Home > Explore Data & Reports > Support for Integrated Ecosystem Assessments of NOAA’s National Estuarine Research Reserves System (NERRS), Volume II: Assessment of Ecological Condition and Stressor Impacts in Subtidal Waters of the North Carolina NERRS


Cooksey, C., J. Hyland, E. Wirth, W.L. Balthis, M. Fulton, D.Whitall, and S. White. 2008. Support for Integrated Ecosystem Assessments of NOAA’s National Estuarine Research Reserves System (NERRS), Volume II: Assessment of Ecological Condition and Stressor Impacts in Subtidal Waters of the North Carolina NERRS. NOAA Technical Memorandum NOS NCCOS 83. Charleston, SC. 65 pp.

Data/Report Type:

NOAA Technical Memorandum


A study was conducted to assess the status of ecological condition and potential human-health risks in subtidal estuarine waters throughout the North Carolina National Estuarine Research Reserve System (NERRS) (Currituck Sound, Rachel Carson, Masonboro Island, and Zeke’s Island). Field work was conducted in September 2006 and incorporated multiple indicators of ecosystem condition including measures of water quality (dissolved oxygen, salinity, temperature, pH, nutrients and chlorophyll, suspended solids), sediment quality (granulometry, organic matter content, chemical contaminant concentrations), biological condition (diversity and abundances of benthic fauna, fish contaminant levels and pathologies), and human dimensions (fish-tissue contaminant levels relative to human-health consumption limits, various aesthetic properties). A probabilistic sampling design permitted statistical estimation of the spatial extent of degraded versus non-degraded condition across these estuaries relative to specified threshold levels of the various indicators (where possible). With some exceptions, the status of these reserves appeared to be in relatively good to fair ecological condition overall, with the majority of the area (about 54%) having various water quality, sediment quality, and biological (benthic) condition indicators rated in the healthy to intermediate range of corresponding guideline thresholds. Only three stations, representing 10.5% of the area, had one or more of these indicators rated as poor/degraded in all three categories. While such a conclusion is encouraging from a coastal management perspective, it should be viewed with some caution. For example, although co-occurrences of adverse biological and abiotic environmental conditions were limited, at least one indicator of ecological condition rated in the poor/degraded range was observed over a broader area (35.5%) represented by 11 of the 30 stations sampled. In addition, the fish-tissue contaminant data were not included in these overall spatial estimates; however, the majority of samples (77% of fish that were analyzed, from 79%, of stations where fish were caught) contained inorganic arsenic above the consumption limits for human cancer risks, though most likely derived from natural sources. Similarly, aesthetic indicators are not reflected in these spatial estimates of ecological condition, though there was evidence of noxious odors in sediments at many of the stations. Such symptoms reflect a growing realization that North Carolina estuaries are under multiple pressures from a variety of natural and human influences. These data also suggest that, while the current status of overall ecological condition appears to be good to fair, long-term monitoring is warranted to track potential changes in the future.

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