles to the Gulf of Mexico. On this journey, the Mississippi River captures runoff from 41 percent of the land area of the continental United States, making it the largest watershed in North America. Human activities have greatly altered the Mississippi River and its watershed; as a result, the river delivers substantial amounts of sediment, nutrients, and chemical pollutants to the Gulf of Mexico.

The five U.S. States that border the Gulf of Mexico have a gross domestic product of over $2 trillion (Bureau of Economic Analysis 2006). Much of that economic activity is dependent on or related to the Gulf of Mexico and the health of its coastal natural resources. Just a few examples include:

  • Tourism and recreation provide over 620,000 jobs;
  • 27 percent of domestic crude oil production comes from the Gulf region;
  • The major commercial fishing ports of the Gulf region bring in over 1.2 billion pounds of fresh seafood every year; and
  • 6 of the top 10 leading shipping ports in the country are found in the Gulf region.