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A dozen large birds on the edge of a mangrove island.
Information icon Brown pelican chicks on mangrove island. Photo by Tom MacKenzie, USFWS.

How to manage 45 important coastal species in the face of environmental changes

Salt marshes, mangrove forests, and barrier beaches are home to a diversity of wildlife species, and when these coastal ecosystems are intact and functional, they benefit communities as well as wildlife. They provide communities with a host of economic, recreational, and cultural benefits, including protection from storm surge, a means to trap and store carbon, and nursery areas for commercially important groundfish. For example, the eastern oyster is a cornerstone of a lucrative shellfish industry, filters water as it feeds, and helps stabilize the shoreline by creating reefs.

Thousands of oysters growing in a marsh.
Eastern oysters. Photo by Roman Crumpton, USFWS.

Some species also play an instructive role as indicators of environmental changes that can threaten coastal systems people and wildlife depend upon. These indicator species may experience “ecological thresholds,” the tipping points at which changing environmental conditions will lead to a disruption in a species’ life cycle or habitat. By looking at ecological thresholds for key species, we can better prepare for and respond to threats that can affect their homes – and ours.

A team of scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have synthesized existing information on ecological thresholds related to environmental changes (e.g., sea-level rise, coastal storms) for 45 species of coastal fish, wildlife, and plants selected because of their ecological, economic and cultural importance. Just published in Ocean & Coastal Management, their new paper “A synthesis of thresholds for focal species along the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf Coasts” offers insights on strategies for managing coastal resources to help managers make effective decisions.These strategies can protect natural systems that sustain wildlife and the health and well-being of people and communities.

“By pairing [ecological] thresholds for highly vulnerable species responses with sea-level rise projections and coastal landscape responses, managers can prioritize which species need immediate action …to reach conservation goals,” explained co-author Michelle Staudinger, Science Coordinator for the Northeast Climate Science Center (CSC).

A web of tangled roots emerge from low-lying salty water.
Mangrove forest. Photo by USFWS.

Each of the eight CSCs provide decision-focused research, information products and tools to inform landscape-scale conservation plans developed by Landscape Conservation Cooperatives (LCCs). Both entities are non-regulatory conservation partnerships that have been established to help respond to environmental stressors that transcend state lines and are beyond the organizational ability of any one agency.

The synthesis reflected in the new paper responds to a need identified by stakeholders from six LCCs, three CSCs, state wildlife agencies and other partners from across the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf Coast regions for information on thresholds that can help managers act strategically despite uncertain future conditions. This information is timely for helping coastal states implement updated state wildlife action plans (SWAPs), which identify species of greatest conservation need in each state and outline strategies for protecting them in the face of challenges.

“In the latest generation of SWAPs, we focused on setting measurable objectives for species, so having quantitative information on thresholds helps us know if we are moving in the right direction,” said Amanda Shearin, Maine’s Wildlife Action Plan coordinator. “The fact that this study was based on regional collaboration makes it that much more valuable. Coastal change is a big picture issue, and being able to look at impacts across the region is so useful, especially when it gives us guidance that we can apply locally.


Nadine Siak, Public Affairs Specialist, (404)-679-7290

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