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Study Assesses Vulnerability of Coastal Habitats to Climate Change in the Northeast United States

December 08, 2021

Salt marshes, shellfish reefs, deep-sea corals, seagrasses, kelp, and intertidal habitats are among the most vulnerable habitats.

Coastal marsh within the Sandy Hook Bay estuary. Coastal marsh within the Sandy Hook Bay estuary. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Jessie Murray

NOAA Fisheries and partners assessed the vulnerability of marine, estuarine, and riverine habitats in the Northeast United States to climate change. The findings were recently published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE. We found salt marshes, shellfish reefs, deep-sea corals, seagrasses, kelp, and intertidal habitats to be among the most vulnerable. The coastal habitats with the highest climate vulnerability are also those most often at risk from degradation due to coastal development and pollution. The assessment highlights the importance of prioritizing habitat protection and restoration to support resilience and adaptability to climate change.

First-of-Its-Kind Assessment

This is the first climate vulnerability assessment for habitats that NOAA Fisheries has conducted. We examined the impact of climate-driven changes on 52 marine, estuarine, and riverine habitats from Cape Hatteras, NC to the Maine-Canadian border. It also considered non-climate factors, such as coastal development and pollution. 

This assessment complements the 2016 Northeast Fish and Shellfish Climate Vulnerability Assessment, and other fish stock, protected species, and fishing community climate vulnerability assessments. It also provides a framework for evaluating relative sensitivity and exposure of habitats to climate change that can be used in other regions. The vulnerability assessment methodology uses information on:

  • Habitat characteristics
  • Habitat distributions
  • Projected future climate and ocean conditions to estimate vulnerability

Specifically, it looks at how climate-related changes could impact a habitat. The results are intended to guide research on possible climate impacts on habitats, and help decision-makers consider how to prepare for and respond to climate-related changes. For example, the 2016 Northeast assessment ranked winter flounder as very highly vulnerable to climate change. This is due to low stock status in the southern part of its range and declining population productivity associated with increased nearshore temperature. 

Dark olive green, mottled winter flounder resting on green eelgrass and sandy floor.
Winter flounder in eelgrass habitat.

The new assessment highlights that habitats important to winter flounder, including submerged aquatic vegetation and tidal wetlands, are vulnerable to higher air and water temperature, sea level rise, and habitat fragmentation. The high climate vulnerability of these habitats, and high dependency of winter flounder on these habitats, suggests a potential critical nexus of climate vulnerability for this species.

Informing Decisions

Understanding how climate change will impact coastal and marine habitats is necessary to inform decisions about habitat conservation and restoration, fisheries management, and coastal and offshore planning. The publication includes detailed narratives describing the primary drivers of climate vulnerability for each of the habitats in the assessment (PDF, 313 pages). This will be a key tool for decisions regarding habitat conservation.

To increase resilience and adaptability, the assessment can assist in:

  • Identifying climate research priorities
  • Managing protected species
  • Designating Essential Fish Habitat and Habitat Areas of Particular Concern

Healthy habitats are necessary for maintaining sustainable fisheries and recovering protected species. Understanding habitat vulnerability can provide a more complete picture of the vulnerability of those managed species. This is particularly true in cases where the populations are, at least in part, not meeting fishery or recovery objectives due to factors other than fishing mortality.

Moving Forward

Climate change is affecting the nation’s coastal habitats and species, and the communities that depend on them. The distribution of marine species continues to shift due to climate change. It will become increasingly important to understand the availability of habitats in the places they are shifting into, and factors influencing habitat resilience. This assessment helps build greater understanding of those complex dynamics, and provides fishery and habitat managers with information to support decision-making.

salt marsh and intertidal mud flat in the Gulf of Maine.
Salt marsh and intertidal mud flat in the Gulf of Maine. Credit: Manomet.

Reducing stressors on habitats will make them more resilient to the effects of climate change. NOAA Fisheries takes a proactive approach to reducing climate change impacts and increasing resilience by assessing the vulnerability of habitats, fish, and fishing communities to guide management and conservation measures. 

Partners of this assessment include:

  • NOAA Fisheries (Offices of Habitat Conservation, Science & Technology, and Sustainable Fisheries, Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries, and Northeast Fisheries Science Center)
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
  • U.S. Geological Survey
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
  • Bureau of Ocean Energy Management
  • University of Connecticut
  • Northeastern University
  • University of Maine

Last updated by Office of Habitat Conservation on September 28, 2022