Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Units Program: Louisiana
Education, Research and Technical Assistance for Managing Our Natural Resources

Watson, A., Reece, J., Tirpak, B.E., Edwards, C.K., Geselbracht, L., Woodrey, M., La Peyre, M.K., and Dalyander, P.S., 2017, The Gulf Coast Vulnerability Assessment: Mangrove, Tidal Emergent Marsh, Barrier Islands, and Oyster Reef: Forest and Wildlife Research Center, Research Bulletin WFA421, Mississippi State University, 100 p.,


Climate, sea level rise, and urbanization are undergoing unprecedented levels of combined change and are expected to have large effects on natural resources—particularly along the Gulf of Mexico coastline (Gulf Coast). Management decisions to address these effects (i.e., adaptation) require an understanding of the relative vulnerability of various resources to these stressors. To meet this need, the four Landscape Conservation Cooperatives along the Gulf partnered with the Gulf of Mexico Alliance to conduct this Gulf Coast Vulnerability Assessment (GCVA). Vulnerability in this context incorporates exposure and sensitivity to threats (potential impact), coupled with the adaptive capacity to mitigate those threats. Potential impact and adaptive capacity reflect natural history features of target species and ecosystems. The GCVA used an expert opinion approach to qualitatively assess the vulnerability of four ecosystems: mangrove, oyster reef, tidal emergent marsh, and barrier islands, and a suite of wildlife species that depend on them. More than 50 individuals participated in the completion of the GCVA, facilitated via Ecosystem and Species Expert Teams. Of the species assessed, Kemp’s ridley sea turtle was identified as the most vulnerable species across the Gulf Coast. Experts identified the main threats as loss of nesting habitat to sea level rise, erosion, and urbanization. Kemp’s ridley also had an overall low adaptive capacity score due to their low genetic diversity, and higher nest site fidelity as compared to other assessed species. Tidal emergent marsh was the most vulnerable ecosystem, due in part to sea level rise and erosion. In general, avian species were more vulnerable than fish because of nesting habitat loss to sea level rise, erosion, and potential increases in storm surge. Assessors commonly indicated a lack of information regarding impacts due to projected changes in the disturbance regime, biotic interactions, and synergistic effects in both the species and habitat assessments. Many of the assessors who focused on species also identified data gaps regarding genetic information, phenotypic plasticity, life history, and species responses to past climate change and sea level rise. Regardless of information gaps, the results from the GCVA can be used to inform Gulf-wide adaptation plans. Given the scale of climatic impacts, coordinated efforts to address Gulf-wide threats to species and ecosystems will enhance the effectiveness of management actions and also have the potential to maximize the efficacy of limited funding.