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Project Details

Improving Species Distribution and Seafloor Maps to Support Washington State Marine Planning

Project Status: This project began in April 2013 and was completed in October 2015

Our work provides the state of Washington with more accurate and usable seafloor, seabird, marine mammal and benthic invertebrate information. We filled in important data gaps by using existing data to create new seabird and marine mammal species distribution models, and prioritized seafloor mapping needs.

Why We Care
The ocean region off the coast of Washington state is vital to our nation’s fisheries, commerce, security, and culture. To plan for new ocean activities in this region (such as harnessing wave energy to make electricity) and to reduce conflicts among existing uses (such as groundfishing and essential fish habitat protection), the state of Washington is undertaking marine spatial planning—a process that coordinates decisions about how marine resources and space are used. Our work will help coastal resource managers find and use the best available data to evaluate and balance the needs of a growing list of often competing ocean uses, while protecting natural and cultural resources. By effectively planning ocean uses, coastal managers will reduce conflicts among users, encourage offshore investments, facilitate compatible uses, and preserve critical ecosystem services to meet economic, environmental, security, and social objectives.

What We Did
Our initial data assessments were short and strategic, with the objective of identifying the state’s most critical information gaps to effectively execute marine spatial planning. The assessments catalogued key data sets and established prospective analyses to more effectively use existing data and improve future marine planning decisions.

We assessed seafloor data with the objective of preparing a blueprint to prioritize seafloor mapping. The blueprint included:

  1. Compiling seafloor data;
  2. Planning a regional workshop to bring stakeholders together and to identify the range of benthic mapping needs
    and important places;
  3. Developing a transparent process to analyze priorities; and
  4. Determining where and how mapping data could be gathered, given the range of needs and available resources. 

Additionally, we constructed an online geospatial data viewer of existing seafloor mapping information to allow planners to visualize data by thematic categories and allow users to easily evaluate the extent, type, and quality of existing data sources.

We assessed data on seabirds, marine mammals, deep sea corals and sponges to identify data gaps. We drew from our experience with similar data assessments in Long Island Sound, the Mid-Atlantic Bight, and the Central California National Marine Sanctuaries. To fill spatial data gaps and improve our understanding of where relative abundance hotspots occur, we created new species distribution models for selected seabirds and marine mammals.

We worked with individuals from many different agencies, institutions, and organizations to identify data sets, refine analytical methods and improve how information is communicated to managers, including NOAA’s Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, National Geophysical Data Center, Northwest and Southwest Fisheries Science Centers, and Commissioned Officer Corps; USGS’s Alaska Science Center and Western Ecological Research Center; DOI’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management; the state of Washington’s Departments of Fish and Wildlife, and Ecology; Oregon State University; and the Farallon Institute for Advanced Ecosystem Research. This work supports NOAA’s Office for Coastal Management (OCM), which plays a key role in administering and coordinating a range of federal–state coastal programs, and provides technical and financial help and training to states working to manage coastal areas.

What We Found

  1. There are many unique seafloor mapping, seabird, marine mammal and benthic invertebrate surveys in the study area, but they represent a discontinuous patchwork of effort.
  2. There are many knowledgeable researchers and coastal managers in the study area who are willing to share their valuable data sets and work together to improve marine planning.
  3. Seafloor mapping can be improved through better coordination, well-defined objectives, and preparing a comprehensive plan for filling regional data gaps.
  4. Several regions were consistently identified in which additional seafloor mapping data is necessary to support marine management and coastal hazard identification.
  5. Species distribution models are an effective way of stitching together disparate survey data to define ecologically important areas.

Next Steps
We have concluded our research on seabirds, benthic invertebrates and seafloor mapping for this project, but continue to work on marine mammal species distribution models. The Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife is currently using our seabird distribution models, along with data for other biological resources, to identify ecologically important areas. We will continue to support the use of these data and findings in marine planning, including by serving on the Washington Science Panel for Marine Spatial Planning.

Regions of Study: Pacific Ocean - Eastern, Washington

Primary Contacts: Charles Menza, John Christensen, Tim Battista

Research Theme: Science for Coastal Ecosystem Management (Ecological Forecasts and Tools, Seafloor Mapping, Biogeographic Assessment, Marine Spatial Planning, Seagrasses, Coral)

Related NCCOS Center: CCMA

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