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Mobile Bay

January 1, 2013

Mobile Bay is the largest bay found in Alabama’s coastal area (Handley et al., 2007). It was named an Estuary of National Significance in 1995 under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) National Estuary Program (NEP), and its Comprehensive Conservation Management Plan was completed in 2002. Mobile Bay is 1,070 km2 (413 miles2) in area and 51 km (32 miles) long, making it the sixth largest estuary in the continental United States (Mobile Bay NEP, 2008). Its ecosystem provides habitat for more than 300 species of birds, 310 species of fish, 68 species of reptiles, 57 species of mammals, 40 species of amphibians, and 15 species of shrimp (Mobile Bay NEP, 1997). Mobile Bay lies between the Mississippi and Atlantic Flyways (Mobile Bay NEP, 2003). Commercial and residential development and industrial use is heavy in the Mobile Bay area. Although local growth and industrial markets support the Mobile Bay area economy, the resulting environmental damage to the very ecosystem upon which they depend remains a threat to the environment, economy, and population.

The Mobile Bay ecosystem boasts high biological diversity and productivity and supports many freshwater and saltwater species of recreational and commercial importance. The great diversity of Mobile Bay reflects the diversity of Alabama, which is home to the largest number of different plant and animal species of all states east of the Mississippi River (Stein, 2002), and is bolstered by the unique climate and geographic conditions surrounding the bay. Freshwater inflow from the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta, ranging from 60,000 to 3,700,000 gallons per second (Wallace, 1996), mixes with saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico, which enters Mobile Bay via wind and tides (Burgan and Engle, 2006). Because of the unique conditions surrounding Mobile Bay, including shallow waters, a dynamic climate, and artificial hydrologic modifications—such as the construction of the Mobile Bay Causeway in the 1920s, which serves as an unintentional barrier between Delta waters north of the Causeway and saline waters south of the Causeway, the salinity of Mobile Bay is highly variable. Mobile Bay receives an average of 165 cm (65 inches) of rain per year from tropical storms, summer thunderstorms, and winter cold fronts (Stout et al., 1998). 

The climate and geography that have made Mobile Bay so rich in resources have also contributed to the threats surrounding its ecosystem. The extensive amount of rain in Mobile Bay creates large amounts of runoff, polluting the waters with fertilizers, chemicals, sediment, oil, trash, and sewage (Mobile Bay NEP, 1997). Tourism, ecotourism, recreational and commercial fishing, recreational boating, shipping, and chemical, pulp, and paper production are significant industries in Mobile Bay and the surrounding areas. Despite the approximate \$3 billion and 55,000 jobs these industries bring into the community (Alabama Tourism Department, 2010), the growth, development, and environmental stress they create are major threats to the Mobile Bay ecosystem.

Among the nation’s states, Alabama ranks fifth in number of different species (144 endemic species), second in number of extinctions that have already occurred (90 extinct species) and fourth in number of species at risk for extinction (14.8% at risk out of 4,533 total species; Stein, 2002). Twenty-one of these threatened and endangered species are found in Mobile Bay, whose brackish waters provide a nursery area for many species of vertebrates and invertebrates. Some of these species include the Alabama sturgeon, Gulf sturgeon, heavy pigtoe mussel, inflated heel-splitter mussel, West Indian manatee, Alabama beach mouse, Perdido beach mouse, Alabama red-bellied turtle, gopher tortoise, Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, green sea turtle, loggerhead sea turtle, eastern indigo snake, flatwoods salamander, piping plover, red-cockaded woodpecker, and wood stork. Habitat loss underlies the decline of some bird species in Mobile Bay, and large mammals such as the red wolf, Florida panther, and Florida black bear are no longer found in the area. However, some rare species, such as the swallow-tailed kite, sandhill crane, and gopher tortoise can still be found (Duke and Kruczynski, 1992). The value of wetlands in Mobile Bay and the rest of the Gulf of Mexico is still being investigated. Although various monetary valuations of wetlands exist, critics remark that undervaluation of wetlands is inevitable (Mobile Bay NEP, 2008) and that estimates often do not place appropriate value on ecological services (Mitsch and Gosselink, 2000). Additionally, many estimates account only for anthropogenic values. One estimate concludes that one acre of wetlands performs \$3,000 worth of water purification each year (Mobile Bay NEP, 1997). With more than 76,890 hectares (190,000 acres) of wetlands in the Mobile Bay area, that equates to a value exceeding one-half billion dollars every year. Tourism, fishing, boating, production, and shipping are significant industries in the Mobile Bay area. More than 90% of fish landed in recreational and commercial fishing in the bay depend on bay habitat, including wetlands, for life requirements (Mobile Bay NEP, 1997). The Port of Mobile is Alabama’s only ocean-ship port (Mobile Bay NEP, 2008). Baldwin County, on the eastern side of the bay, experienced a population increase of 75% from 1990 to 2007, with an 89% increase in housing units (Mobile Bay NEP, 2008). Development and industry support the Mobile Bay economy, but they depend on the continued health, sustainability, and production of the water and living resources of the Mobile Bay ecosystem. Wetland loss, along with other forms of environmental degradation, remains a threat to the Mobile Bay ecosystem and Mobile Bay’s socioeconomic foundation. 

Publication Year 2013
Title Mobile Bay
Authors Lawrence R. Handley, Kathryn A. Spear, Stephen Jones, Cindy A. Thatcher
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype Other Government Series
Index ID 70041785
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization National Wetlands Research Center