programs Natural Resources

Matagorda Bay Ecosystem Assessment

Background

Spanning over 400 square miles of the Central Texas coast, Matagorda Bay serves as a rich resource for numerous industries including commercial and recreational fishing, commercial oystering, farming and agriculture, and tourism. Matagorda Bay boasts impressive avian biodiversity and productive fishing grounds. Unlike the industrial bays and ports to the north and south, Matagorda Bay maintains a relatively small human population.

The bay also supports several species of endangered and threatened sea turtles. The last wild migrating flock of endangered whooping cranes is expanding east from the neighboring San Antonio Bay to hunt blue crabs along Matagorda’s marshes. Several species of imperiled shorebirds, including the black skimmer and American oystercatcher, may be seen foraging and resting among intact oyster reefs and shallow waters. Despite the ecological and economic value of the area, little research has been conducted on the distribution and health of the many important habitats in the bay and their value to the overall ecosystem.

Research Description

The Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts (CPA) contracted with Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi in 2019 to conduct research to: (1) inform the development of effective conservation strategies for endangered sea turtles and (2) explore opportunities for avian conservation relative to potential impacts from flooding and sea rise by implementing a multi-disciplinary ecosystem assessment of Matagorda Bay.

Researchers will compile, collect and analyze abiotic and biotic data to provide comprehensive results to Matagorda Bay stakeholders. Benthic mapping along segments of open water will identify important estuarine habitats, including oyster reefs and seagrass beds, and establish a baseline habitat condition. Mapping will be closely associated with water quality and biological sampling to gather insight on the ecological processes taking place in the bay.

Matagorda Bay hosts several species of endangered and threatened sea turtles that forage on jellyfish, crab and seagrasses sheltered in its shallow waters. Researchers will capture, tag and track sea turtle movement to determine how they utilize available resources. Tissue samples will fit sea turtles into the context of a larger food web analysis. By collecting sea turtle, fish and plant tissues, researchers hope to evaluate energy flow pathways within the bay ecosystem.

Finally, researchers will collect data necessary to establish baseline conditions of marsh productivity. Marshes play a fundamental role in bay health. The productivity of these habitats influences the abundance and diversity of the marine and avian life that enrich the bay ecosystem.

Deliverables Due at Contract End, September 30, 2021

Final report including analysis, results and the associated data for all tasks, including:

  • Habitat mapping for evaluation of habitat change
  • Sea turtle movement and ecosystem connectivity
  • Biological sampling across habitats
  • Marsh ecosystem sampling for flooding and sea rise assessments
  • Trophic ecology and food web analysis
  • Coupling historical and ongoing datasets
  • Water quality and plankton monitoring

Why this research matters

Extensive and relatively undeveloped, Matagorda Bay is frequently dubbed pristine by those who live and work around the water’s edge. In fact, Matagorda Bay does not have the same sources of environmental degradation that compromise the natural resources of bays to the north and south. However, given the complexity of factors that influence the bay, from economic development to hurricanes, the pristine status of Matagorda Bay is not guaranteed. With the aid of stakeholder engagement, the CPA seeks to develop science-based solutions that balance economic activity and the sustainable use of environmental resources of Matagorda Bay.