Computing Restoration Success in the Gulf of Mexico

An online tool is helping scientists decide how best to restore the Gulf of Mexico.

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?

The Age of Technology

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 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 sites proposed by the multi-partner 100-1000: Restore Coastal Alabama initiative — a project that aimed to restore 100 miles of oyster reefs and protect 1,000 acres of seagrass and marsh. The tool 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.”

Beyond the Conservancy

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 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. 

Learn more information on the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Resilience project.