RESTORE Science: Inventory of Gulf of Mexico Ecosystem Indicators Using an Ecological Resilience Framework

Science Center Objects

To effectively manage an ecosystem, resource managers need a way to evaluate its health and ability to function. Metrics that indicate ecosystem condition - or indicators - can be used to help determine how well management strategies work. 

Ecological Resilience Framework
Ecological resilience framework

Science Issue and Relevance: To achieve the goal of sustaining healthy diverse, and resilient coastal and marine habitats and living marine species in the Gulf of Mexico, resource managers need a way to take the pulse of this vast ecosystem, and to evaluate its health and ability to provide needed ecosystem services. Managers need to 1) know which ecosystem and associated species attributes to measure, 2) understand what measured attributes convey about ecological condition, 3) have a standardized vocabulary for rating ecosystem condition based on specific threshold values, and 4) understand how to use metrics to identify management strategies, and 5) assess the effectiveness of management actions. In a world of rapid global change, managers need to monitor indicators of condition systematically across the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem to understand how its health and its resources are changing over time. Finding the right metrics that indicate ecosystem condition (from here on – “indicators”) and that support the delivery and management of sustainable ecosystem services and living marine resources (LMR) requires an understanding of how Gulf ecosystems function and how stressors impact their condition.

A comprehensive set of indicators that inform the needs described above is not available for the Gulf of Mexico. Although current inventory and monitoring programs use indicators that provide status and trend information for a variety of biological and socio-economic resources, most are focused on specific geographies defined by institutional or agency mandates that address the needs of their jurisdiction. As a result, the output of these monitoring programs is at best uneven across the range of ecosystems, hindering our ability to support sustainable ecosystem and LMR management. Thus, despite large investments in time and money, the effectiveness of these programs in addressing critical management questions across necessary spatial and ecological scales is unclear. A coordinated effort and structured framework is needed to review and improve the scope and outputs of existing monitoring programs, so they can be maximally effective in providing the information needed to efficiently support sustainable ecosystems and LMR. Our overall project goal is to use an Ecological Resilience Framework to complete an inventory of existing ecological and ecosystem service indicators that are part of current monitoring programs in the Gulf. We will evaluate their strengths and weaknesses using conceptual models and expert workshops, and recommend a scientifically rigorous, practical, and cost-effective set of core indicators that can improve restoration and damage assessments, and inform sustainable management of LMRs in the Gulf.

Methodology for Addressing the Issue: An inventory and review of indicators will be conducted using a framework that includes both the condition of key ecosystem types in the Gulf and the variety of ecosystem services that they provide, whether for fishing, tourism, or energy production. Our framework is grounded in the concept of ecological resilience. Innovative approaches will be applied to assess resilience, expanding conceptual models and indicators to include human interactions. We will evaluate indicators for five major Gulf of Mexico ecosystems: salt marsh, mangrove, seagrass, oyster beds/reefs, and coral reefs/coral colonized substrates. By including a range of ecosystems, we will better understand the interactions among the systems and the potential overlap in ecological and ecosystem service indicators that will guide management actions to enhance LMR sustainability. We will follow the Coastal and Marine Ecological Classification Standard (FGDC 2012) for each ecosystem definition. For ecosystem services and socio-economic indicators, we will use the classification developed by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (i.e., supportive, provisioning, regulating and cultural services) and suggested by the Gulf of Mexico services assessment conducted by the National Research Council (2014).

Future Steps: Future studies will target science gaps related to our understanding of ecosystem processes that influence ecological indicators identified in the conceptual ecological models.