Newly Launched Matagorda Bay Ecosystem Assessment can Inform Conservation Efforts
By Danielle Goshen, Water Policy & Outreach Specialist, Galveston Bay Foundation
Some places truly do have it all. Matagorda Bay, located along the coast in Southeastern Texas is a veritable treasure trove of charismatic species. Relatively undeveloped compared to other Bay systems along the Texas coast, Matagorda Bay is home to many species listed as threatened and endangered on both the federal and state level. A few of these at-risk species include the Kemps Ridley and loggerhead sea turtles, interior least tern, and piping plovers. Even a few members of the last wild migrating flock of whooping crane, whose recovering population has been recently estimated to be just over 500, have been spotted hunting blue crabs in the brackish marshes of Matagorda Bay. The recovery and success of these species depend vitally on the estuarine ecosystem that supports them.
This diversity attracts commercial and recreational fishers, birders, and kayakers from far and wide. The unique qualities of the Bay has caught the attention of the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts (CPA) Natural Resources office. On July 18, 2019, the CPA’s office announced that it was partnering with Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi to undertake an ecosystem assessment of Matagorda Bay. The first public meeting to discuss the $2.7 million study was held on September 26th in Palacios, Texas. The study will take place over two years and began this summer.
The CPA may seem like an unlikely funder of ecosystem assessments. Chelsea Jones, Senior Research Analyst at the CPA’s Natural Resources office, explained that the CPA receives money from the Texas Legislature to support research on imperiled and listed species. Jones noted that there are data gaps for Matagorda Bay and to help fill in the gaps for this important ecosystem, the study will focus on the following:
- Habitat mapping for evaluation of habitat change;
- Sea turtle movement and ecosystem connectivity;
- Biological sampling across habitats;
- Marsh ecosystem sampling for flooding and sea rise assessments;
- Trophic ecology and food web analysis;
- Coupling historical and ongoing datasets; and
- Water quality and plankton monitoring.
Dr. Greg Stunz, Endowed Chair for Fisheries and Ocean Health and Director for Center for Sportfish Science and Conservation at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, will lead the study as Principal Investigator. Dr. Stunz explained the importance of an ecosystem-based approach and stated that while single-species studies are important, they often neglect opportunities to understand the ecosystems that support the species. For example, the blue crab that the whooping crane depends on, are at their highest population levels when salinity levels are moderate (as opposed to low or high salinity). This means that during times of drought or flood the blue crab population may decline, which can impact the cranes. This is just one example of why the Texas Living Water Project is focused on persuading Texans to manage water resources wisely in order to guarantee adequate environmental flows for our sensitive estuarine ecosystems!
Dr. Stunz was motivated by the potential for the assessment to “inform restoration efforts” and develop a “greater understanding of coastal ecosystem change” that will lead to ecosystem-based management. Another exciting aspect of this study is that it is both retrospective and future looking. Studies within the assessment will evaluate not only changes to the ecosystem that have occurred in the past, but will also model ecosystem changes that may occur in the future due to climate change, such as the effect of sea level rise and the increasing intensity of hurricanes.
Importantly, the study is still in its beginning stages and the CPA is still encouraging stakeholder input. Jones noted that the CPA’s office is interested in compiling local information about Matagorda Bay in order to inform the research. Jones noted that while in the past, CPA funded studies have focused on issues brought to the table by stakeholders such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Texas Parks & Wildlife Department or regulated entities, this study is focused on the interests of the broader community. Jones stressed the importance of community input to inform study products—for example, would it be more valuable to have an interactive web map or educational materials available for printing—and how the study can help achieve goals the community has for Matagorda Bay.
At Texas Living Waters Project, we believe that an ecosystem assessment of Matagorda Bay represents an opportunity to inform wholistic management strategies that protect and enhance the health of Matagorda Bay ecosystem. As a primary factor of estuarine productivity, we will continue to advocate for adequate environmental flows, necessary for healthy bay systems. We look forward to the study and hope it will lead to proactive species management and conservation programs in order to protect this special place for generations to come!
Want to Learn More?
Find more information about the Matagorda Bay ecosystem assessment here!
Provide the CPA with your thoughts on the Matagorda Bay ecosystem assessment using this survey by October 14, 2019!
Important Concepts Defined
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), an ecosystem-based management approach recognizes the full array of interactions within an ecosystem, including humans, rather than considering single issues, species, or ecosystem services in isolation.
The term “environmental flows” is used to describe managing freshwater resources in a way that mimics natural processes. This term expresses the quantity, quality and timing of water necessary to sustain a river, wetland or coastal zone and the fish and wildlife that depend on it! To read more about the importance of environmental flows and what Texas Living Waters is doing, visit: https://texaslivingwaters.org/environmental-flows/