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NCCOS Project

Improving Species Distribution and Seafloor Maps to Support Washington State Marine Planning

This project began in April 2013 and was completed in March 2016

Our work provided the state of Washington and the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary with new information to prioritize seafloor mapping, and to better understand seabird, pinniped and cetacean distributions. Coastal zone managers need these data to help identify high-value conservation areas, minimize conflicts between natural resources and ocean uses, and efficiently collect new data.

Why We Care

The ocean region off the coast of Washington state is vital to our Nation’s fisheries, commerce, security, and culture. To plan for new ocean activities in this region (such as harnessing wave energy to make electricity) and to reduce conflicts among existing uses (such as groundfishing and essential fish habitat protection), the state of Washington is undertaking marine spatial planning - a process that coordinates decisions about how marine resources and space are used. Our work will help coastal resource managers understand the spatial distributions of habitats, seabirds, pinnipeds, and cetaceans, and balance the needs of a growing list of often competing ocean uses, while protecting natural and cultural resources. By effectively planning ocean uses, coastal managers will reduce conflicts among users, encourage offshore investments, facilitate compatible uses, and preserve critical ecosystem services to meet economic, environmental, security, and social objectives.

What We Did and the Benefits of Our Work

This project began with a strategic assessment of data gaps for state-led marine spatial planning. The assessment catalogued key missing data sets and established prospective analyses to more effectively use existing data and improve future marine planning decisions. The state of Washington and NCCOS funded this work.

We first prepared a blueprint to prioritize seafloor mapping. The blueprint included:

  • Compiling seafloor data to understand existing the distribution of existing seafloor surveys;
  • Planning a regional workshop to bring stakeholders together and to identify the range of benthic mapping needs and important places;
  • Developing a transparent process to analyze priorities;
  • Determining where and how mapping data could be gathered, given the range of needs and available resources; and
  • Creating an online geospatial data viewer of existing seafloor mapping information to allow planners to visualize data by thematic categories and allow users to easily evaluate the extent, type, and quality of existing data sources.

We also created new maps showing predicted distributions of 14 marine species including the seabird Marbled Murrelet (Brachyramphus marmoratus), the Steller sea lion (Eumetopias jubatus), and the humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae).

Maps of species' predicted relative densities were constructed using associative models linking at-sea observations with environmental covariates. The compilation of at-sea species observations is the largest synthesis of recent seabird, pinniped, and cetacean observations in the study area that we are aware of.

This research project resulted in three NOS/NCCOS technical memoranda, two state reports, two seafloor mapping workshops and a geospatial dataset with species distribution information. All reports and data are available below.

We worked with individuals from many different agencies, institutions, and organizations to identify data sets, refine analytical methods and improve how information is communicated to managers including the National Marine Fisheries Service; the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary; the U.S. Geological Survey; the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management; the Washington State Departments of Fish and Wildlife, Ecology and Natural Resources; Cascadia Research Collective; NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps; and NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Information.

What We Found

  1. Seafloor mapping can be improved through better coordination, well-defined objectives, and preparing a comprehensive plan for filling regional data gaps.
  2. Several regions were consistently identified in which additional seafloor mapping data is necessary to support marine management and coastal hazard identification.
  3. Species distribution models are an effective way of stitching together disparate at-sea survey data to define ecologically important areas.
  4. Species maps represent an important step towards improving our understanding of the long-term spatial distributions of selected seabirds, pinnipeds, and cetaceans, identifying persistent hotspots of relative densities, and more effectively planning offshore human activities.

Next Steps

We will continue to support Washington state agencies and the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary by facilitating communication with the Office of Coast Survey, and providing counsel on how to use predictive species maps and seafloor prioritization information.

The Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife is currently using our marine species distribution models to identify ecologically important areas and address renewable energy development. We will continue to support the use of our data and findings by serving on the Washington Science Panel for Marine Spatial Planning, publishing digital data and facilitating seafloor mapping coordination. In addition, we are supporting a peer-reviewed publication led by the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife to assess the spatial differences in Tufted Puffins and Rhinoceros Auklets off of Washington.

Based on the results of the seafloor prioritization process, NOAA was able to allocate 28 days at sea in Spring of FY16 on the NOAA ship Rainier to conduct seafloor mapping of the three identified offshore priority areas.

Additional Resources

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