Estimating Fish and Invertebrate Production Associated with Key Coastal Habitats in the U.S. Northeast


Estimating Fish and Invertebrate Production Associated with Key Coastal Habitats in the U.S. Northeast
Coastal habitat
Jack Flanagan Flickr

Coastal habitats like oyster reefs, seagrass beds, and salt marshes serve as critical nurseries for economically and ecologically valuable fish and invertebrate species, providing access to food and shelter from predators. Scientists and managers have generally assumed that if these habitats were to be degraded or lost, the abundance of marine species would decline.

However, researchers have long struggled to quantify how habitat affects species abundance, making it difficult to integrate habitat considerations into management decisions. The Lenfest Ocean Program is supporting Bryan DeAngelis of The Nature Conservancy, Dr. Philine zu Ermgassen of the University of Edinburgh,  and Dr. Jonathan Grabowski of Northeastern University to develop estimates of fish and  invertebrate production (weight per area per year) associated with oyster reefs, seagrass  beds, and salt marshes in the United States.

The need to consider habitat   

Healthy fisheries and coastal ecosystems require a fundamental understanding of how  organisms are connected to their environment. For example, if one acre of seagrass  habitat is removed, how will its loss affect the total number of blue crabs  available to commercial and recreational fisheries? Alternatively, how many more blue  crabs would become available if one acre of seagrass were restored?

In the United States, fisheries management has gradually been shifting toward an  ecosystem-based approach that considers species interactions with other species, with  its habitat, and with humans. The Magnuson-Stevens Act, the primary U.S. fisheries  legislation, requires that regional fishery management councils use the best available  science to describe, identify, and protect critical habitats. Information quantifying fish and  invertebrate production from specific habitats could improve managers’ ability to target  restoration, conservation, and fisheries management measures to rebuild and maintain  healthy stocks while maximizing economic benefits.   

Quantifying habitat production to provide actionable results   

In this project, the research team will explore two critical questions: To what degree do oyster reef, seagrass bed, and salt marsh habitats enhance fish and  invertebrate production in the U.S. Northeast?  What biological and environmental factors have the greatest influence on this  production for each habitat?   

These questions emerged from a 2017 workshop the researchers held with federal and  state fishery and habitat managers to discuss the types of information that would be  most useful for addressing management priorities. The research team is assembling  an advisory panel consisting of members of the fisheries, habitat restoration, and  conservation communities to ensure that the project provides the most useful  information.   

To develop estimates of habitat-specific fish and invertebrate production for the Northeast,  the researchers will aggregate existing data on species abundance from a wide variety of  sources, including peer-reviewed papers, gray literature, and unpublished data from state  resource agencies, academic institutions, and programs such as the National Estuarine  Research Reserve System. They will then leverage previously developed methods to  compare habitat-specific fish and invertebrate abundance with those of adjacent,  unstructured areas.   

To estimate how biological factors such as habitat area and oyster density, along with  environmental factors like water depth and temperature, affect production, the team will  expand previous work to include all available data sources that include species abundance  information and one of the habitat variables of interest. They will then model the  relationship between the abundance of fish and invertebrate species and each variable.   

The researchers will develop online decision-making platforms that managers can access  to estimate fish and invertebrate production for specific seagrass and salt marsh habitats,  analogous to a tool they have already developed for oysters. The platforms can be updated  as new results emerge, ensuring that managers are always considering the best available  scientific information.

Research Team 

  • Bryan DeAngelis, The Nature Conservancy
  • Dr. Philine zu Ermgassen, The University of Edinburgh
  • Dr. Jonathan Grabowski, Northeastern University
  • Dr. Ronald Baker, Dauphin Island Sea Lab and the University of South Alabama
  • Dr. Chris Baillie, East Carolina University
  • Andre Daniels, United States Geological Survey
  • Theresa Davenport, Northeastern University
  • Dr. Torrance Hanley, Northeastern University
  • Dr. Randall Hughes, Northeastern University
  • Tim MacDonald, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission


For any questions, please contact Emily Knight, Manager, Lenfest Ocean program, at [email protected]. To learn more about this research and stay up to date on our latest projects, follow us on Twitter @lenfestocean or sign up for our newsletter at

Photo: Jack Flanagan via Flickr.


Webinar on Estimating Fish and Invertebrate Production Associated with Key Coastal Habitats in the United States

Quick View

On Tuesday, August 6, 2019, Bryan DeAngelis of The Nature Conservancy, Dr. Philine zu Ermgassen of the University of Edinburgh, and Dr. Jonathan Grabowski of Northeastern University gave a webinar presentation introducing their new project to estimate fish and invertebrate production associated with oyster reefs, salt marshes, and seagrass beds in the United States.