NOAA and Esri Build Coastal Study Applications

Identifying, Predicting, and Mapping Species Habitat with GIS

Esri Services logoWhich bottom-dwelling species can be found in Albemarle Sound, North Carolina? What is the best time of year to dredge a channel in order to minimize the impact on species? Which areas of Pensacola Bay, Florida, are most suitable for oysters. And what happens if the supply of freshwater is reduced by 50 percent? These are the kinds of questions that can be addressed by two new, custom ArcView GIS extensions: Coastal Ocean Resource Assessment (CORA) and Habitat Suitability Modeling (HSM).


These extensions have been developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Biogeography Program staff, which have been working with Esri to develop techniques for rapid assessment of coastal resources and predicting suitable habitat areas for coastal species. Since NOAA has mandates to manage selected coastal and ocean species (invertebrates, fish, marine reptiles and mammals) and to identify essential fish habitat for managed species, the ability to develop and obtain species and habitat distribution maps is of great concern. These applications would also be useful for other public and private institutions which spend millions of dollars each year to obtain or develop similar resource assessments. CORA and HSM were created to support NOAA mandates and related projects.

Coastal Ocean Resource Assessment

CORA map showing the distribution and abundance of a species in North Carolina estuaries based on two data sets. Inset: The CORA query builder screen.CORA will be used by the staff of NOAA's Biogeography Program to integrate and analyze large, diverse data sets on coastal resources, and generate fisheries distribution and habitat maps and summary reports. Species distribution and relative abundance data can be analyzed in concert with environmental quality data, and a myriad of questions about relationships between species and habitat can be addressed. The prototype for CORA focuses on the estuarine and coastal ocean fisheries of North Carolina, but also includes information on bottom type, estuarine salinity, and shoreline type. Implementing CORA for a new area requires the acquisition of data sets for the area and a substantial amount of data restructuring.

For this extension, Esri's Professional Services staff developed a Visual Basic user interface to be used with ArcView GIS. The CORA wizard prompts the user to select criteria for their query, such as analysis area, species, life stage, and time period. CORA passes the resulting query to an external database (e.g., Oracle) via Structured Query Language (SQL). Species life history characteristics, environmental parameters, and other attributes of interest may be stored in Oracle or Access databases. The reports, themes, and layouts generated through CORA can be used in environmental impact statements, species and habitat assessments, restoration plans, and research.

Esri programmers view CORA as a demonstration of the success with which data reporting and mapmaking capabilities can be provided by merging the spatial data analysis capabilities of Esri's software with sophisticated software (Oracle).

Habitat Suitability Modeling

Federal GIS LogoHSM is a custom extension of Esri's ArcView GIS Spatial Analyst. HSM uses theoretical or empirical model parameters defined outside the application to generate maps of habitat suitability for selected fisheries species and to predict the effects of environmental change. For example, HSM can predict the changes in species distribution resulting from dredging or changes in freshwater flow.

HSM predicts the suitability of an area for a species based on the species' habitat requirements and the area's environmental characteristics. HSM assigns habitat suitability ratings to environmental measurements (e.g., 50 C temperature) in the data layers (e.g., March temperature map), based on the species habitat requirements. Using algorithms, HSM then combines the rated layers to calculate the overall habitat suitability for the species and area of interest, and generates predictive maps of relative habitat suitability for the species. To validate the model, the user can import and overlay actual survey or field data (e.g., fish trawl survey data), and generate maps and statistical summaries of the predicted and actual species distributions.

"The most exciting and fulfilling part of this project has been the process that integrates both spatial and nonspatial data. Combined with an RDBMS and a GIS, we have the ability to streamline them into a single session to achieve high-quality map products in a matter of hours, rather than the several days or even weeks that were involved previously in the process" says Richard Lawrence, Esri project manager.

For more information on CORA, HSM, or NOAA's other habitat and biogeography projects, contact Tracy Gill (tel.: 301-713-3000, ext. 180; E-mail: or Mark Monaco, Chief, NOAA's Biogeography Program (tel.: 301-713-3000, ext. 189; E-mail: mark.monaco@noaa. gov).

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