Coastal/Marine Systems of North America: Framework for an Ecological Classification Standard > Executive Summary
Coastal and marine planners and managers are faced with a complex environment in which to make difficult decisions about habitat conservation and resource management. There is an urgent and increasing need for a habitat classification system that can be used to develop strategies for coastal and ocean resource management and for evaluating conservation priorities. In recent decades, a variety of coastal classifications have been developed that describe local or regional ecological systems and address local objectives. The conservation and resource management community has recognized a strong need for a single classification standard that is relevant to all U.S. coastal and marine environments and that can be applied on local, regional and continental scales. This need has prompted an initiative by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to develop a standard ecological classification that is universally applicable for coastal and marine systems.
The framework for a Coastal/Marine Ecological Classification Standard (CMECS) presented here was developed to meet this challenge. The classification is a framework for organizing knowledge about coasts and oceans and their living systems. It provides a structure for synthesizing data so that habitats can be characterized and reported in a standard way, and information can be aggregated and evaluated across the national landscape and seascape. Building on existing classification efforts and informed by a series of technical meetings and workshops, the CMECS framework integrates the current state of knowledge about ecological and habitat classification. The result is an ecosystem-oriented, science-based framework for the identification, inventory, and description of coastal and marine habitats and biodiversity.
A few of the many potential applications of the classification include:
- Development of a coastal/marine biodiversity inventory for North America.
- Delineation of regions for Marine Protected Areas and developing guidelines for their management.
- Identification of important habitats and critical hotspots for conservation.
- Identification of Essential Fish Habitat.
- Forming a scientific basis for the development, implementation and monitoring of ecosystem-based management strategies for coastal systems.
The CMECS framework is applicable on spatial scales of less than one square meter to thousands of square kilometers and can be used in littoral, benthic and pelagic zones of estuarine, coastal and open ocean systems. The hierarchical framework contains eight nested levels; each containing clearly defined classes and units. Linkages between levels of the hierarchy are defined by ecosystem processes and by spatial relationships. The classification articulates with existing national freshwater and terrestrial classification standards. It is based on simple sets of rules and is designed to be easy to use. The hierarchy extends from ecological regions at the largest spatial scale, to habitat and associated biotopes at the smallest, within the following structure:
Level 1 / Ecological Region: large regions of the coasts and oceans defined by similar physical and/or biological characteristics.
Level 2 / Regime: areas defined by the presence or absence of fresh water.
Level 3 / System: areas that form estuaries, estuarine-influenced areas, or marine waters of shallow, deeper, or very deep water columns.
Level 4 / Hydroform/Geoform: large physical structures formed by either water or solid substrate within systems.
Level 5 / Zone: the water column, littoral or sea bottom.
Level 6 / Macrohabitat: large physical structures that contain multiple habitats.
Level 7 / Habitat: a specific combination of physical and energy characteristics that creates a suitable place for colonization or use by biota.
Level 8 / Biotope: the characteristic biology associated with a specific habitat.
The CMECS is designed to provide a framework for developing a consistent and universally recognized inventory of all habitats of the North American coasts and oceans. The flexibility of this classification will support a variety of local and regional applications. Population of the classification framework with data from a variety of coastal and marine ecosystems, following a standardized, rigorous methodology, will lead to development of a robust national database of coastal and marine habitats and associated biology.
Map: A portion of the Lower Florida Keys classified and mapped according to the proposed national classification standard. Data source: Florida Marine Research Institute, 2000.