Fisheries & Aquaculture News

Sentinel Site Unifies Gulf of Mexico Oyster Efforts

How can over 90 entities working to find suitable habitat for oysters in a region as vast and as varied as the Northern Gulf of Mexico find the specific scientific data they need to make sound management decisions? And is it possible to get them working together to meet their common goals?

Oyster beds stabilize the shoreline and filter contaminants from the water, which, in turn, promotes seagrass growth, providing habitat for numerous fish and shellfish species. Oysters are an important food source for animals and people alike, and they are fundamental to the region's economy. A February 2014 report from NOAA Fisheries estimated that in 2012, the oyster harvest garnered $331 million in revenue in Louisiana alone.

But the region's oysters are in trouble. In Mobile Bay, Alabama, for example, research indicates that oyster reefs have declined by as much as 80% since 2010—and similar conditions can be found in near-shore waters from Texas to Florida.

NOAA strives to address issues like this with the Northern Gulf of Mexico (NGOM) Sentinel Site Cooperative, which brings practical solutions to the challenges facing this economic and ecologic powerhouse—challenges like changing sea levels and coastal inundation.

Getting Data Into the Hands of Those Who Can Use It

Renee Collini, who coordinates the NGOM Sentinel Site Cooperative out of Alabama's Dauphin Island Sea Lab, explains how the Sentinel Site is fostering informed oyster management in the Gulf by capitalizing on "a ton of in-depth research on sea-level rise and other coastal dynamics collected in a multi-year study funded by NOAA's Ecological Effects of Sea Level Rise Program."

“Recently, we brought together more than 90 coastal resource managers and stakeholders from across the region and gave them access to this vast amount of data,” she says.

Participants included federal, state, and local governments, universities, nonprofits, and private companies. The data included sea-level projections; shifts in salinity due to sea-level rise and changes in precipitation; impacts on current oyster beds; the relationship between marsh productivity and oyster bed health; oysters' adaptation methods; and habitat suitability modeling under future conditions. The presentation focused on Apalachicola Bay, Florida, but the research was conducted across the NGOM region.

“Many did not know that these data existed or how they might access or utilize them. Now, they can use the data to manage oysters in the context of future conditions and challenges, which are critical to the region's economy and ecology,” Collini says.

Participants also discussed gaps in the regional data and suggested how NOAA might help fill them. One example is a lack of sea-level rise data for Apalachicola Bay.

“Our Sentinel Site activities are just a small portion of a multidisciplinary approach to coastal management in the Northern Gulf of Mexico," Collini says. “It's so important to get data into the hands of the people who can make the best use of it. Presenting what we know and getting feedback from managers ‘on the ground’ opens lines of communication, and possibilities for collaboration, that otherwise would be closed.”

The NOAA Sentinel Site Program launched in 2011 with five Cooperatives: Northern Gulf of Mexico, Hawaiian Islands, San Francisco Bay, Chesapeake Bay, and North Carolina. The locations were selected based on the potential for measuring ecological impacts of sea level change; socioeconomic factors like large population centers; the potential to expand the use of existing NOAA tools, services, and other assets in the regions; and the potential to apply science-based solutions to solve specific coastal problems.

Major partners in the webinar included Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant, Louisiana State University, the University of Central Florida, and the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources.

For more information, click here.

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