The Gulf of Mexico is among the most ecologically diverse and valuable ecosystems in the world, but its health is being challenged by habitat loss, overfishing, oil spills, hypoxia off the coast of the Mississippi River, global climate change, and a host of other issues. The settlement of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill fines — the largest pollution penalty in history — will bring an unprecedented opportunity to spend billions of dollars on restoration projects in the Gulf of Mexico region. But with that comes an urgent need to understand and document the Gulf’s health. How can we measure the effectiveness of these projects without a metric to determine the current health of the Gulf of Mexico, as well as the success, or failure, of restoration efforts.
The Gulf EcoHealth Metrics, also known as our "Gulf Report Card," is a scientifically-based representation of the environmental condition of the Gulf designed to be widely accessible and readily understandable by policy-makers, stakeholders, scientists, and most importantly, the American public.
HRI Executive Director Dr. Larry McKinney and HRI Chief Scientist Dr. Wes Tunnell led a world-renowned team of experts in a multi-year effort to develop a process to assess the health of the Gulf of Mexico on an ongoing basis, examining the status of some of the Gulf’s most important species and habitats, including shrimp, crabs, sportfish, oysters, birds and seagrasses as environmental indicators. HRI hosted a critical workshop in the summer of 2016 that brought leading Texas marine experts together to choose the best indicators of ecosystem health to include in the Report Card, and to lay the foundation for the extensive data collection and analysis required to generate it. In 2019 HRI released the Texas Coast Ecosystem Health Report Card, which for the first time assessed the health of the coast as a whole and delivered assessments of four individual regions of the coast. That Report Card relied on the techniques the HRI team developed during the Gulf EcoHealth Metrics planning process.
Experts chosen for the HRI team have led the successful development of report cards around the world, including Dr. Mark Harwell and Dr. John H. Gentile of Harwell Gentile & Associates, LC. who had been involved in system-wide assessment and restoration efforts in the Florida Everglades; and Dr. William C. Dennison and Dr. R. Heath Kelsey of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, who created a report card ranking the health of the Chesapeake Bay system, the Great Barrier Reef and, most recently, the Mississippi River. But even with that experience, the scale of the Gulf was so great the team picked the Texas coast as the place to develop its Report Card prototype. When complete, the Report Card will provide an objective, science-based assessment of ecosystem health on a scale never before attempted.
Gulf health and ecosystem services metrics are also being developed and tested as part of a smaller study funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the Mission-Aransas National Estuarine Research Reserve.