A Conceptual Framework for Assessing Ecosystem Health




Harwell, Mark A.
Gentile, John H.
McKinney, Larry D.
Tunnell Jr., John W.
Dennison, William C.
Kelsey, R Heath
Stanzel, Kiersten M.
Stunz, Gregory W.
Withers, Kim
Tunnell, Jace


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Over the past century, the environment of the Gulf of Mexico has been significantly altered and impaired by extensive human activities. A national commitment to restore the Gulf was finally initiated in response to the unprecedented Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. Consequently, there is a critical need for an assessment framework and associated set of indicators that can characterize the health and sustainability of an ecosystem having the scale and complexity of the Gulf. The assessment framework presented here was developed as an integration of previous ecological risk– and environmental management–based frameworks for assessing ecosystem health. It was designed to identify the natural and anthropogenic drivers, pressures, and stressors impinging on ecosystems and ecosystem services, and the ecological conditions that result, manifested as effects on valued ecosystem components. Four types of societal and ecological responses are identified: reduction of pressures and stressors, remediation of existing stressors, active ecosystem restoration, and natural ecological recovery. From this conceptual framework are derived the specific indicators to characterize ecological condition and progress toward achieving defined ecological health and sustainability goals. Additionally, the framework incorporates a hierarchical structure to communicate results to a diversity of audiences, from research scientists to environmental managers and decision makers, with the level of detail or aggregation appropriate for each targeted audience. Two proof-of-concept studies were conducted to test this integrated assessment and decision framework, a prototype Texas Coastal Ecosystems Report Card, and a pilot study on enhancing rookery islands in the Mission-Aransas Reserve, Texas, USA. This Drivers–Pressures–Stressors–Condition–Responses (DPSCR4) conceptual framework is a comprehensive conceptual model of the coupled human–ecological system. Much like its predecessor, the ecological risk assessment framework, the DPSCR4 conceptual framework can be tailored to different scales of complexity, different ecosystem types with different stress regimes, and different environmental settings. Integr Environ Assess Manag 2019;15:544–564. © 2019 The Authors. Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management published by Wiley Periodicals, Inc. on behalf of Society of Environmental Toxicology & Chemistry (SETAC)






McKinney, L.D., Harwell, M.A., et.al. 2019. A Conceptual Framework for Assessing Ecosystem Health. Abstract (Accepted). GOMOSES 2020. Control number: 2020-A-156-GOMRI.