Restoring the Gulf of Mexico is a daunting task. Decades of degradation, compounded by the impacts of the oil spill, have presented scientists with an array of problems to solve — declining fisheries, eroding shorelines and sea-level rise just to name a few.
The decline in the Gulf must be reversed and restoration must occur at a scale that is beyond what has previously been accomplished. Yet to achieve conservation success in the Gulf, Nature Conservancy scientists and partners must make sound, strategic decisions as to how, when and where we invest our resources.
So, how do we begin to make those decisions?
A team from around the Conservancy — headed by Michael Beck, lead scientist with the Global Marine Team, and Laura Geselbracht, senior marine scientist with the Florida program — developed an interactive information system to help inform and guide restoration efforts throughout the Gulf.
Designed by Zach Ferdaña, a senior marine conservation planner with the Conservancy’s Global Marine Team, the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Resilience tool is a computer-based resource that includes ecological, social and economic data from each of the 5 Gulf states. The data is organized in layers on a map, allowing the user to analyze and overlap a range of information — everything from pipelines and shipping fairways to oyster reefs and sea grass beds.
The tool went live in 2010 during the oil spill to help guide scientists and resource managers in their response efforts. Since then, Conservancy staff and partners have continued to add data to the system.
“We have organized a tremendous amount of information about the Gulf in a centralized location and are using it to visually interpret a range of restoration possibilities,” Beck said. “Using our Restoration Dashboard tool, users can develop the best possible project by examining different restoration scenarios while factoring in ecological, social and economic conditions.”
Only two years after its creation, the Coastal Resilience tool is helping Conservancy scientists and partners understand how much restoration is required for the return of abundant fisheries and healthy functioning shorelines in the Gulf of Mexico.
“We’re using the Coastal Resilience tool to build a blueprint for restoration Gulf-wide,” said Bryan Piazza, director of freshwater and marine science for the Conservancy’s Louisiana program, who is part of the development team. “Based on our analysis, we can share our information with funders and partners and start to put projects on the ground that will have a lasting impact. Our goal is to do this across the Gulf.”
The Florida program has already used the tool to verify that areas previously identified for projects are indeed likely to achieve restoration success. Scientists plan to map oyster reefs in Charlotte Harbor, a marine priority for the Conservancy’s Florida and Gulf of Mexico programs. The data will be added into the system, which will be integral to the design and implementation of an oyster reef restoration pilot project in 2013.
The Coastal Resilience tool is essential to mapping proposed sites for the multi-partner 100-1000: Restore Coastal Alabama initiative — a project that will restore 100 miles of oyster reefs and protect 1,000 acres of seagrass and marsh. The tool has already proved valuable as visual communications instrument to help state and federal permitting agencies review proposed restoration projects. Universities are using the tool to teach students the ecological and socio-economic aspects of oyster reef restoration, and plans are underway to integrate it into the curriculum of coastal Alabama secondary schools.
Conservancy scientists in Mississippi are using the tool to visually communicate to partners and permitting agencies the location of historic oyster reefs in relation to proposed restoration sites. Staff has used the tool to verify the viability of previously chosen restoration sites for ecological success and plan to use it to identify new project areas as Mississippi’s coastal restoration program continues to expand.
Conservancy scientists have used the tool to prioritize oyster reef restoration sites along the shoreline of Louisiana. The tool is helping to determine sites with the highest probability of ecological success, which has been valuable during discussions with private and public funders. The Conservancy’s Louisiana program is also planning educational outreach efforts to help stakeholders throughout the Gulf learn how to use the tool.
Scientists are using the coastal resiliency tool to identify restoration sites in the bays and estuaries of the Texas coast that will have a meaningful and lasting ecological impact. The tool has been used to identify a project site in Matagorda Bay where the Conservancy will restore 45 acres of historic oyster reef. Sites are also being identified in Galveston Bay and Copano Bay.
“With limited resources sources, it’s our duty to make sure we invest our time, energy and funding in a manner that will yield the highest return for nature and the communities that rely on the Gulf,” Beck said “The Gulf of Mexico Coastal Resilience tool is already proving an essential tool to help focus our efforts.”
Ferdaña explained that the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Resilience tool, along with a short training course, is now easily accessible to a wide range of stakeholders. Through the Digital Coast partnership, the Conservancy has collaborated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to further extend the reach and access of the tool by providing training on restoration and coastal inundation issues to help stakeholders use the information for maximum results.
“The Conservancy’s Coastal Resilience tool exemplifies what the Digital Coast is all about — groups working together to package and deliver the information people need to make good decisions that protect natural resources and coastal communities,” said Miki Schmidt, Geospatial Services Division Chief, NOAA Coastal Services Center.
Christine Griffiths is a communications manager with The Nature Conservancy and based in northeast Florida.