Rapid Vulnerability Assessment for Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary

Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary (GRNMS) is a 22 sq. mile (5700 ha) marine protected area approximately 17 nautical miles (31 km) east of the Georgia coast, and is part of the National Marine Sanctuary System. It is home to one of the largest “live bottom” reef systems in the southeast United States. Gray’s Reef is currently experiencing changing environmental conditions, and climate projections to 2100 suggest that these changes will continue and likely accelerate. The sensitivity of marine species at Gray’s Reef to these changes (i.e., vulnerability) and their ability to acclimate to these changes (i.e., resilience) will define the sustainability of the sanctuary as a viable marine habitat in coming decades.

In November 2017, GRNMS convened an expert workshop to assess the climate vulnerability of nine key species that occur within the sanctuary, with participants identifying two additional species for post-workshop assessments. Participants were provided information about the current and projected climate conditions of the sanctuary and applied this to their knowledge of each species and its capacity to adapt to changing conditions. They used a modified version of the Commission for Environmental Cooperation’s North American Marine Protected Area Rapid Vulnerability Assessment tool to transform this knowledge into a vulnerability score for each species. Once climate vulnerabilities were established, participants discussed possible adaptation strategies which, if implemented, might reduce vulnerability.

This report summarizes the outcomes of the Gray’s Reef Rapid Vulnerability Assessment workshop. Key findings were that top climate concerns included changes such as storm frequency and intensity, increasing water temperature, and ocean acidification. Top non-climate stressors were identified as well, such as invasive lionfish, sedimentation, coastal development, and marine debris/anchor damage. Initial adaptation strategies that participants felt could be widely applicable, low cost, and efficacious included lionfish reduction efforts (e.g., traps, derbies), and establishing a rapid, post-storm damage assessment protocol.

Key Words

Gray’s Reef, climate change, vulnerability, adaptation strategies