Establishing a Baseline of Estuarine Submerged Aquatic Vegetation Resources Across Salinity Zones Within Coastal Areas of the Northern Gulf of Mexico

Coastal ecosystems are dynamic and productive areas that are vulnerable to effects of global climate change. Despite their potentially limited spatial extent, submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) beds function in coastal ecosystems as foundation species, and perform important ecological services. However, limited understanding of the factors controlling SAV distribution and abundance across multiple salinity zones (fresh, intermediate, brackish, and saline) in the northern Gulf of Mexico restricts the ability of models to accurately predict resource availability. We sampled 384 potential coastal SAV sites across the northern Gulf of Mexico in 2013 and 2014, and examined community and species-specific SAV distribution and biomass in relation to year, salinity, turbidity, and water depth. After two years of sampling, 14 species of SAV were documented, with three species (coontail [Ceratophyllum demersum], Eurasian watermilfoil [Myriophyllum spicatum], and widgeon grass [Ruppia maritima]) accounting for 54% of above-ground biomass collected. Salinity and water depth were dominant drivers of species assemblages but had little effect on SAV biomass. Predicted changes in salinity and water depths along the northern Gulf of Mexico coast will likely alter SAV production and species assemblages, shifting to more saline and depth-tolerant assemblages, which in turn may affect habitat and food resources for associated faunal species.

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