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Gulf Ecology Division

GED Research

landscape of Puerto Rico
As an island, Puerto Rico is highly dependent on coastal resources, including fisheries, tourism, shoreline protection created by coral reef and coastal wetland habitat. Different watersheds in Puerto Rico face
flow of sediment from Rico Loco
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. Moreover, tradeoffs often concern the quality and quantity of fresh water on land. 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 as part of a Structured Decision Making process to ensure research integrates environmental concerns with social and economic needs.
sediment effects on coastal coral
A primary concern of rural Puerto Ricans is soil erosion from coffee farms that leads to filling of reservoirs and adverse effects on valuable aquatic resources such as coral reefs. GED scientists are estimating the effects of sediment on fresh water availability for domestic uses and on coral reef condition in coastal waters. The images depicts a sun-grown (unshaded) coffee farm where there is high soil erosion, sediment from Rico Loco and irrigation channels entering Gua'nica Bay in southwestern Puerto Rico, and adverse effects of sediment on coastal coral reefs. In 2016, the knowledge and information gained from rural studies will be applied in an urban watershed of San Juan.

underwater diver collecting data
Coral reefs worldwide have suffered devastating losses from global climate change (particularly elevated sea temperatures) and land-based sources of pollution such as sediments, contaminants and nutrients. The land-based pollutants fall under the aegis of the Clean Water Act, which is intended to protect and restore the physical, chemical and biological integrity of aquatic resources, including coral reefs. GED scientists have developed rapid survey techniques to assess the effects of land-based disturbances on reefs and, in collaboration with EPA Region 2, are helping jurisdictions like Puerto Rico
diver collecting samples
and US Virgin Islands establish biological criteria, which are regulatory thresholds based on the biological condition of reef organisms. A panel of Caribbean coral reef experts has been meeting with EPA to establish these regulatory guidelines. The stony corals that build reefs are made up of colonies of tiny animals (polyps) with symbiotic algae living in them to provide much of their nutrition. In the laboratory, GED has developed a unique facility for culturing corals and their symbiotic algae and are testing them against different levels of pollutants in combination with climate change stressors. To better understand the causes, effects and management options for protecting coral reefs, GED has developed the ReefLink Database to link changes in coral reef condition to management decisions and provisioning of ecosystem goods and services. The images depict GED coral reef divers assessing corals in US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. Surveys include documentation of stony corals, fish, gorgonian octocorals, sponges and large invertebrates.
coastal sustainability map of Gulf of Mexico
Community stakeholders seek indicators of the sustainability of their potential decisions about land use, shoreline development, and the exploitation of ecosystem goods and services. While all communities are in some ways unique, they share many issues in common, particularly in coastal regions. The Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Community Sustainability (GMeCCS) study at GED aims to compare measures of sustainability across coastal communities in the Gulf of Mexico region and integrate these measures into quantitative tools for decision support.

web ice symbol
EPA is required to evaluate the risk of thousands of industrial chemicals and pesticides to human health and the environment. Research conducted at GED under the Chemical Safety for Sustainability research plan focuses on developing approaches that reduce uncertainty of effects assessment for environmental chemicals with focus on their impact on endangered species. GED developed theWEB-based Interspecies Correlation Estimation (Web-ICE) application to estimate acute toxicity to aquatic and terrestrial organisms for use in ecological risk assessments. Continued Web-ICE development focuses on incorporating the application into pesticide risk assessment and the development of aquatic life criteria. Development and validation of Quantitative Structure Activity Relationship (QSAR) models is another research focus, using chemoinformatic approaches to evaluate the toxicity of a chemical from it structure. Ecological and population modeling conducted at GED focuses on incorporation of species traits, life history, and protein biomarkers to translate toxicity thresholds measured in laboratory tests into ecologically relevant endpoints and scenarios.

image of organism

tampa bay esturay
The Tampa Bay Estuary Program, Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Sustainable and Healthy Communities Research Program (SHCRP) 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. We have successfully mapped a suite of ecosystem services for multiple future scenarios and present them in a user friendly and interactive website. Additional exploration of the linkages between on the ground decisions, biological and physical processes and functions and their production of ecosystem services that provide benefits to communities is accomplished through our interactive relationship browser. Our next generation tool "EPA H20" allows basic to advanced users to produce custom reports on the value of ecosystem services for any user defined area, compare future development scenarios, and even produce reports comparing their own custom changes to the terrestrial and aquatic landscape to the current baseline.

Nutrient pollution - an increase in the rate of supply of nitrogen and phosphorus the Nation's
buoy marking monitor location
waterways- is a leading cause of water quality problems across the US. Gulf Ecology Division ecologists Drs. James Hagy and Michael Murrell are leading a team deploying advanced water quality monitoring technology on autonomous buoys to better understand how ecosystem processes in Pensacola Bay respond to nutrients, and the relationships to water quality problems such as low dissolved oxygen that harm aquatic life. Measuring as many as 7 different water quality variables every 30 minutes for 3 months at a time, the buoys provide more detailed water quality data than has been available in the past, making it possible to compute estimates of key ecosystem processes - such as production of organic matter and consumption of oxygen . These ecosystem rates are the target process for state-of-the-art water quality simulation models, which can be used to predict the ecosystem response to an increase or decrease in nutrient pollution. Combining monitoring and modeling in this way will help improve these models, which are valuable scientific tools supporting sound environmental policy development.
divers on dock
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. Around 20-25 divers from EPA regions and program offices attend a 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."
sampling benthic organisms
Virginia Hansen, ecologist at the Gulf Ecology Division, demonstrates methods used in the National Coastal Assessment to EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson (2006). The National Coastal Assessment was a partnership between EPA, coastal states, and other Federal agencies that completed assessments of all U.S. estuaries during 2000-2007. Four National Coastal Condition reports have been published and are available at http://water.epa.gov/type/oceb/assessmonitor/nccr/index.cfm. Here, Ms. Hansen is demonstrating the benthic sampling used to collect benthic organisms. Benthic organisms are small animals such as clams, worms, and crustaceans that live in or on the bottom sediments in water bodies. A "benthic index" is one of the indicators used in the assessments to evaluate biological condition in coastal waters.
EPA's Office of Water (OW), in partnership with the States, Regions and the Office of Research and Development, conducts the National Aquatic Resource Surveys (NARS) to assess the ecological condition, and relative importance of stressors in affecting the condition, of the Nation's aquatic systems (wetlands, rivers and streams, lakes and reservoirs, and coastal waters). Since 2008, Gulf Ecology Division staff have provided technical support for the NARS, including indicator development, data management and analysis, and contributions to the 5th National Coastal Condition Report.

Nutrient-Eutrophication simulation models are often used to make water quality management and policy decisions and answer "what-if" questions. Such models are attractive to decision-makers because they provide cause and effect relationships between nutrient loading, eutrophication expression, and water quality impairments. However, in many cases the models relied upon today for management and policy are outdated or overly simplified, and in some cases are based on flawed assumptions. New models are needed that reflect current scientific understanding and contain the appropriate complexity for examining nutrient impacts to important ecological and management endpoints such as the phytoplankton community and food web composition, bottom water hypoxia, and water clarity. In this work we are developing two new models (GEM: Gulf Ecosystem Model and GoMDOM: Gulf of Mexico Dissolved Oxygen Model) for linking Mississippi River nutrients to eutrophication (excess phytoplankton production) and hypoxia in the northern Gulf. Such models are needed to guide management and policy actions aimed at reducing the size of the northern Gulf hypoxic area to the management target of 5,000 km2 (current average size is approximately 15,000 km2).

The new models incorporate state-of-the-art modules such as food web, sediment diagenesis, and bio-optical models and are fully three-dimensional in space. Physical forcings are being provided by a hydrodynamic model of the northern Gulf developed in collaboration with the Naval Research Laboratory. The overall modeling goals are threefold;
  1. accurately hindcast hypoxia and evaluate the degrees to which biological and physical processes control hypoxia,
  2. once the models achieve sufficient skill in hindcasts, future scenarios of Mississippi River nutrient load reductions or increases will be assessed for impacts to hypoxia
  3. the nutrient scenarios will be modeled across climate change scenarios to assess how changes in sea-surface temperature and/or changes in river discharge might affect system-wide hypoxic area responses to nutrient management
spatial modeling image

Figure in the left hand panel depicts the spatial extent of the modeling domain encompassing the continental shelf off the coast of Louisiana. Freshwater and nutrients enter the model domain through the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers. The nutrients stimulate phytoplankton production in the surface waters. As the organic matter sinks to the bottom it is consumed by bacteria, and in the process oxygen is removed to levels that are harmful to marine organisms (hypoxia). Hypoxia typically occurs in this region between depths of 5 and 50 meters. In the right panel, is a comparison between our modeled hypoxic area and observed hypoxic area (km2) for the years 2004 to 2010. In most cases, the model represents the inter-annual variation observed in the ship-based measures.

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