Our nation's estuaries are in grave danger. The vital habitats they provide for an extraordinary diversity of food and wildlife are shrinking fast -- jeopardizing jobs in the fishing and tourism industries, and witness the recent Pfiesteria outbreak in the Chesapeake Bay, even endangering human health.
A way of life that has been at the heart of our coastal communities for generations is also endangered. The richness estuaries bring to our lives -- whether to a commercial fisherman setting out on the water just as the sun rises, to a mother wanting to show her child the wonders of a flock of nesting pelicans, or to adults seeking solitude in a place of exquisite beauty -- could one day be gone.
What is estuary habitat and why is it important?
The essence of our estuaries is found in their habitats: salt marshes, eel grass beds, fish runs, mudflats, and mangroves. These estuary habitats are the places where plants and wildlife live and create the web of life which makes estuaries extraordinary. In estuaries, soil, nutrients, and water combine in a special way to nurture marsh grasses, sea grasses, and other types of vegetation. At first glimpse, these estuary habitats might appear to be very simple and insignificant, but they provide creatures with shelter and food. By nurturing this bounty of life, habitats make estuaries the ecological, cultural, and economic powerhouses that we treasure.
Unfortunately, much of our estuary habitat has been damaged and destroyed over the past 100 years with little regard for its many benefits. When estuary habitats are paved over, polluted by runoff, or lost to coastal land subsidence, it cripples an estuary's ability to support life. When a salt marsh is filled, it can no longer filter sediments and pollution from run off. When pollution destroys eel grass beds, young fish and shellfish will no longer be able to hide and feed in its shelter. In these little ways, habitat loss has accumulated to threaten the health of our nation's estuaries.
In Narragansett Bay, nursery habitat for fish has dwindled due to watershed over-development, less pollution filtration and diminished fresh water flows. Other estuaries have been hit even harder: 95% of the San Francisco Bay's original wetlands have been destroyed, 85% of Galveston Bay's sea grass meadows are gone, and the Chesapeake Bay oyster harvests fell from 25 million to 1 million pounds in just 30 years.
But this story need not have a bad ending- because estuary habitat can be restored to its former glory. A variety of efforts -- ranging from parents and children going out on a Saturday morning and replanting natural vegetation to reconstruction of physical and hydrologic conditions through heavy engineering -- have successfully brought estuaries back to life. However, we must act now, before the bounty of our estuaries are lost.
Restoring our nation's estuary habitat will:
- Maintain vital food supplies. Healthy estuaries produce more food per acre than the richest Midwestern farmland because of the fertile mix of nutrients from land and sea.
- Protect Nature's Bounty. Beyond providing food for our consumption, estuaries are the home of thousands of species of fish, birds, plants, and animals that depend on healthy habitat for their survival.
- Create jobs. There are 28 million jobs in the fishing, tourism and recreational boating industries -- all of which depend on healthy estuaries for their products and customers. Indeed, estuaries and coastal waters provide essential habitat for 75% of America's commercial fish catch and 80 to 90% of the recreational fish catch.
- Protect human health. The Pfiesteria outbreak on the Chesapeake Bay -- causing massive fish kills -- has harmed human health in those exposed to the toxic microbe, causing skin lesions and even serious memory loss. That's what happens when estuaries are allowed to decline. But when they are restored, we can swim and fish without fear.
- Preserve a way of life. Healthy estuaries support unique, centuries-old cultures, traditions and ways of life dependent upon the diversity of wildlife for everything from livelihoods to storytelling. Estuary restorations will maintain these ways of life -- and the heritage they embody -- for the benefit of future generations.
- Expand our enjoyment. 180 million Americans -- approximately 70% of the entire population -- visited estuaries in 1993 for vacations, recreation, sport, or sightseeing. They enjoyed swimming, fishing, boating, diving, wildlife viewing, hunting, hiking, and learning. The more we do to restore estuaries, the more Americans will be able to experience their amazing bounty.
- Enhance our quality of life. For the 110 million Americans who live near estuaries, they are linchpins in people's quality of life: for their scenic beauty, for their recreational opportunities, for their bounty, for their abundance of life and for their mere presence. Restoring estuary habitat is the only way to ensure that this quality of life is protected and improved.
- Help our children learn. Estuaries are a matchless educational resource that must be maintained as living laboratories of life.