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NCCOS Project

Coastal Ecological Assessments and Indicator Development

This project began in January 1994 and is Ongoing

We work in partnership with other federal agencies and coastal states to conduct assessments of ecological condition and potential stressor impacts throughout our nation’s estuaries, coastal-ocean waters, and NOAA protected areas; carry out studies to determine environmental impacts of specific pollution events or natural disasters; and perform additional related research to develop new ecological indicators and improved diagnostic tools to assess, predict, and manage future conditions.

Why We Care
This work provides information to improve our understanding of the importance of coastal ecosystems and to help support effective management plans and actions for ensuring their wise use and protection. A loss of coastal ecosystem quality may lead to a loss of ecosystem services such as:

  1. supporting services: availability of habitat for protected species and other natural populations, reservoirs of biodiversity, primary production, and nutrient cycling;
  2. provisioning services: minerals extraction, sand and gravel extraction for beach renourishment, corridors for maritime trade, dredged material disposal, alternative energy sources, food via commercial and recreational fisheries;
  3. regulating services: natural disaster (hurricane/flood) buffering, erosional control, climate regulation, and pollutant sequestering;
  4. cultural services: clean swimmable/fishable waters, and protected areas (e.g., National Estuarine Research Reserves (NERRs), National Marine Sanctuaries (NMSs)) for promoting research, education, recreation, and nature conservation.

Results of the present project series are made available in efforts to increase public awareness about the extent and nature of pollution impacts and to support more informed management decisions and actions aimed at sustaining the health of these resources and the important services they provide.

What We Have Done
We have completed numerous studies to assess the health of coastal ecosystems at multiple spatial scales, from estuarine to coastal-ocean waters and from individual places of concern to large marine ecosystems. Through the use of consistent survey methods and indicators, we have been able to compare ecosystem conditions from regional to national scales and to evaluate how our protected areas, such as National Marine Sanctuaries (NMSs) and National Estuarine Research Reserves (NERRs), are faring relative to surrounding non-managed waters.

  • We have conducted a series of offshore surveys and reports assessing ecological conditions and stressor impacts throughout coastal shelf waters of the lower continental US, as well as NMSs, NERRs, and the Great Lakes.
  • We have developed a dynamic quantitative database on benthic species distributions and a corresponding taxonomic voucher collection of preserved benthic specimens obtained from studies conducted by NOAA and partnering institutions in estuarine and other coastal-ocean areas around the country (http://nbi.noaa.gov/).
  • We helped to develop the 2006 Management Plan and 2008 Sanctuary Condition Report for Gray’s Reef NMS off the coast of Georgia.
  • We have worked in partnership with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to develop multi-agency National Coastal Condition Reports (NCCRs), which serve as environmental report cards of the health of our nation’s coastal resources. While previous NCCRs have focused primarily on estuaries, our scientists were given the lead to develop a new series of offshore sections assessing the health of our coastal-ocean waters.
  • We have participated in a Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) study of potential effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on soft-bottom, deepwater benthic communities.
  • We have assessed the environmental impacts of extreme natural events such as Hurricane Katrina (USEPA 2007, Engle et al. 2009) and other major hurricanes (Balthis et al. 2006).
  • We have developed new ecological indicators and other diagnostic tools that improve our methods and abilities to assess coastal ecosystems.

Next Steps
We will:

  • conduct additional surveys of ecological condition and stressor impacts in offshore coastal-shelf waters, Great Lakes, NMSs, and NERRS;
  • continue to partner with the EPA to develop future National Coastal Condition Reports; and
  • continue to advance the development of new indicators and data-analysis tools.

Additional Resources

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NCCOS delivers ecosystem science solutions for stewardship of the nation’s ocean and coastal resources to sustain thriving coastal communities and economies.

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