Marine Spatial Ecology

Stewardship of our nation’s coastal and marine resources is one of the primary purposes of the National Ocean Service, and NCCOS’s nationally-recognized ecological and biogeographic assessments are critical to achieving that mission. Biogeographic assessments examine spatial and temporal distributions of organisms, habitats, and the historical and biological factors that produced them. Ecological assessments are more broad-based activities and range from defining the characteristics and status of ecosystem components that provide baseline conditions to detecting change in those conditions over time.

The Departments of Defense, Energy, the Interior, and state coastal zone programs and other federal, state, local, academic, not-for profit, and industry customers use our ecological and biogeographic assessments to meet their missions. Our customers use these assessments in various ways, such as to design and define the efficacy of marine protected areas, which protect cultural or natural resources; preserve future recreational and commercial fisheries through identification of habitats used by fish; quantify and map social values and ecosystem services; and to implement sound national energy policy.

NCCOS is a partner in NOAA’s Integrated Ecosystem Assessment (IEA) Program. The NOAA Integrated Ecosystem Assessment (IEA) program uses a multidisciplinary framework to advance ecosystem-based management in an ecosystem context. “In the marine science community of practice, the concept of ecosystem-based management (EBM) is a management strategy that incorporates the entire ecosystem, including humans, into resource management decisions." (Monaco et al., 2021)

The EBM strategy is growing and being used to integrate and manage complex social and marine ecosystems. NCCOS has conducted integrated ecosystem assessment research for many years and became part of the NOAA IEA program in 2010. 

Recently, the program celebrated implementation of NOAA’s formal IEA framework around the country. The ten-plus years of the NOAA IEA program are discussed in the Coastal Management Journal Special Issue, Volume 49, 2021: Issue 1: Ten years of NOAA Integrated Ecosystem Assessment. This special issue provides perspectives about and successes in the development and implementation of the NOAA IEA framework.

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Coastal resource managers and many coastal and offshore industries like energy and shipping need high-quality and reliable map products to make smart management and business decisions. Understanding coastal, pelagic, and benthic habitats can allow industry, regulators and special interest groups to come together to make more comprehensive planning decisions regarding, for example, the siting of offshore energy facilities, or navigation routes for ships that are safer for whales and beneficial to coastal tourism.

Federal agencies need NCCOS’s habitat mapping products for management of living marine resources, monitoring and assessing conditions from the shore to the seabed over the short and long term, and assessing the effectiveness of federal or state management actions. NCCOS’s efforts to map coastal, pelagic, and benthic habitats also support technology development, as we work with private industry and academia to push the boundaries of time-sensitive, efficient and integrated data collection and visualization.

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Oceans, rivers, coastal features, and the species that inhabit them do not limit themselves to the political boundaries of cities, states or their elected officials or career resource managers. Management of these resources therefore benefits from scientific study at a regional scale.

Managers use NCCOS data, tools, and predictive models to evaluate alternative management strategies with emphasis on regional scale ecosystem processes that support ecosystem-based management. The public and/or key stakeholder groups must also be engaged in understanding and accepting the regional ecosystem science that underlies the management options and decisions if they are to give the support needed for difficult and fiscally challenging management decisions. Regional governance bodies value the broader ecosystem science approach NCCOS provides, as their management issues remain complex, crossing scientific disciplines as well as geopolitical borders.

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Eighty-five percent of seafood consumed in the United States is imported, resulting in a $14 billion trade deficit, food insecurity, and missed economic opportunities. For many coastal communities, aquaculture promises economic development, revitalization of working waterfronts, and a more resilient coastal landscape. With an immense exclusive economic zone, U.S. coastal resources are vast and capable of providing environmentally sustainable seafood to meet growing U.S. and global demand.

Coastal managers, planners, and the aquaculture industry need NCCOS’s innovative science. Predictive models, data sets, maps, tools, and targeted research are defining and informing sustainable aquaculture development along every coastline of the nation. NOAA, the aquaculture industry, and coastal communities are working together to maintain healthy resilient coastal ecosystems to cultivate a sustainable aquaculture economy.

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NCCOS is facilitating the expansion of U.S. marine aquaculture. Find out how in this short video.


Coastal communities need to balance the inherent trade-offs between resource use and conservation. Managers need comprehensive information to evaluate the benefits and consequences of actions on both the ecosystem and the community. Marine Spatial Ecology (MSE) integrates a broad spectrum of physical, biological, and social sciences, to inform coastal and marine decision making. Communities, state and federal stewards, and industries such as aquaculture, offshore energy, and tourism use MSE to make decisions so that the economy can thrive and residents and visitors can enjoy our nation’s natural heritage, now and for generations to come.

NCCOS has long been a leader in the MSE community, providing a three-decade foundation of reliable and objective ecological and socioeconomic information. NCCOS scientists will continue to provide integrated biogeographic, ecological and social assessments – alongside mapping and monitoring products and services – to provide an end-to-end MSE enterprise in support of customers in the coastal and ocean management community. These unique capabilities are used by federal, state, and local decision makers to ensure that special places are valued, protected, and preserved, and to assist in growing the economies that are dependent on our nation’s maritime resources.

Consistent with NOAA’s role as a public information agency, NCCOS includes stakeholder involvement as a standard in developing MSE products for decision makers. NCCOS focuses its MSE activities primarily where there is a clearly articulated management objective and user-defined application. NCCOS has identified four distinct MSE sub-priorities (listed above).