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Setting Shared Goals for South Florida’s Marine and Estuarine Ecosystems (MARES)

This project began in September 2009 and was completed in August 2013

We facilitated a process to identify the characteristics and key regulating processes of a sustainable South Florida coastal marine ecosystem. Using the best available science from academia, agencies, and non-governmental organizations, we developed visual representations, created integrated conceptual models, and identified ecosystem indicators. This lays the foundation for ecosystem-based management of the Southeast Florida Coast, Florida Keys/Dry Tortugas, and the Southwest Florida Shelf.

Why We Care
The South Florida coastal marine ecosystem contains some of the richest and most diverse marine communities in the United States. It has been vital to Florida’s economy—supporting tourism, recreation, and commercial and recreational fisheries. Over the past century, South Florida’s living marine resources have been progressively degraded as a direct and indirect consequence of an increasing human population, urban and suburban development, agriculture, and industry.

The South Florida coastal marine ecosystem is downstream of and tightly linked to the Florida Everglades. In 2000, Congress authorized the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), the world’s largest restoration effort, to restore freshwater flows, hydroperiods, and water quality to the terrestrial ecosystem and nearshore estuaries. The MARine and Estuarine goal Setting (MARES) project takes CERP one step further by setting shared goals for the entire coastal ecosystem thus, laying the foundation for ecosystem-based management of South Florida’s coastal marine ecosystem.

What We Did
From 1994 to 2008 through the NOAA Florida Bay Science Program, we supported research to improve the understanding of the causes and consequences of the degradation of South Florida’s coastal marine ecosystem. This project uses the knowledge learned to build consensus among stakeholders on what processes regulate and define a sustainable South Florida coastal marine ecosystem that is capable of providing a diverse set of ecosystem services (benefits that humans desire from the environment).

MARES developed consensus by convening the relevant experts (both natural system and human dimensions scientists), agency representatives, and other stakeholders in each sub-region (Florida Keys/Dry Tortugas, Southeast Florida Coast and the Southwest Florida Shelf) and charging them with three tasks:

  1. Draw visual representation(s) or diagram(s) of the regional ecosystem;
  2. Build upon the diagram(s) and use existing scientific knowledge to create an integrated conceptual ecosystem model for the region; and
  3. Develop both societal and ecological indicators that measure whether an ecosystem is reaching the desired goal of sustainability.

In addition to conducting these steps, five organizations (the Everglades National Park, NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Integrated Ecosystem Assessment, NOAA’s Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Coral Reef Conservation Program, and the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation) were identified as key stakeholders and decision-makers that we would work directly with to ensure that the project’s products were developed in a manner that was most useful to them.

This work is part of the Regional Ecosystem Prediction Program: Integrated Ecosystem Research. It was led by Peter Ortner, Director of the NOAA Cooperative Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Studies at the University of Miami, and represents a collaboration of more than fifty scientists, managers and stakeholders from seven universities; fifteen local, state, and federal agencies; and three not-for-profit organizations.

What We Accomplished
- Developed visualizations and integrated conceptual ecosystem models for each sub-region and published them in three separate NOAA Technical Memorandums.

- Developed indicators to assess both human dimensions and biophysical attributes of the South Florida coastal marine ecosystem and published them in a Special Issue of the journal Ecological Indicators entitled "Tools to Support Ecosystem Based Management of South Florida's Coastal Resources."
- Modified the Driver-Pressure-States-Impacts-Response (DPSIR) framework used to assess environmental problems and inform management to account for ecosystem services by replacing “Impacts” with “Ecosystem Services.” See Kelble et al. (2013) for a more detailed explanation of the new DPSER framework.

Next Steps
In 2010, NOAA instituted a new framework, known as integrated ecosystem assessments (IEA), to aid in the transfer of scientific knowledge to management. The NOAA IEA enables ecosystem based management and consist of six steps: (1) define goals for the ecosystem; (2) develop indicators; (3) assess the ecosystem relative to the goals identified under step 1; (4) analyze risks that currently exist in the ecosystem and uncertainties in our scientific knowledge; (5) evaluate potential management actions; and (6) monitor the ecosystem and reevaluate its status.

This project, although begun prior to the existence of the NOAA IEA process, followed a similar framework and completed several of the steps identified above (i.e., steps 1 and 2; and for a single example, steps 4 and 5). Thus, the next step would be to complete the IEA process for South Florida and determine if the South Florida coastal marine ecosystem is meeting its goals and if pending management actions are indeed driving the ecosystem towards sustainability.

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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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