|What is an Estuary?|
In most coastal communities, the local "estuary" is known by another name: Chesapeake Bay, Puget Sound, Indian River Lagoon, Cook Inlet. These are all estuaries - but what makes them so, and why are they so important to the country and to the 110 million Americans who live near their shores?
Estuaries are bodies of water along our coasts that are formed when freshwater from rivers flows into and mixes with saltwater from the ocean. In estuaries, the fresh river water is blocked from streaming into the open ocean by either surrounding mainland, peninsulas, barrier islands, or fringing saltmarshes. This mixing of fresh and saltwater creates a unique environment that brims with life of all kinds -- a transition zone between the land and sea known as an estuary. The estuary contains an abundance of life - gathering nutrients from the land and from the ocean, forming an ecosystem that contains more life per square inch than the richest Midwest farmland.
Why are healthy estuaries important to us? Estuaries are a critical source for much of our ocean life. Their bounty forms a natural wonder that offers the more than 50% of Americans who live near estuaries, and the millions who visit, a wealth of recreational opportunities. Estuaries provide essential habitat for over 75 percent of our nation's commercial fish catch. Commercial and recreational fishing, boating and tourism also provide more than 28 million jobs. Fishing alone generates $111 billion yearly in economic activity.
The tourism value of estuaries to local and regional economies is significant: in 1993 more than 180 million Americans visited coastal waters nationwide -- nearly 70 percent of the U.S. population. And, in one year alone (1991), 73 million people in the U.S. spent more than $10 billion on recreational boating products and services.
Estuaries are important to our quality of life and our health for reasons other than jobs, healthy economies, and recreational opportunities. The local bay or sound often serves as the focal point for community life and traditions, hosting everything from harvest festivals to busy ports. They also protect water quality, are a center for research and education, and help stem the erosion of our shoreline communities.
Estuaries, in short, are national treasures -- vital ecological and community resources whose health affects our health and the vibrancy of our communities and economy.