Ecological Resilience Indicators for Five Northern Gulf of Mexico Ecosystems

Northern Gulf of Mexico

About This Project

Billions of dollars will be spent on the management and restoration of Northern Gulf of Mexico (NGoM) ecosystems over the next twenty years. Resource managers and restoration practitioners must monitor ecologically appropriate indicators to effectively evaluate the performance and impacts of their activities and guide adaptive management of living marine resources (LMRs). They need access to baseline data and trends in the condition of sites to help them set ecologically valid restoration goals and monitor the performance of their projects. Decision makers need synthesized data to make decisions within timelines set by politics and law. Grant makers need data to evaluate whether proposed restoration and management activities are appropriate for the proposed sites and to measure the impacts of their investments across multiple sites.

This report recommends a comprehensive set of ecologically-informed ecological resilience indicators for salt marsh, mangrove, seagrass, oyster and coral ecosystems in the NGoM that can be used to inform sustainable ecosystem and LMR management. These indicators address both the ecological integrity and ecosystem services of these ecosystems.  Application of these indicators will provide critical information relevant to damage assessment and recovery planning, restoration planning and evaluation, and ecosystem health assessment.

To develop the indicators, we applied an innovative Ecological Resilience Framework (ERF) that integrates information on ecosystem drivers, ecological integrity and ecosystem service provision. We linked this framework with a comprehensive programmatic and spatial analysis to assess the degree to which the recommended indicators are currently being monitored by existing programs in the NGoM, and thereby identify gaps in monitoring opportunities for additional data collection. 

  Using the ERF to develop the recommended set of ecosystem indicators, we:

  • created Conceptual Ecological Models (CEMs) that identify the critical ecosystem drivers and functions and specify the linkages between them that ultimately effect ecosystem services.
  • used the CEM to identify indicators with specific metrics that can be monitored to assess the ecological integrity of the ecosystem and its capacity to provide ecosystem services.
  • developed metric ratings with quantifiable assessment points that allow evaluation of ecological condition and capacity for provision of ecosystem services across sites and over time.

To assess the degree to which the recommended indicators for each ecosystem are currently being collected by monitoring programs across the NGoM, we:

  • compiled ecosystem range maps, and created a distribution map of each ecosystem across the NGoM.
  • inventoried existing monitoring programs and identified the data that they collect
  • analyzed the metadata of indicators from the monitoring programs to identify the programs that collect data on our recommended indicators
  • completed a spatial analysis of the monitoring programs that collect data for each indicator to assess the degree of implementation of the indicators geographically across the NGoM
  • published the spatial analyses and supporting data for each indicator of each ecosystem via the Coastal Resilience Decision Support Tool.

The challenge to collect, aggregate, and share data on these ecologically appropriate indicators has been a major impediment to ensuring maximum impact and return on investments in the NGoM. Agreement on the indicators and data that are needed to monitor the health of NGoM ecosystems is the first step towards addressing the challenge. The ecological resilience indicators recommended here represent a major step towards achieving the goal of coordinating the monitoring efforts in the NGoM to support effective management of sustainable ecosystems and LMRs. Deployment of these indicator as a standard by multiple monitoring sites across the region and aggregation of the data would allow for Gulf-wide condition and trend assessment to help ensure that investments in resource management and restoration significantly improve and sustain the ecological condition of the NGoM, its LMRs and the ecosystem services it provides.

This project was funded through a grant from the NOAA RESTORE Science Program.