An Introduction to the HEED MMED Project

Infectious disease outbreaks, mass mortality events, harmful algal blooms, and anomalous changes in species abundance and composition -- occurrences defined in the HEED MMED study as major marine ecological disturbances -- may signal a decline in ecosystem health. Tracking these events and conditions will facilitate a better understanding of the local, regional and global causes and consequences of environmental change. This information can be used in assessing the resulting health- and market-related costs. Further, it can provide the background for the development of policies that preserve ecosystem integrity, and reduce our vulnerability to disturbance. The data for this effort is derived from peer-reviewed scientific articles, a network of government and academic researchers, existing data-sets and, for more current events, mass-media sources.


Caption -- Marine epidemiology is analogous to public health epidemiology, however is more impact focused

The integrated assessment we have undertaken links together data from disparate ecological, climatic and economic sources. The information from these multiple perspectives can be linked because of the use, within each discipline, of the term "anomaly" -- defined as deviation from the norm. for a particular time and place. Major marine ecological disturbances (MMEDs) are identified as co-occurrence of recognized anomalies. MMEDs can be mapped, using a geographic information system, to find spatial "hotspots" and temporal clusters of events (e.g., during El Niño years). A better understanding of MMEDs can come from this convergence of information.

Our ocean health framework is similar to the traditional epidemiological model. The epidemiologist tracks vectors (e.g., insects and rodents), and microorganisms that carry infection to humans. Yet we track potentially harmful algae, marine pathogens, and other species that respond rapidly to environmental change. Diseases arise from a combination of pathogenicity, host vulnerability, and a conducive environment. Marine morbidity and mortality (disease) events may be symptomatic of compounding and chronic ecosystem abuse.

Our data depicts a geographic expansion and overall increase in MMED observations over the last several decades - including unprecedented events, and disturbances of increasing severity. These have had, in some cases, significant human health and economic impacts. Increased understanding of MMEDs, through the use of the tracking methodology described here, provides a justification and basis for a rapid response to public health risks and threats to marine ecosystems.

An Overview of Data Collection:

• Library Research - Collecting Published Data

• Personal Contact with Experts - Collecting Unpublished Data

• Data Mining - Retrieving and synthesizing data never before integrated

• Integrating Data Sets (Primarily those of Government Agencies)

   1.Marine Mammal Strandings
   2.Sea Turtle Strandings
   3.Shellfish Toxicity (Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning _ PSP)
   4.Shellfish Coliform Levels
   5.CDC Human Disease Records
   6.Climatological Data
   7.Life History Data for each Estuary
   8.Fisheries Economic Data

• Data and Process Review - Our team of Core Experts reviews the data spread and quality, provides input on the database-building process as
needed, and participates in annual workshops to oversee the project's progress and direction.

The objectives of the HEED MMED program were to:

(1) Institutionalize the monitoring program

• Continue cooperation among multi-disciplinary team of experts

• Centralize reporting of new events via World Wide Web site

• Create and maintain ongoing links to data sources (i.e., remote sensing technology, state and federal reports, etc.)

(2) Develop an archive of past marine disease events and ecological disturbances

(3) Offer a queryable hypothesis-generating tool for lay and expert use

(4) Develop models and explanatory frameworks with which to make sense of morbidity/mortality and the links to global change

(5) Produce multi-level educational materials (i.e., Status Report, CD-Rom, etc.)   The systematic methodology customized for collecting morbidity and mortality occurrence data, across a range of species is designed to enhance retrospective hypothesis testing. A comprehensive survey of past instances of marine ecological disturbance has been repeatedly requested by international, federal and state agencies in their efforts to better understand the changes occurring throughout the world's oceans. Our approach, accomplished more than merely serving has host to workshops, we drew together multiple disciplines, organized historic data in one standard format, assessed the integrity and coverage of data, and provided those involved with a method for future standardized data collection and analysis. Events within the resulting morbidity and mortality database serve as (eco)indicators of ecologically and economically significant disturbances. The final data system enables the assessment of marine ecosystem health.

In our initial study area, which includes the Western North Atlantic, Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico, recognized major marine ecological disturbances (MMEDs) were perceived to have increased in the last 30 years. We have tracked those changes, documented them and are attempting to characterize patterns within our data-sets that will assist in predicting future changes and economic and ecological consequence. The HEED Program provides researchers, interested in testing hypotheses, with six data-sets and a framework to explore factors (e.g., climate, pollution, trophodynamic shifts) that may be contributing to MMEDs.
The methods that we have developed can be scaled up to the level of a global assessment using Large Marine Ecosystems as the organizing units. The HEED (Health, Ecological and Economic Dimensions of) Global Change Program, was a 3-year effort originally funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of Global Programs and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Some of the spatial and temporal observations were compiled for a "Health and the Oceans: Status Report" published in 1998. Two congressional briefings followed the release of the report leading to subsequent requests for assistance from NIST, the GAO, NRC and Global Change National Assessment teams respectively. The results and data were also used in a Ph.D. dissertation and appeared in subsequent publications.