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Ecological Indicators

CEMAR’s work on Ecological Indicators recently culminated in the production of The State of the Bay 2011, which is available from the San Francisco Estuary Partnership. The State of the Bay 2011 provides a science-based assessment of the health of the Bay ecosystem.

The report document’s the Bay’s vital signs, in a manner understandable to interested citizens of our region. By understanding “how the Bay is doing,” our community can consider if we are doing enough of the right things to protect the Bay.


There is a broad public consensus that protecting the "integrity" or the "health" of the nation's ecosystems is a worthy goal, particularly given the evidence of adverse impacts caused by human activities. This consensus is reflected in our major environmental laws. But how do we know if we're achieving this important goal?

CEMAR's ecological indicators program has been working to answer this question, which is actually more challenging than one might think. The challenge is that "health" is not an objective characteristic that can be measured, but a subjective assessment made by considering the status of indicators of important ecosystem attributes.

A major public investment is being made to restore the San Francisco Bay-Delta ecosystem, and CEMAR has been working on developing ecological indicators that can be used to assess our progress. Our goal is to prepare and present a set of indicators that are both publicly meaningful and scientifically defensible.

Our program began in 2001 with proposal of a method for assessing the "health" or "ecological condition" of South San Francisco Bay (Executive Summary or full report). Since that time we worked with the San Francisco Estuary Partnership and other collaborators on this issue, including the Bay Institute (developers of the Ecological Scorecard).

Since our present scientific understanding of the Bay is incomplete, any effort to assess its health will be an iterative, long-term process in which assessment attempts are critiqued and improved upon.

Those of us who study the Bay on a regular basis owe our fellow citizens a straightforward answer to the question, "are things getting better or worse?" If we commit to the attempt, there can be no doubt that the product will inform our debate, and that we will learn over time how to improve our assessment and make it more useful. Our imperfect attempts to answer this question will not reflect as poorly on us as our unwillingness to try in the first place.
From Determining Health in State of the Estuary 2002: Science and Strategies for Restoration by Andrew Gunther, CEMAR's Executive Director - Read more

"Ecosystems aren't more complicated than we think...
they're more complicated than we can think."

Jack Ward Thomas
Director, U.S. Forest Service
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CEMAR: Center for Ecosystem Management and Restoration
Pursuing innovative, collaborative approaches to restore California's coastal ecosystems.

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