The Gulf of Mexico is the ninth largest body of water in the world, covering roughly 600,000 square miles with a mean depth of approximately 1 mile. For the United States alone, the Gulf spreads across 16,000 miles of shoreline, which includes bays and inland waters, and it accepts drainage from 33 major river systems and 207 estuaries, representing drainage from 60% of the contiguous United States. Mexico, the Yucatan Peninsula, and Cuba also border the basin. The basin is like a pit with a broad, shallow rim; the continental shelf and slope waters represent 22% and 20% of the total area respectively. Sigsbee Deep, at 4384 meters (14,282 feet; 2.7 miles), is the deepest point in the basin.
The Gulf is an extremely diverse ecosystem with numerous habitats, including wetlands, submerged vegetation, upland areas, and marine/offshore areas; fish, wildlife, and birds, both resident and migratory, depend on these habitats. Humans also depend on the natural resources from the Gulf, such as its fisheries, shrimp, oysters, and recreational fishing. Oil and gas extraction produces approximately one-quarter of the United States domestic natural gas and one-eighth of its oil. Tourism and the enjoyment of its beaches account for a great deal of the Gulf’s value to humans.
Understanding the Gulf’s ecosystem is critical to understanding the effects of human activities on its habitats and the life that depends upon them. Two publications by the Ocean Conservancy serve as good resources to that end: Restoring the Gulf of Mexico: A Framework for Ecosystem Restoration in the Gulf of Mexico includes overviews of the ecosystem, and The Gulf of Mexico Ecosystem: A Coastal and Marine Atlas discusses the ecosystem, using maps and companion descriptions of 54 physical and geographic features, animals, habitats, environmental stressors, and human uses in the Gulf.