History of Challenge
The Gulf of Mexico Program, recognizing the importance of shellfish bed closures as an indicator of the potential decline in coastal water quality, has identified the restoration of shellfish acreage as one of its top environmental objectives, through the formulation of the Shellfish Challenge.
The Shellfish Challenge seeks to "increase Gulf shellfish beds available for safe harvesting by 10 percent." To achieve this ambitious goal, the Gulf of Mexico Program needed a way to determine where and how to most effectively direct its efforts to have the greatest impact on the shellfish closure problem. In February 1994, members of the Program formed a team with the Strategic Environmental Assessments (SEA) Division of NOAA's Office of Ocean Resources Conservation and Assessment (ORCA) to undertake a "strategic assessment" of the issues impacting shellfish bed closures in the Gulf region. The assessment set out to identify, on a Gulfwide basis, the highest-priority strategies for addressing the problem, the watersheds where these strategies could be applied, the actions needed to implement them, and the information required for them to be effective.
Two regional workshops were organized to bring together a variety of regional "experts" to develop viable environmental strategies directed at the goal. The first, held in New Orleans in April 1995, was used to identify the major issues affecting shellfish harvest restrictions. Strategies were developed by three breakout groups covering issues related to: 1) pollution sources; 2) habitat enhancement; and 3) public health and resource management. Together, these groups identified and ranked 33 strategies that could be implemented to address the shellfish issues identified.
A second workshop was held in Pensacola Beach, FL in August 1995 to modify and improve the strategies, target the watersheds in the region where specific strategies would have the best chance of being successfully implemented, and identify additional information and assessment needs critical to implementation. A series of state visits was conducted in November 1995 to complete the data collection and review process needed to draft the Shellfish Challenge Plan.
Strategic assessment is an integrated analysis and planning process designed to identify and carry out a logically sequenced set of activities to reach a goal within the constraints of time, resources, and competing priorities. Strategic assessment is not a new concept. It simply involves the application of good planning from a comprehensive spatial and temporal perspective.
The strategic assessment process begins with identifying existing problems and defining measurable goals for their solution. Strategy options to address a specific problem are then developed, trade-offs determined, component activities identified, and feedback mechanisms created to measure the success of the process and allow for appropriate modifications. The critical analysis of the overall goal results in a clarification of its intent, which opens up various avenues or approaches for achieving it.
An important feature of strategic assessment is that it maximizes the use of existing data and information, minimizing the need for additional analyses. Strategic assessment provides broader understanding of problems and issues illuminating the importance of, and relationships between, those actions that would best address the problems. To succeed, however, the appropriate level of personnel, information, and equipment must be dedicated to the process.