Gulf Coast communities and natural resources suffered extensive direct and indirect damage as a result of the largest accidental oil spill in US history, referred to as the Deepwater Horizon (DWH) oil spill. Notably, natural resources affected by this major spill include wetlands, coastal beaches and barrier islands, coastal and marine wildlife, seagrass beds, oyster reefs, commercial fisheries, deep benthos, and coral reefs, among other habitats and species. Losses include an estimated 20% reduction in commercial fishery landings across the Gulf of Mexico and damage to as much as 1,100 linear miles of coastal salt marsh wetlands.
This historic spill is being addressed with a restoration effort unparalleled in complexity and magnitude in U.S. history. Legal settlements in the wake of DWH led to the establishment of a set of programs tasked with administering and supporting DWH-related restoration in the Gulf of Mexico. The largest programs include the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) Trustee Council, the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council and (known as the RESTORE Council), and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund. These entities administer the majority of approximately $16 billion in restoration funds, which provides an unprecedented opportunity—and a responsibility—to accomplish substantial environmental restoration throughout the Gulf.
Parts of the DWH legal settlements funded a number of restoration science programs, including the Gulf Research Program (GRP) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (the Academies). The GRP operates over 30 years with $500 million to support research, education and training, and environmental monitoring in the Gulf with the goal of improving understanding of the region’s interconnecting human, environmental, and energy systems.
Based on discussions with some of the restoration and science programs, the GRP recognized a common need for restoration monitoring and assessment guidance. Therefore, the GRP asked the Ocean Studies Board of the Academies to convene a committee to advise restoration funding programs regarding monitoring and evaluation of restoration activities in the Gulf of Mexico. In particular, the committee Effective Approaches for Monitoring and Assessing Gulf of Mexico Restoration Activities (the committee) was asked to identify best practices (i.e., existing, proven, cost-effective approaches) for monitoring and evaluating restoration activities to improve the performance of restoration programs and increase the effectiveness and longevity of restoration projects. The committee’s work was to identify (the full statement of task can be found in Chapter 1)
- Current, effective approaches for developing initial and long-term monitoring goals and methods;
- Approaches for determining essential baseline data needs;
- Essential elements of a long-term monitoring framework (including base-line information);
- Additional novel approaches to augment current best practices that could increase effectiveness, reduce costs, ensure region-wide compatibility of restoration monitoring data, and advance the science and practice of restoration; and
- Options to ensure that project, or site-based, monitoring could be used cumulatively and comprehensively to provide region-wide insights and track effectiveness on larger spatial and longer temporal scales.
The high-level goals of the above-mentioned restoration programs are similar, particularly as they relate to restoring habitats, species, and living coastal and marine resources. While NFWF focuses solely on restoring habitats and associated living resources, both the NRDA Trustee Council and the RESTORE Council also aim to improve water quality, along with some socioeconomic components. The NRDA Trustee Council’s socioeconomic goals include enhancement of recreation opportunities, whereas the RESTORE Council’s goals include enhancing community resilience, as well as revitalizing the Gulf’s overall economy. Notably, only the NRDA Trustee Council explicitly lists a provision that includes restoration monitoring and adaptive management as high-level goals.
In this report, the committee provides general guidance for restoration monitoring, assessment, and synthesis that can be applied to most ecological restoration supported by these major programs given their similarities in restoration goals. The committee considered project-level monitoring (monitoring associated with site-
specific or localized restoration activities), monitoring to evaluate restoration outcomes for highly mobile species (e.g., marine mammals, turtles, and birds) over large spatial areas such as watersheds and regional assessments, and monitoring to support larger spatial scale programmatic evaluations across multiple states and sub-regions. Although the release of oil during the DWH spill was mostly offshore in deep water, most restoration activities are along the coast. Because of the breadth and diversity of these coastal habitats and associated species subject to restoration or restoration plans, the committee could not address best practices for monitoring and assessment of all possible Gulf habitats, species, and ecosystems. Instead, Part II of this report provides specific guidance for a subset of restoration monitoring efforts, including oyster reefs, tidal wetlands, and seagrass habitats, as well as wide ranging birds, sea turtles, and marine mammals. Effective monitoring practices for these habitats and species are addressed in detail, but it is important to note that these sections only represent a subset of the many habitats and species that are in need of restoration attention within the Gulf of Mexico.
Project objectives provide the specificity necessary to realize overarching restoration goals. However, in reviewing the major funding administrators’ programs, the committee found that specific, measurable restoration objectives were generally not well delineated or identified. Instead, program goals were frequently linked directly to restoration actions without an explicit description of what the overall program intends to accomplish. Measurable objectives, related metrics, and research-based targets for habitat and species restoration are required to reliably assess programs and improve restoration effectiveness. Thus, the absence of clearly articulated, specific, measurable objectives could hinder effective program management in the Gulf. Therefore, the committee concludes that restoration programs need to develop clear and measurable ecological and, where appropriate, socioeconomic objectives at project and program levels to guide monitoring plans and against which to evaluate restoration progress.
RESTORATION MONITORING IS IMPERATIVE FOR ENSURING RESTORATION EFFECTIVENESS AND DEMONSTRATING RESTORATION PROGRESS
The need for restoration monitoring is widely acknowledged, but most restoration projects in the U.S. and elsewhere often have lacked monitoring or the monitoring efforts have been insufficient to generate rigorous, decision-relevant, or publically accessible information. For example, the National River Restoration Science Synthesis, one of the few endeavors to objectively evaluate restoration efforts, found fewer than half of all restoration projects had measurable objectives and collected quantitative data to evaluate a given project’s outcomes. Previous attempts to conduct meta-analysis and synthesis across restoration projects point to a broad range of issues hampering adequate monitoring and evaluation including lack of sufficient funding, inadequate monitoring designs, and poor data management. Monitoring budgets are required for a wide array of tasks including long-term ecological monitoring, data collection, scientific oversight, training, data management, quality assurance and reporting. Restoration monitoring serves three primary purposes: (1) to assure projects are built or implemented and are initially functioning as designed (construction monitoring); (2) to assess whether restoration goals and objectives have been or are being met (performance monitoring); and (3) to inform restoration management, to improve design of future restoration efforts, and to increase ecosystem understanding (monitoring for adaptive management).
Without timely monitoring and analyses, restoration programs in the Gulf of Mexico will not be able to demonstrate to the public whether restoration progress and programmatic goals have been achieved and whether restoration funding has been well invested. Furthermore, since restoration funds are spent on behalf of society, funding administrators are responsible for connecting the effects of bio-physical changes resulting from restoration activities to outcomes for societal well-being. Knowledge gained from restoration monitoring and related assessments can improve the overall effectiveness of restoration, which has the potential to translate into savings in restoration cost. Monitoring also engenders transparency and facilitates communication among stakeholders and practitioners concerned with how projects and multi-state programs are affecting natural resources across the Gulf region as a whole.
To provide assurance to funders and the public of the benefits derived from restoration investments, monitoring should be viewed as an integral part of restoration projects, and detailed monitoring plans should be required by restoration programs at the time of restoration proposal submission.
Therefore, the committee recommends that all restoration administered by the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council (known as RESTORE), National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund, Deepwater Horizon Natural Resource Damage Assessment Trustee Council, and the Gulf states be accompanied by a strategic monitoring effort.
Such a monitoring strategy must enable assessment of progress relative to the restoration objectives articulated by the projects and programs. When appropriate, monitoring should also support adaptive management.
Informative, cost-effective restoration monitoring can be challenging to design and requires thoughtful planning and execution. At a minimum, all restoration projects should include construction and performance monitoring, which includes an in-depth assessment to determine whether a given project was constructed or implemented as planned and has met its stated objective(s). The committee recommends that adequate monitoring plans be considered a prerequisite for restoration funding and that those plans contain the following essential elements, at minimum:
- Clearly articulated, measurable restoration objectives (from the project plan)
- Identification of well articulated management questions that monitoring and evaluation seek to address using conceptual system and causal models that link ecological and socioeconomic drivers and stressors with both biophysical and ecological processes to outcomes such as populations, habitats, ecosystem, ecosystem service, and human well-being (as appropriate) (derived from a given project plan);
- Explicit identification of appropriate metrics, targets and criteria for addressing the management questions such as measuring ecological, and where appropriate, social and economic restoration outcomes
- Evaluation of available baseline data appropriate to a given project objectives and/or plans to collect new baseline data if needed
- Appropriate sampling and analysis designs, including consideration of reference and/or control site(s), sampling locations, timing, frequency, and sample size
- Well-documented and, where possible, standardized sampling protocols
- Rigorous data management plan (see below for details)
- Anticipated methods for data analysis and associated evaluation
- Realistic project budgets and staffing to support the appropriate level of monitoring, study design, data acquisition via monitoring, data analyses, modeling, scientific oversight, training, data management, quality assurance, and reporting, etc.
- Monitoring program management plan (including timely reporting and communication plan) to assure that the applied monitoring program is efficient, accountable and transparent at all phases of a given effort
The importance of clear and measurable restoration objectives cannot be overemphasized, because they set the framework and targets against which to monitor and assess restoration progress.
COORDINATING MONITORING EFFORTS WILL BENEFIT GULF RESTORATION
The current magnitude of funds and efforts being invested in restoration in the Gulf of Mexico provides an unprecedented opportunity to solve these challenges and advance the science of restoration, as well as to improve cost-effectiveness and outcomes of restoration projects. Because some projects may take decades before they become self-sustaining and fully restored and individual projects interact with other projects, monitoring beyond the duration and scale of individual projects is needed to understand whether the Gulf of Mexico region’s ecosystem is recovering. Partnerships and coordination has the potential to reduce the cost of monitoring to individual programs.
For example, coordination could reduce environmental monitoring costs and improve evaluation by jointly producing critical baseline data and a network of reference sites. As the number of local restoration activities increases, there is the potential for reference sites to inform multiple projects, as demonstrated by Louisiana’s Coastwide Reference Monitoring System. Establishing networks of reference sites for different habitat types would allow sharing of baseline information and reference condition data, while also promoting the adoption of a set of standardized variables and related protocols for restoration monitoring. Many long-term monitoring efforts are already underway in the Gulf that could be leveraged in developing these reference monitoring networks. Restoration programs benefit from coordinating with existing environmental monitoring efforts to establish or
expand existing monitoring networks and ensure data are shared.
Thus, the committee concludes that restoration programs (i.e., the NRDA Trustee Council, the RESTORE Council, and NFWF) and Gulf research programs (i.e., the National Academies’ Gulf Research Program, NOAA RESTORE Act Science Program, and Centers of Excellence for each Gulf state) would greatly benefit from working together to identify strategic opportunities in the Gulf of Mexico to maximize the effectiveness and utility of monitoring while also reducing the overall cost of long-term monitoring across the Gulf region. Examples of such opportunities for leveraging resources include
- Explore opportunities for a system of restoration reference sites across the Gulf of Mexico for several types of habitats to be restored.
- Identify potential long-term ecological monitoring sites that could be paired with ecological research to improve the effectiveness of restoration approaches.
- Monitoring mobile species may require comparison beyond static reference sites, such as using reference populations or seasonal reference points.
- Jointly identify the most pressing research needs, objectives, and questions that would inform and improve restoration effectiveness.
Although it will require additional time and resources, coordination among restoration funders and practitioners is critical to ensure that monitoring informs both project-level performance and progress toward regional or Gulf-wide restoration objectives set by funding allocation programs (e.g., the NRDA Trustee Council, RESTORE Council, NFWF). Collaboration and coordination on monitoring designs, selection of metrics, and the development of standardized protocols for restoration study design, monitoring, and data stewardship will enhance consistency and utility of the data both within and across projects and programs, increase opportunities for merging information for regional synthesis, and improve the quality of the data collected. Gulf restoration programs should work together to assemble teams of restoration scientists, managers, and practitioners to identify critical subsets of metrics and protocols that should be standardized for a given restoration type (ecosystem, habitat, or species). These coordination efforts should identify standardized monitoring protocols and information management approaches (regarding, for example, sampling design, identification of reference or control sites, metrics, laboratory procedures, metadata standards, non-spatial and geospatial, data and metadata archiving and access).
Especially in states where long-term data sets may exist using a variety of protocols, it might pose some challenges to develop and implement standardized sampling protocols. Nevertheless, there is likely a critical subset of restoration-specific data to be collected where the benefits of consistently sampled data at a program scale justify the additional costs. For example, many restoration projects aim to improve a given coastal habitat with the objective of also enhancing numerous living resources such as sea turtles, fishes, invertebrates, marine mammals, and birds. Assessing the impacts of habitat restoration on living marine resources, including biodiversity, will require monitoring beyond the project-scale, and would be more efficient and effective if done using standardized Gulf-wide monitoring efforts.
DATA STEWARDSHIP IS ESSENTIAL TO GULF RESTORATION MONITORING AND ASSESSMENT
The committee views restoration monitoring data as a valuable and lasting product of Gulf restoration funding and believes good data stewardship greatly enhances the value of restoration monitoring and enables assessment of progress towards restoration goals. To ensure that these data retain their value through time data stewardship should be made a high priority by the funding agencies at the outset of all restoration efforts and require the use of a well-conceived standards-based data management system. To ensure that data stewardship is addressed appropriately, the committee recommends that all restoration projects be required to include a written data management plan and deliverables as a condition for funding restoration proposals. Those plans should
- Identify roles and responsibilities of the data providers, data management personnel, and end users.
- Describe the flow of data including any transformations.
- Describe and apply appropriate data QA/QC and cite the authoritative guides that will be followed.
- Identify and apply appropriate community standards for metadata content and controlled
vocabularies that will be applied to the datasets. Where gaps exist in community standards, the project should adopt, adapt, or extend other existing standards.
- Identify appropriate long-term trusted digital repositories where the full body of data and metadata will be submitted. Data can be submitted to the repository by the originator or by a portal or cooperative on behalf of the originator. This will likely require the restoration funding programs to provide support for new facilities or to supplement or expand existing facilities;
- Consider how to design and incentivize compliance, as well as to possibly enforce standards, with such policies at the beginning of a project; and
- Publish datasets using digital object identifiers (DOIs).
Data publishing and archiving is currently facilitated by existing data portals, data cooperatives, and data repositories. Examples from the Gulf of Mexico include the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System (GCOOS) Data Portal, the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative Information and Data Cooperative (GRIIDC), NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information and other NOAA units. Such cyberinfrastructure makes data archiving feasible and practical for all parties engaged in restoration monitoring. Restoration programs should require that monitoring data are archived with an entity that has long-term support to ensure managed open data-access for the next several decades.
Open access to restoration monitoring data will enable the evaluation of restoration progress over space and time scales larger than individual projects. It will also enable cost-effective sharing of lessons learned (from both successes and failures). Monitoring data are also essential for synthesis activities seeking to understand differences within and among project outcomes while also improving the design of future projects. More broadly, readily accessible restoration monitoring data will support research to advance the scientific understanding of Gulf species and ecosystems and post-spill recovery processes. Because data quality is improved through use, early data sharing and synthesis activities need to be strongly encouraged. Restoration programs should establish clear policies early on for archiving and sharing of restoration monitoring data, and enforce these policies to ensure open access in the long-term.
SYNTHESIS AND INTEGRATION WILL ADVANCE THE EFFECTIVENESS OF GULF RESTORATION
Synthesis will be important to connect ecological restoration efforts and associated monitoring with investments in Gulf communities and societal outcomes. In recent years, analysis and synthesis of existing data have dramatically increased as a means of accelerating scientific discovery and improving the generalization of information gained from monitoring or research. For Gulf restoration, such synthesis activities are not only desirable, but are necessary for observing restoration progress beyond individual projects and to evaluate restoration outcomes for wide-ranging species such as marine mammals, sea turtles, and birds. Synthesis activities can also inform restoration programs on progress towards achieving their overall goals and objectives, while aiding to identify necessary changes to future project design and management. Moreover, synthesis efforts can reveal opportunities for better coordination of restoration activities, monitoring, adaptive management, data management, and dissemination.
Gulf synthesis efforts will confront challenges such as integration of heterogeneous data collected at multiple spatial and temporal scales, and the need for robust statistical and process-based modeling approaches to analyze monitoring data over larger spatial and temporal scales. The challenge of data integration will be compounded by the diversity of organizations involved in restoration monitoring, each with potentially different objectives, sampling designs, monitoring protocols, and metrics. Some of these challenges can be avoided or reduced by insuring that efforts are coordinated in regard to restoration planning, monitoring, and those data management activities emphasized above.
Some efforts have been made to promote data synthesis research—for example by the Gulf Research Program of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine—but the capacity for synthesis activities among the organizations engaged in Gulf restoration is uneven at best. Because meta-analysis of projects and synthesis of monitoring data is required for evaluating restoration progress beyond individual projects and gulf-wide restoration outcomes, Gulf restoration programs should consider creating a specific, dedicated enterprise for synthesis activities in support of Gulf restoration. Restoration programs and research programs should jointly formulate plans to develop the appropriate organizational
approach(es) for a synthesis and integration enterprise. Such an enterprise could be comprised of a center or multiple centers, a virtual consortium, and/or a grant-making program to fund synthesis efforts. The enterprise would provide the necessary infrastructure for collaborative synthesis projects, notably facilities for face-to-face and virtual meetings, technical and scientific staff to assist with data integration and analysis, training to build capacity for Gulf synthesis, and funding to support synthesis working groups. Synthesis and integration should be initiated as soon as possible and need to be undertaken in close collaboration with management activities and agency and organization staff. These activities need to take advantage of, inform, and contribute to restoration database development.
RESTORATION EVALUATION AND LEARNING CAN INFORM ADAPTIVE MANAGEMENT
The complexity, large scale, and extended timeframe of Gulf restoration provide invaluable opportunities for improving the effectiveness of restoration through monitoring, evaluation and adaptive management. Knowledge gained through these efforts can be applied to improve the performance and cost-effectiveness of ongoing or future restoration activities. The committee concludes that as greater uncertainties or resources are involved, monitoring to enable adaptive management becomes critically important.
Because of the complexity of the environment that restoration aims to manipulate, all restoration efforts will face some level of uncertainty and associated risk of negative or undesirable project outcomes. Uncertainties arise due to uncontrollable environmental variability as well as incomplete knowledge regarding how species, habitats, ecosystems, and people respond to restoration activities. Pre- and post-restoration construction and monitoring can be deliberately designed in ways that allow for restoration to proceed despite unresolved uncertainties. Although adaptive management may not be appropriate or necessary for all restoration projects, particularly those where the response is well known or the time scales of a given response are lengthy, adaptive management becomes more important when greater resources or uncertainties are involved. Adaptive management increases the likelihood that restoration goals will be achieved while decreasing the likelihood of undesirable outcomes. It also enhances the ever-important communication that is required among scientists, managers, and stakeholders.
Several Gulf restoration programs have stated their intent to use adaptive management in Gulf restoration, notably the NRDA Trustee Council. This provides an important opportunity to accelerate Gulf restoration practices and related science, but only if those programs provide strong guidance and adequate funding to ensure that adaptive management is included in restoration and monitoring plans and activities. Based on experience of other large restoration programs, adaptive management requires a strong commitment to a dedicated organizational structure that supports adaptive management planning, identifies and prioritizes key uncertainties, learns by analysis and synthesis of monitoring data, and makes adjustments to restoration projects based on new information in a timely fashion. To improve long-term restoration effectiveness, and where the restoration program managers deem it appropriate, Gulf restoration programs should implement adaptive management at the program- and project-level. To implement adaptive management, projects or programs need to commit to the
- Careful determination of critical uncertainties, prioritized by the potential for adaptive management to improve future restoration decision making and reduce risk;
- Development of project-level adaptive management plans that formalize the key steps and responsible parties throughout the adaptive management process;
- Institutional support for synthesis and evaluation in support of decision making;
- Development of a decision-making process in advance for making adjustments to restoration projects;
- A clear financial and procedural commitment to adaptive management, which will likely require a dedicated organizational structure and additional planning and monitoring beyond typical restoration projects; and
- Coordinated guidance for implementing adaptive management for Gulf restoration efforts.
The unparalleled magnitude of both the DWH oil spill and the restoration funding available provide an unprecedented opportunity to accomplish substantial ecological restoration throughout the Gulf of Mexico region. Given this
historic opportunity, programs have the responsibility to demonstrate in a transparent fashion how dollars are allocated, whether ecological restoration objectives are accomplished, and what is learned from restoration outcomes. Only statistically rigorous monitoring, well-designed data stewardship, and coordinated synthesis efforts will enable programs to evaluate restoration outcomes and draw conclusions with high confidence. To undertake such a monitoring and evaluation effort and to ensure restoration efforts are effective and resilient, the committee recommends the following:
- Gulf restoration programs need to develop clear and measurable ecological and, where appropriate, socioeconomic objectives at project and program levels to guide monitoring plans and against which to evaluate restoration performance.
- All restoration administered by the NRDA Trustee Council, RESTORE Council, NFWF, and the Gulf states should be accompanied by a strategic, rigorous monitoring effort, described in a monitoring plan, that enables an assessment of progress relative to the restoration goals and objectives articulated by the programs and projects.
- Gulf restoration programs should coordinate their efforts to ensure that monitoring data are as consistent and comparable as possible across the Gulf by (a) assembling teams of restoration scientists, managers, and practitioners that will identify critical subsets of metrics and protocols that should be standardized for a given restoration type and (b) coordinating with existing or related environmental monitoring efforts to establish or expand existing reference site networks.
- Gulf restoration programs should ensure data are publically available by establishing and enforcing clear policies for archiving and sharing of restoration monitoring data and ensuring that monitoring data is archived with a portal that has long-term support and can be trusted to provide open data access for the next few decades. This can be accomplished by contractually requiring data management plans with explicit deliverables as part of the restoration proposals.
- Gulf restoration programs should consider creating a specific enterprise for synthesis activities in support of Gulf restoration, because synthesis of monitoring data is required for evaluating restoration performance beyond individual projects and restoration program outcomes for wide-ranging species such as marine mammals, sea turtles, and birds; and
- Where it is deemed appropriate, all Gulf restoration programs should apply knowledge gained through analysis and synthesis of monitoring data by implementing adaptive management to improve restoration effectiveness.