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U.S. Regional Ecosystems

The physical boundaries of regional ecosystems are based on four ecological criteria: bathymetry, hydrography, productivity, and trophic relationships. Based on these criteria, there are eight distinct regional ecosystems around the coastal margins of United States as identified below.

Alaska Complex

The Alaska Complex includes five large marine ecosystems:

  • Gulf of Alaska
  • Eastern Bering Sea
  • Aleutian Islands
  • Beaufort Sea
  • Chukchi Sea

These ecologically distinct regions vary in their productivity and economies. The southeastern Bering Sea supports some of the most valuable commercial fisheries in the world for salmon and walleye Pollock. Many coastal communities depend on resources such as these, which will likely be impacted by climate-related changes ocean and coastal ecosystems.

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    California Current

    The California Current Regional Ecosystem runs from the southern-most point of California, up through Washington. This dynamic and diverse upwelling current system is highly productive, supporting an important ocean economy, including recreational and commercial fishing, tourism, and shipping. Overfishing is a threat to this region, as is climate change.

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      Pacific Islands Complex

      The Pacific Islands Regional Ecosystem includes the Hawaiian Islands, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, and Guam. This tropical region is home to vibrant coral reefs and protected species, such as the Hawaiian monk seal. Recreational, aquarium, and commercial fisheries are important economic drivers in this region, as is tourism. Coastal development, invasive species, pollution, and climate change impacts are all threats to this region.

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        Great Lakes

        The Great Lakes Regional Ecosystem is the largest freshwater system on Earth, supporting commercial and recreational fishing, tourism, shipping, and other industries. They face numerous threats, such as pollution, invasive species, overfishing, and habitat degradation. NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory conducts research in this region to provide information for resource use and management decisions that lead to safe and sustainable ecosystems, ecosystem services, and human communities.

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        Gulf of Mexico

        The Gulf of Mexico Regional Ecosystem is one of the most ecologically and economically productive ecosystems in North America. This region is home to estuaries and coral reefs, supporting recreational and commercial fisheries, such as shrimp and red snapper. Oil and gas platforms extract fossil fuels from reserves in the Gulf, but heavy pollution has led to harmful algal blooms and the hypoxia zone, which threaten this region’s resources. Powerful hurricanes also pose a threat to the coastal communities in the Gulf. Unfortunately, the Gulf has experienced wide-scale losses of numerous critical habitat types for the past three decades.

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          Northeast U.S. Shelf

          The Northeast Shelf Regional Ecosystem reaches from the northern Maine, down to Cape Hatteras in North Carolina. This temperate region is highly productive, supporting economically important fisheries for centuries and other marine species such as the North Atlantic right whale and deep-water corals. This ecosystem has faced intense coastal development, leading to pollution and habitat degradation. The pace of observed ocean and climate changes in this region is faster than in other regions, but new innovative activities are advancing to address these challenges. Offshore wind energy and aquaculture continue to develop in the Northeast Shelf Regional Ecosystem.

          Chesapeake Bay

          Part of the Northeast Shelf, the Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in North America and is an extremely productive and complex ecosystem. Within the Bay, we focus on applied research and monitoring in fisheries and aquatic habitats; synthesis and analysis to describe and predict Bay ecosystem processes; and the delivery of policy advice and technical assistance to Bay decision makers.

          Learn more about NOAA’s Chesapeake Bay Office 

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            Southeast U.S. Shelf

            The Southeast Shelf Regional Ecosystem extends from southern Florida, up to Cape Hatteras in North Carolina. This region is heavily influenced by the warm Gulf Stream that runs along the coast. It is also home to important habitats, including estuaries and coral reefs. These habitats support important commercial and recreational fisheries. Tourism and recreation are also economic drivers in the Southeast Shelf Region, but coastal communities are vulnerable to hurricanes, pollution, and harmful algal blooms.

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            The Caribbean Regional Ecosystem encompasses Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. This tropical region is home to coral reefs and the vibrant communities of fish and protected species that depend on reefs as habitat, such as sea turtles. Recreation, tourism, shipping, and fisheries drive the economy of the Caribbean Regional Ecosystem. Coastal communities face challenges such as coral disease and bleaching, hurricane impacts, and pollution. In this region, we are working to reduce the negative impact of human activities on watersheds and coastal waters and improve scientific understanding of how Caribbean resources and ecosystems are impacted by a changing climate.

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            Polar Regions


            The Arctic environment is changing at an unprecedented rate. The primary goal of the Arctic Research Program is to support and execute activities relevant to understanding the marine ecosystem during a period of rapid climate change.

            Learn more about the Arctic


            We conduct research to provide scientific advice supporting U.S. interests related to resource management by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, of which the United States is a member. Our research is mandated by the U.S. Antarctic Marine Living Resources Convention Act of 1984.

            Learn more about our research in the Antarctic