In November, we launched Version 2.0 of the Section 7 Mapper, a new mapping tool that shows where threatened and endangered species are in New England and Mid-Atlantic waters. This tool helps people planning activities in our waters to understand where endangered marine species are and at what times of year.
Why did we build this tool?
Busy Oceans and Coasts
Coastal areas are humming with action. Ports, docks, piers, moorings, and marinas dot our shores and bays. Bridges span our rivers, barges sail up rivers to inland ports, and undersea cables criss-cross the ocean bottom. Vessels—ranging from enormous container ships and cruise ships to small recreational fishing boats and jet-skis—traverse our coastal and offshore waters daily.
People are constantly building structures, dredging shallow areas, restoring rivers and coastal habitats, replenishing beaches, and researching new sources of energy.
Underneath, around, and in between all these activities swim threatened and endangered fish, sea turtles, and marine mammals that live, feed, and grow there.
Projects Change Habitat
Human activities add noise, sediment, pollutants, and pressure to ocean habitats. They also displace these animals from spaces they use for breeding, egg-laying, nurseries, feeding, and other activities.
The Endangered Species Act (ESA) requires federal agencies, like the Army Corps of Engineers, Federal Highway Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, the Navy, and even other parts of NOAA, to consult with NOAA Fisheries on projects or activities they are planning, funding, or permitting that may affect a threatened or endangered marine species or its critical habitat. This is called a “Section 7 Consultation.”
Our Team Evaluates Effects
Our team of biologists located in Gloucester as well as Orono, Maine and Annapolis, Maryland, spend their days reviewing projects and activities and evaluating their effects on threatened or endangered species.
Last year, the team piloted the Section 7 Mapper. It helps agencies that are planning, funding, or permitting an action determine whether there are likely to be threatened or endangered species in their project area during the time of year they are proposing for the project. For example, sea turtles are not likely to be in Long Island Sound during the winter. Shortnose sturgeon from the Hudson River are most likely to access Long Island Sound through the East River. They are not expected to be present in the offshore waters south of Long Island.
An action agency can open the Mapper and draw a project action area right on the map. The Mapper then generates a report that summarizes the ESA-listed species in the project area. It includes their life stages, their behaviors (e.g., spawning, migrating and foraging, overwintering, etc.), the time of the year they are in the area, and any critical habitat. Providing all of this information in an easily accessible, one-stop shop helps action agencies and permittees plan their projects with threatened and endangered species in mind from the beginning. This streamlines the consultation process. When applicants can plan their projects at times of year when species are not present, this eliminates the need for consultation altogether. This is a win-win for everyone, including listed species.
New Features in Version 2.0
After we launched the first version in April 2018, we received some user feedback and added some new features for Version 2.0. In addition to updated species and critical habitat information, we added a new “swipe” widget. This allows a user to easily slide back and forth between the basemap and the species layers. We also added a toggle on/off button for individual species and critical habitat layers. Users can now more easily see where the presence of multiple species and critical habitats overlap.
A great deal of painstaking work went into creating the Section 7 Mapper. The biologists reviewed mountains of scientific literature on the three species of endangered fish, five species of sea turtles, and five species of endangered whales. They gathered information about their migratory movements, spawning areas, nursery areas, habitat preferences, food resources, and much more to feed into the Mapper. They worked with Dean Szumylo, a GIS specialist with Lynker, to create and test the Mapper. They then showed action agencies from around the region how to use the tool.
The Mapper was inspired by the successful Essential Fish Habitat Mapper. It joins a suite of other tools we created as part of a concerted effort to improve the consultation process and overall program efficiency, which are all available on our new web pages. A recent scan of the data shows that our maps continue to be the most accessed GARFO Section 7 pages, with more than 5,000 users of the Section 7 Mapper in 2019.
For their efforts, our Section 7 Team, along with their counterparts across NOAA, received a Department of Commerce Gold Medal. They were recognized for innovating regulatory processes that significantly reduce time and cost of environmental compliance for marine commerce and research industries. Great work, team!