Stylized ecosystem with symbols for each indicator presented here

Marine ecosystem with icons for each of the key indicators that will be presented on this website

(click to enlarge)

The National Marine Ecosystem Status web portal provides the status of marine ecosystems across the U.S. and access to NOAA ecosystem indicator information and data. Check out this presentation to walk through how you can access information on this site. 

Definition of indicators: Ecosystem indicators are quantitative and/or qualitative measures of key components of the ecosystem. Marine ecosystems provide food, jobs, security, well-being, and other services to millions of people across the U.S. Yet, marine ecosystems and the people that rely on them are facing increasingly complex challenges. Tracking the status and trends of ocean and coastal ecosystems is critically important to understand how these ecosystems are changing and identify potential issues. 


Understanding the status of key components of the ecosystem including human activities and well-being is essential because of the interlinkages between components. For example, broad-scale climate patterns such as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) impact the temperature of the ocean. These broad-scale climate patterns interact with shorter scale climate to impact plankton by changing what species are present, how they grow, and where they are. Phytoplankton are often measured by chlorophyll-a and serve the base of the food web. Primary consumers such as zooplankton and small pelagic fish eat phytoplankton. Larger fish eat zooplankton and other small fish. Marine mammals then feed on plankton, smaller, and larger fish. Humans consume seafood from across the ecosystem. Humans also rely on various ocean services such as tourism, seafood, and recreational activities for employment, recreation, and income. 

Human Dimensions

Marine environments are important for people all across the country, but particularly so for people living in coastal communities. In the United States, coastal counties account for 39 percent of the total population (NOS). There are hundreds of thousands of ocean-dependent business establishments in these communities, employing millions of people and paying over $100 billion in wages annually. Employment in the ocean economy, including recreation, tourism, travel, and seafood industries,  continues to grow faster than the U.S. economy as a whole. 

Challenges to the Ecosystem

This ocean economy and human welfare more broadly are impacted by overfished stocks, hurricanes and other natural disasters which can cost billions of dollars, loss of threatened and endangered species, and beach closures. Overfishing is when the annual rate of catch of fish and other animals is too high and impacts businesses, the availability of seafood, and more. The number of weather and climate-related disasters exceeding 1 billion dollars, termed a billion-dollar disaster, has increased in the United States since 1980. Under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a species is considered endangered if it is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range or threatened if it is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future. These iconic species are important not only for coastal tourism such as whale watching but also critical for ecosystem functioning. Beach closures occur when beach water quality is determined to be unsafe for humans, which can have significant impacts on human health, the economy, and the ecosystem. 

These key ecosystem components, from sea surface temperature to coastal tourism, are interconnected. Therefore, it is important to track the status and trends of these components to understand the current state of U.S. marine ecosystems.

 Understanding the Gauge plots

The gauge plots that accompany the indicator time series are meant to reflect the current status of that ecosystem component at the regional or national level. The numerical scores are determined as the percentile rank of the average (mean) value of that indicator over the last five years of the time series, relative to the series as a whole. The values typically represent quantitative score, with more desirable conditions in the darker blue.  Thus, some gauges are "right-handed" with the higher values being in darker blue, whereas other gauges are "left-handed" with lower values being in darker blue (indicating that lower values are preferable). In some instances (e.g. climate measures), the scores represented are unitless and are presented as two-way gauges, indicating that either high or low scores are observed, implying neither higher nor lower values are necessarily preferred.


examples of righthand, lefthand, and 2-way gauges

                Lefthand gauge                                          Righthand gauge                                   Two-way gauge


Understanding the Time series plots

Time series plots show the changes in each indicator as a function of time, over the period 1980-present. Each plot also shows horizontal lines that indicate the median (middle) value of that indicator, as well as the 10th and 90th percentiles, each calculated for the entire period of measurement. Time series plots were only developed for datasets with at least 10 years of data. Two symbols located to the right of each plot describe how recent values of an indicator compare against the overall series. A black circle indicates whether the indicator values over the last five years are on average above the series 90th percentile (plus sign), below the 10th percentile (minus sign), or between those two values (solid circle). Beneath that an arrow reflects the trend of the indicator over the last five years; an increase or decrease greater than one standard deviation is reflected in upward or downward arrows respectively, while a change of  less than one standard deviation is recorded by a left-right arrow.

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The following are members of NOAA Research Council’s Ecosystem Indicators Working Group who developed this website and the status reports. Should you have any questions, want to report an error or correction, or request that we consider adding links to additional marine ecosystem data, please let us know at 


Jason Link -- NMFS

Hendrik Tolman - NWS

Stephanie Oakes - NMFS

Chris Kelble - OAR

Steve Gittings - NOS

Scott Cross - NESDIS

Geret DePiper - NMFS

Ellen Spooner - NMFS

Hassan Moustahfid - NOS

Erica Towle - CRCP

Sarah Hile - NOS

Kate Quigley - NOS

Zac Cannizzo - OAR

Will Klajbor - Knauss Fellow



Ecosystem indicators are measures of the natural, social, and economic condition of the system. For example, scientists track the amount of revenue brought in by commercial fishing to measure how commercial fishing businesses are doing. Such indicators provide the ability to tell whether ecosystem attributes of interest are changing relative to management goals and objectives, and in some cases may provide the ability to predict how the system will change and assess related risk.


Criteria for choosing a new indicator or retiring an existing indicator on this site relate both to the data sourced to develop and measure the indicator, and the indicator properties. 


Indicators should meet the following Indicator Criteria:

  • Indicators should be theoretically sound, reliably represent key ecosystem attributes and hold up to peer review.
  • Indicators should have demonstrable importance to the ecosystem (e.g., keystone or structural architect species) and society  (e.g charismatic or subsistence species))
  • Indicators should be relevant and understandable to management, to the public, and to policy makers
  • Indicators should be responsive, showing sensitivity to and reacting predictably to environmental variability and/or management or policy actions. 
    • The direction of response should be theoretically- or empirically-expected.
    • When possible, indicators should  provide early warning of ecosystem change. 
  • Indicators should complement the indicators already served on the portal in ways such that they are not redundant


Data used to develop indicators should meet the following Data Criteria:

  • Data should be publicly available and be quantitative whenever possible. Qualitative information and expert opinion can provide context for quantitative indicators. 
  • Data should be specific, preferably directly measurable or observable.
  • Data should be updated on a regular basis, preferably at least annually.
  • Time-series should be long-term (>10-years preferred) and likely to extend for the foreseeable future. 
    • Data collection that is cost effective for the program collecting the data is preferable to increase the likelihood the data set will continue to be collected and maintained over time.
    • For nascent time series that have less than 10 years measurement, careful consideration of statistical treatment is required. In some cases reporting just the raw data is appropriate. 
    • For long-term climatological indices, recent short-term (e.g., last five years) trend analysis may not be appropriate. 
    • Some important data, such as those relating to corals, pH, oxygen etc. may be considered for use even if not regularly monitored. 
    • Careful consideration and explanation of the limits of such data must be documented and communicated on the NaMES web portal.
  • Data should have appropriate and adequate spatial coverage. 
    • Ideally there will be data from each US Large Marine Ecosystem (LME), providing national coverage and the ability to synthesize the data across all regions. 
    • Some data (e.g., sea ice) are not readily available for all regions and in these cases full spatial coverage in all relevant areas is important. 
    • Some data (e.g., seabirds) do not cover the full region in relevant areas nor all species.
    • Careful consideration and explanation of the limits of such data must be documented and communicated on the NaMES web portal.
  • Normal ranges of spatial (e.g. patchiness) and temporal (e.g. diel, seasonal, annual, and decadal) variation for data should be considered to ascertain status and trends.
  • Data should have sufficient signal-to-noise ratio to estimate measurement, process uncertainty, and detect significant change.


If you would like to propose a new indicator, please use this google form.