The ecological condition of estuaries in the Gulf of Mexico

Cooperator Report 620-R-98-004



The Gulf of Mexico is a vast natural resource encompassing the coastal areas of western Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas, as well as a portion of Mexico. Many estuaries flow into the Gulf of Mexico and serve as nursery grounds for fish, habitat for a wide variety of wildlife, shipping routes, and a source of recreation. Estuarine-dependent species constitute more than 95 percent of the commercial fishery harvests from the Gulf of Mexico, and many important recreational fishery species depend on estuaries during some part of their life cycle. Gulf estuaries are diverse and productive ecosystems that provide a variety of valuable resources, including fish and shellfish, recreation, transportation, and water supply.

Assessing the overall condition of Gulf of Mexico estuaries required incorporating data from other federal, state, and local monitoring programs to augment the information on ecological indicators collected by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (USEPA) Environmental Monitoring and Assessment Program (EMAP). The resulting document would provide a synthesis of the available knowledge about the condition of Gulf of Mexico estuaries. This document is intended for use by scientists and other citizens concerned with the ecological condition of estuaries, as well as by managers and lawmakers interested in the sustained use of estuaries for commercial and recreational purposes. It also addresses public concerns about the aesthetic quality of coastal areas vital to tourism and recreation. By producing this report on the ecological condition of estuaries in the Gulf of Mexico, we have taken one step in assessing the health of this environmental resource. We have produced an environmental “report card” to be used as a guide in the evaluation of management decisions and research directions.

This report is organized in three parts: (1) an introduction that gives background information on the Gulf of Mexico, estuarine ecology, and the factors that impact estuaries in the gulf, (2) the main section on priority ecological indicators used to measure the condition of estuaries in the gulf and (3) an ecological report card that summarizes the data on ecological indicators and provides a rating of the condition of estuaries in each gulf state and for gulf estuaries overall. Many of the ratings were based on the percent area of estuaries in each state exhibiting degraded or adverse levels of an indicator.

Eutrophication, a condition of high nutrients often resulting in low oxygen levels and other adverse effects, is an important water quality concern for estuaries along the gulf coast. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has compared the Gulf of Mexico to other coastal regions like the middle Atlantic and has ranked the Gulf of Mexico as having the highest number of point sources of nutrients and the highest percentage of land use devoted to agriculture. We evaluated monitoring data for nitrogen, chlorophyll, and dissolved oxygen as indicators of eutrophication. Although most of the estuaries exhibited high nitrogen or chlorophyll or low dissolved oxygen concentrations at least once during a survey, many times these conditions were observed in small rivers or bayous rather than in the entire estuary. Often, the percent area affected was low. The gulf estuaries had moderate conditions overall for nutrients and dissolved oxygen. Definite nutrient problems were observed in >25% of the estuarine area in Louisiana and Texas and definite dissolved oxygen problems were observed in Alabama.

Contaminants in estuarine sediments provide evidence of the accumulation of chemicals from anthropogenic sources. We compared the concentrations of sediment contaminants to established guideline values to determine the proportion of estuarine area that could have potential adverse effects on living organisms. Although detectable levels of contaminants were measured in almost every estuary in the Gulf of Mexico, <25% of the estuarine area in all states had contaminant concentrations that exceeded these guidelines.

Wetlands are integral parts of estuarine systems. Declining acreage means habitat loss that may be the result of commercial and residential development, hydrologic alterations, or dredge and fill operations. The Gulf of Mexico region contains more than 50% of the coastal wetland acreage in the U.S. and yet it also has the highest rate of coastal wetland loss. Nine of the top ten estuarine drainage areas ranked by total wetland area are in the Gulf of Mexico region. The most current estimates of total wetland loss over the past 200 years range from 41% to 54% for the gulf states. Although coastal wetlands continue to be altered or destroyed, some estimates indicate that the rate of loss has slowed. All gulf states were rated as having severe problems with wetland loss.

The condition of benthic (bottom-dwelling) invertebrates, fish and shellfish, birds, and threatened and endangered species was used to evaluate the health of estuarine fauna. Degraded benthic communities inhabited <25% of the estuarine area in all gulf states except for Texas. Commercial fish and shellfish landings may be used as an indicator of population stability while fish biomarkers are used to measure the health of individuals in the population. Commercial landings of the top four fisheries (shrimp, menhaden, blue crab, and oyster) are stable in the gulf states while fish biomarkers indicate fair to poor fish health in Alabama and Texas and good fish health elsewhere. Coastal and marine bird populations appear to be in good condition throughout the gulf. Four threatened or endangered species inhabit coastal areas in the Gulf of Mexico: brown pelican, Gulf sturgeon, manatee, and Kemp’s ridley sea turtle. In general, populations of these species are in good to fair condition in the gulf states.

Public health indicators include shellfish bed closures and chemicals found in edible fish tissue. Harvest of shellfish (primarily oyster in the Gulf of Mexico) is restricted or prohibited when concentrations of bacteria or other pathogens reach levels that could impair human health. The gulf states contain the most acreage of shellfish-growing waters in the U.S. but also have the most acreage restricted for harvest. All gulf states except Mississippi have >25% of their shellfish-growing waters restricted for harvest, mostly due to pollution from wastewater treatment plants or other upstream sources. Advisories may be issued that limit consumption when the concentrations of chemicals in fish tissue exceed levels known to be harmful to humans. Although seafood consumption advisories have been issued in all gulf states, the percent of the fish population with high concentrations of contaminants is relatively low in the gulf overall.

Study Area

Additional publication details

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype Federal Government Series
Title The ecological condition of estuaries in the Gulf of Mexico
Series title Cooperator Report
Series number 620-R-98-004
Year Published 1999
Language English
Publisher U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Contributing office(s) National Wetlands Research Center, Wetland and Aquatic Research Center
Description viii, 71 p.
Country United States
State Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas
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