Small brown and white wading birds standing on an oyster reef.
Sanderlings Sanderlings (Calidris alba) use oyster reefs for foraging at Alabama Port. © Beth Maynor Young

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Gulf of Mexico Coastal Habitats Vital for Producing Baby Fish, Shrimp and Crabs

New research reveals productivity of the Gulf’s marshes and reefs.

  • Andrew Blejwas
    Associate Director of Communications
    The Nature Conservancy
    Email: ablejwas@tnc.org

New research is allowing marine managers, scientists, and anyone who cares about the Gulf of Mexico’s fish to determine just how many are created in the Gulf’s coastal habitats. The new tool, released today, estimates the number of juvenile fish and invertebrates that are produced in nursery habitats across the Gulf of Mexico.

“The number of fish and mobile invertebrates that are born and survive each year along the Gulf of Mexico depends a lot on habitat – but we have never had a way to estimate just how many are produced by a certain habitat,” said Bryan DeAngelis, Marine Habitat Scientist for The Nature Conservancy. “This research, and the tools we’ve built to accompany it, allows us to determine which fish, shrimp and crabs, and how many, a habitat is producing each year—and what we would lose if that habitat disappeared.”

DeAngelis, along with lead researchers Dr. Philine zu Ermgassen of the University of Edinburgh and Dr. Jon Grabowski from Northeastern University and other partners including the U.S. Geological Survey, and NOAA Fisheries used data from previous studies from scientists across the Gulf of Mexico. Combined, this research synthesized thousands of individual samples, providing an understanding of which fish, shrimp and crabs are enhanced by the habitats in the initial stage of their life.

The research looked at a range of habitats: salt marshes, seagrasses, and oyster reefs. These important coastal habitats support high densities of fish and invertebrates. Measuring these species enables researchers and natural resource managers to place a value on a nursery habitat, and use the data to make informed decisions about protecting or restoring coastal habitats.

The research found that the Gulf of Mexico’s coastal habitats are particularly productive. For example:

  • In Pensacola Bay, Florida, a sea grass bed the size of a football field will produce around 144,000  baby fish, shrimp and crabs annually, including several recreational and commercially important species such as blue crab, spotted sea trout, pink and brown shrimp.  In total, the enhanced production provided by the presence of that habitat will equate to over 15,000 pounds of production annually.  That’s equivalent to roughly five two Volkswagen Beetles every year.
  • In Mobile Bay, Alabama, a length of salt marsh edge as long as the Talladega Superspeedway will produce around 841,000 baby fish, shrimp and crabs annually, including several recreational and commercially important species such as blue crab, shrimp and red drum.  In total, the enhanced production provided by the presence of that habitat will equate to roughly 33,000 pounds of production annually.  That’s a weight equal to about six full size Ford F-150’s every year. 
  • In Mississippi, an area of oyster habitat the size of a football field will produce over 2,000 baby blue crab annually, not to mention dozens of other important recreational and important fish and shrimp.  In total, the enhanced production of blue crab provided by the presence of that habitat will equate to roughly 430 pounds of production annually.  That’s roughly the weight of a full-size motorcycle. 
  • In Calcasieu Lake, Louisiana, there’s approximately 239 acres of salt marsh edge habitat.  The presence of that saltmarsh edge habitat results in approximately 136,000 new juvenile spotted seatrout every year.  That equates to over 318,000 pounds of spotted seatrout production annually, as a result of the salt marsh edge in Calcasieu Lake. 
  • In Galveston Bay, Texas, a seagrass bed the size of a football field will produce around 91,000 baby fish, shrimp and crabs annually, including several recreational and commercially important species such as blue crab, spotted sea trout, pink and brown shrimp.  In total, the enhanced production provided by the presence of that habitat will equate to nearly 11,000 pounds of production annually.  That’s a weight that’s more than three Volkswagen Beetles every year.

The research, which began in 2015, was supported by NOAA Fisheries’ Office of Habitat Conservation.

“We’re very excited about this new research and how it will inform marine resource management decisions,” said Janet Coit, Assistant Administrator for NOAA Fisheries. “This user-friendly tool will help NOAA and our partners gain a better understanding of where to focus conservation efforts to achieve coastal habitat and fisheries management goals.”

DeAngelis said the three habitats the research team focused on are important because they increase the survival rate for fish and crabs every year. The increased protection these spaces provide along the coast are vital to fish and invertebrate reproduction.

The study results are likely conservative under-estimates of what the habitats are truly providing. The existing data for the study was most useful for fish, shrimp and crabs, though many other species depend on the habitats in a similar way.

These coastal marine habitats are not only home to fish and wildlife. They also protect coastal communities from flooding, improve water quality, and aid in removing and storing carbon from the atmosphere. Across the United States, these habitats have declined rapidly over the last century due to coastal development and other environmental stressors. By quantifying the value of fish and invertebrate production, we can make informed management decisions about these nursery habitats and the services they provide for fish, people, and communities.

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 75 countries and territories: 37 by direct conservation impact and 38 through partners, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.