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Gulf of Mexico Tidal Creeks Serve as Sentinel Habitats for Assessing the Impact of Coastal Development on Ecosystem Health

Author(s): Sanger, D.; D. Bergquist; A. Blair; G. Riekerk; E. Wirth; L. Webster; J. Felber; T. Washburn; G. DiDonato; A.F. Holland

NCCOS Center: HML (

Publication Type: NOAA Technical Memoranda

Journal Title: NOAA Technical Memorandum NOS NCCOS 136

Date of Publication: 2011

Reference Information: 64 pages

Keywords: National Estuarine Research Reserve System (NERRS); North Carolina NERR; Sapelo Island NERR; Weeks Bay NERR; Grand Bay NERR; tidal creek; sentinel habitat; conceptual model; impervious cover; land cover; urbanization; sediment and tissue contaminants; water quality; pathogens; nekton; oysters; macro

Abstract: A study was conducted, in association with the Alabama and Mississippi National Estuarine Research Reserves (NERRs) in the Gulf of Mexico (GoM) as well as the Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina NERRs in the Southeast (SE), to evaluate the impacts of coastal development on tidal creek sentinel habitats, including potential impacts to human health and well-being. Uplands associated with Southeast and Gulf of Mexico tidal creeks, and the salt marshes they drain, are popular locations for building homes, resorts, and recreational facilities because of the high quality of life and mild climate associated with these environments. Tidal creeks form part of the estuarine ecosystem characterized by high biological productivity, great ecological value, complex environmental gradients, and numerous interconnected processes. This research combined a watershed-level study integrating ecological, public health and human dimension attributes with watershed-level land cover data. The approach used for this research was based upon a comparative watershed and ecosystem approach that sampled tidal creek networks draining developed watersheds (e.g., suburban, urban, and industrial) as well as undeveloped sites (Holland et al. 2004, Sanger et al. 2008). The primary objective of this work was to define the relationships between coastal development with its concomitant land cover changes, and non-point source pollution loading and the ecological and human health and well-being status of tidal creek ecosystems. Nineteen tidal creek systems, located along the Southeastern United States coast from southern North Carolina to southern Georgia, and five Gulf of Mexico systems from Alabama and Mississippi were sampled during summer (June-August) 2005, 2006 (SE) and 2008 (GoM). Within each system, creeks were divided into two primary segments based upon tidal zoning: intertidal (i.e., shallow, narrow headwater sections) and subtidal (i.e., deeper and wider sections), and watersheds were delineated for each segment. In total, we report findings on 29 intertidal and 24 subtidal creeks. Indicators sampled throughout each creek included water quality (e.g., dissolved oxygen, salinity, nutrients, chlorophyll-a levels), sediment quality (e.g., characteristics, contaminant levels including emerging contaminants), pathogen and viral indicators (e.g., fecal coliform, enterococci, F+ coliphages, F- coliphages), and abundance and tissue contamination of biological resources (e.g., macrobenthic and nektonic communities, shellfish tissue contaminants). Tidal creeks have been identified as a sentinel habitat to assess the impacts of coastal development on estuarine areas in the southeastern US. A conceptual model for tidal creeks in the southeastern US identifies that human alterations (stressors) of upland in a watershed such as increased impervious cover will lead to changes in the physical and chemical environment such as microbial and nutrient pollution (exposure


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