Water Quality Monitoring in Support of Baffin Bay Watershed and Bay Restoration Efforts

Principal Investigator

Since the late 1980’s, Baffin Bay has exhibited growing (in frequency and magnitude) symptoms of water quality degradation, including low oxygen events and frequent algal blooms. Low oxygen events have been linked to several large fish kills in Baffin Bay over the past 17 years. Baffin Bay has also experienced multiple prolonged, dense blooms of the harmful brown tide organism, Aureoumbra lagunensis, that have caused seagrass die‐off in Baffin Bay and the Laguna Madre. Broadly speaking, poor water quality conditions are not supportive of critical habitat and a healthy fishery in estuaries.

Prior to 2013, the only water quality data in Baffin Bay came from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s quarterly monitoring that was limited to two stations across the whole bay. This impeded our ability to document the timing and location of symptoms of water quality degradation and to determine the main cause(s). To fill the gap, the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies (HRI) initiated a rigorous water sampling program in 2013 with assistance from the Coastal Conservation Association (CCA). This program, originally run for four years with the aid of 17 citizen scientists and continuing to the present with HRI staff, has been crucial for identifying locations for, and timing of, water quality issues affecting Baffin Bay, as well as pointing to potential causes.

In response to the strong interest from local stakeholders for protecting Baffin Bay and its watershed, the HRI and the Coastal Bend Bays & Estuaries Program (CBBEP) have developed an exciting new initiative, “Bringing Baffin Back: Restoring and Protecting a Texas Treasure”. The overarching goals of Bringing Baffin Back are to: 1) find solutions to the water quality problems that are contributing to the decline in the health of Baffin Bay, 2) restore key watershed and bay habitat that has been lost due to water quality degradation, 3) foster a stewardship ethos, especially among younger generations of residents, and 4) advance efforts to educate the public on the relationship between watershed and bay health. These efforts represent a sustained commitment to dramatically improve the health of Baffin Bay and the surrounding economy through partnerships between scientists, citizen groups, landowners, philanthropies, policy makers, local municipalities, state officials, NGOs, and private businesses.

With Bringing Baffin Back underway and millions of dollars targeted for Baffin Bay watershed restoration, having access to high quality water quality data is crucial for its success. Indeed, findings from the HRI water sampling program are guiding efforts to reduce pollution loadings to Baffin Bay from its watershed and will be critical for assuring that watershed restoration targets are being met. Furthermore, water quality sampling will be necessary to adaptively manage the Baffin Bay ecosystem in the face of external drivers such as growing populations in the watershed and warming waters.

The goal of this project is to increase understanding and awareness of water quality change in Baffin Bay and its relationship to the health of critical habitat (seagrass, serpulid reefs) and living resources (i.e., fish, shrimp).

Specific objectives are to:

  1. Quantify variability in water quality indicators over time and space within Baffin Bay,
  2. Evaluate long‐term trends in water quality indicators in relation to watershed restoration efforts, and offer guidance based on data trends in support of adaptive management needs,
  3. Engage the Baffin Bay Stakeholder Group to ensure that project findings support their watershed and bay restoration efforts.