Under—around, above and beside—the sea live thousands of species with lives so intertwined that to change one would cause a ripple across the entire coastal ecosystem.

From the plants and plankton to crustaceans, fish and humans, these ecosystems exist in a delicate balance that for many years has not been fully understood. But a team of researchers from the Mississippi State-led Northern Gulf Institute hopes to change that for the region by employing a strategy called ecosystem-based management.

“The idea is to manage individual resources in a holistic, system-wide approach,” said William McAnally, co-director of the institute. “We try to look at all of the effects decisions have on every piece of the ecosystem, rather than focusing on one species or one problem, to find what’s best to support a healthy, productive, resilient ecosystem.”

Traditionally, coastal issues have been dealt with on an individual basis. That often had unintended consequences for the rest of the ecosystem. For example, blue crabs are a popular menu item and fetch a nice price for the fishermen, but their overharvesting can take away a food source for larger Gulf predators and allow some prey-species’ numbers to grow out of control.

Gulf-ecosystem team member Just Cebrian of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab explained, “We have to find that line where fishermen can earn a living, but the environmental quality is protected. It’s all about compromising. We have to understand exactly how everything in the ecosystem works together so we can find that solution.”

McAnally, a coastal engineer, said understanding an ecosystem is a matter of having the right people in place to interpret the physical environment—the biotic, or living, environment; the social sector, that includes consumers and conservationists; and the economic sector, that includes the fishing and oil industries and all of those who depend on them—so that society can understand the issues and reach a compromise. This means engineers, marine scientists, environmental scientists and social scientists all working together to fully understand the coastal ecosystem.

“It’s challenging work because it’s interdisciplinary, but it’s fun. And some days we feel like we are going to take over the world,” McAnally said of the Gulf ecosystem team, that includes researchers from Mississippi State, Dauphin Island Sea Lab, the University of Southern Mississippi, Louisiana State, Florida State, Texas A&M, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The Gulf ecosystem team’s task is to map how different species, actions or events impact the environment. Team members then hope to create a numerical model to interpret the data, letting those involved in the social and economic sectors see what effects their decisions will have on the ecosystem. The models and collected data then will be used to form Sulis Information Services, a suite of easy-to-use tools that can perform risk analysis or provide decision support.

“For years, people have said we need to look at the environment in a very holistic way, but with so many factors involved, it was very difficult to do,” explained Cristina Carollo of the Harte Institute at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. “We are developing the capabilities and instrumentation to make a holistic understanding possible. Our tool kit will give decision-makers a broader look at the Gulf.”

The initial stage of the project has focused on four ecosystems in the northern region of the Gulf of Mexico: Galveston Bay (Texas), Barataria Basin (Louisiana), the Mississippi Sound, and Perdido Bay (Florida). These areas were selected because they fall along the same latitude and have similar climates, but support different human activities.
McAnally said eventually the researchers would like to do the whole Gulf. Since deep-water ecosystems are vastly different from shallow estuaries, the initial focus will be on coastal waters.

“This project is fun and challenging,” McAnally said. “Even though I know the chances of complete success during my career are slim, I nonetheless think it is a worthwhile effort that could be very important to the future of the Gulf.”
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