Gulf Ecology Division
As an island, Puerto Rico is highly dependent on coastal resources, including fisheries, tourism, shoreline protection created by coral reef and coastal wetland habitat, and has built a leading industry on development of pharmaceutical products from natural marine resources. Different watersheds in Puerto Rico face a variety of tradeoffs between economic gains on land, such as through agriculture or housing, and economic gains derived from coastal ecosystem services, such as fishing or tourism. Scientists at GED are applying decision science and modeling approaches to address whether the cumulative decisions of communities are moving Puerto Rican communities toward or away from sustainability in environmental, economic and social terms. GED is applying a Systems-thinking Framework to ensure research integrates environmental concerns with social and economic needs. The image to the left depicts sediment from Rico Loco and irrigation channels which enters Guanica Bay, Puerto Rico, adversely affecting estuarine and coastal ecocsystems.
GED developed the WEB-based Interspecies Correlation Estimation (Web-ICE) application to estimate acute toxicity to aquatic and terrestrial organisms for use in risk assessment. Web-ICE contains almost 3,000 models for direct toxicity estimation to the species, genus, and family level. The Species Sensitivity Distribution modules within the application generate a distribution of measured and ICE predicted toxicity values to determine a hazard level that may be used in screen-level assessments. The Web-ICE endangered species module provides toxicity estimates for endangered species taxa from multiple surrogates to reduce uncertainty in endangered species risk assessments.
The Tampa Bay Estuary Program, Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Ecosystem Services Research Program (ESRP) and our research partners offer the Tampa Bay Ecosystem Services website to engage the public and potential new partners to help provide a common language and foundation for incorporating the value of, and risk of losing ecosystem services into decision making.
A team of EPA scientists, led by Gulf Ecology Division ecologist Dr. Blake Schaeffer, was one of 12 selected teams in a Pathfinder Innovation Project competition. This innovative competition challenged EPA Office of Research and Development (ORD) scientists to develop a new kind of research focused on innovation and sustainability with collaboration across the EPA. The team proposes innovative use of an experimental satellite remote sensing technology with a sensor currently on the International Space Station.
Student divers prepare for an open water dive during the EPA Diver Training Program (PDF, 15pp., 2.09MB,about PDF) at the Gulf Ecology Division. Each year, 20-25 divers from EPA regions and program offices attend the one-week intensive course to obtain certifications required for working as EPA divers.
Certifications include Scientific Diver, Divemaster, and other advanced ratings. Jed Campbell of the Gulf Ecology Division, EPA's diver training coordinator, organizes the course and leads the training.
The Diver Training Program received a 2006 bronze medal award from the Office
of Research and Development "For developing and conducting an exemplary
Diver Training Program that certified over 500 divers who recorded over 30,000
dives with no serious injuries."
Mathematical modeling is an essential tool for ecological research. Dr. Sandy Raimondo of the Gulf Ecology Division multi-tasks as she works on developing a computer model of how endocrine disrupting compounds (EDCs) can effect populations of aquatic animals. EDCs enter the environment from municipal, agricultural, and industrial wastewaters. These chemicals, which mimic natural reproductive and metabolic hormones, can cause impaired reproduction, survival, and development in fish and other aquatic animals exposed to them. Population models employ data from field and laboratory studies, along with sets of equations, to investigate risks to the long-term abundance and viability of fish and wildlife species.
Virginia Engle, ecologist at the Gulf Ecology Division, demonstrates methods used in the National Coastal Assessment to EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson. The National Coastal Assessment is a partnership between EPA, coastal states, and other Federal agencies that completed assessments of all U.S. estuaries during 2000-2007. Two National Coastal Condition reports have been published, and a third is scheduled for publication in 2008.
Here, Ms. Engle is demonstrating the "benthic index," one of the indicators used in the assessments. Benthic organisms are small animals such as clams, worms, and crustaceans that live in or on the bottom sediments in water bodies. Because they don't move very far if at all during their life spans, they are good indicators of environmental conditions at the place where they are collected.
The benthic index uses the diversity, abundance, and types of species in
a sample of bottom sediment as one of several measures of ecological condition.
Low diversity and abundance of benthic organisms, or prevalence of pollution-tolerant
species, could indicate poor conditions associated with pollution or other
NATIONAL WETLANDS RESEARCH AND ASSESSMENT
Dr. Janet Nestlerode is suited up for wetlands work in South Florida. She is leading a pilot assessment of Gulf of Mexico coastal wetlands in support of EPA's national assessment of wetland condition to be conducted in 2011. During 2007-2008, EPA and USGS scientists sampled approximately 100 wetland sites around the Gulf, from Florida to Texas, including mangrove swamps (photo), cypress swamps, salt marshes, and freshwater tidal marshes.
The Gulf Ecology Division's Virginia Engle is the national co-lead for research
to quantify the services that wetland ecosystems supply to humans, including
flood and storm protection, water quality improvement, water supply maintenance,
nursery habitats for fish and shellfish, and many others.
Core samples of Gulf of Mexico sediment are retrieved with a multi-core sampler. The samples are used in research to improve understanding of dissolved oxygen depletion in the Gulf's "dead zone," where fish and other aquatic life cannot survive during summer months. The dead, or hypoxic (low oxygen) zone occurs off the Louisiana shore westward from the mouth of the Mississippi River. In some years, the hypoxic zone can extend hundreds of miles, as far as the Texas coast.
The core samples are incubated on shipboard to determine how rapidly oxygen is depleted in the overlying water, and how oxygen depletion is associated with sediment and water chemistry. Since 2002, the Gulf Ecology Division has been conducting seasonal cruises with intensive sampling throughout the hypoxic zone. This research is leading to improved understanding of how low dissolved oxygen is related to inputs of nitrogen and phosphorus from the Mississippi River and coastal drainage, the physical dynamics of Gulf coastal waters, and other environmental factors.
Becky Hemmer, Gulf Ecology Division (GED) biologist, collects data from a Caribbean coral reef. Coral reefs are showing worldwide declines in health and productivity. Increasing sea water temperature, rising sea level, changes in the chemistry of sea water, and other stresses threaten to further weaken these fragile ecosystems.
Scientists at GED have developed new, rapid techniques for assessing the health and condition of coral reefs as
part of a comprehensive coral research effort. The assessment techniques are being used by U.S. territories such as the
Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico to determine status and trends in the condition of their coral resources, and to aid in development
of biological criteria. The stony corals that build reefs are made up
of colonies of tiny animals related to jellyfish. In the laboratory, GED has developed a unique facility for culturing corals, along with
the symbiotic algae that live inside coral animals and provide much of their nutrition. Innovative exposure systems are used at GED
to investigate responses of corals and their symbionts to stressors, including temperature, ultraviolet radiation, and pollutants. GED
has developed the ReefLink Database to link changes in coral reef condition to management
decisions and provisioning of ecosystem goods and services.