What is an Estuary and Why are they so Important?

Estuaries are bodies of water where freshwater from rivers and streams mixes with the seawater from the ocean.  Estuaries are beautiful, bio-diverse and play a critically important role in keeping our environment in balance.  They come in all shapes and sizes and have many names—bays, lagoons, harbors, inlets, or sounds. According to the United States Environmental Protection agency , as many as 80 percent of the fish that we catch for food or fun depend on estuaries to live. 

Some examples of the nation's estuaries are: Chesapeake Bay, San Francisco Bay, Puget Sound and Long Island Sound. Although each estuary is unique, they all share common characteristics such as constant mixing of salt and fresh water by tides and winds, as well as common problems such as excessive nutrient pollution and loss of natural habitats.

Watch this fun explanation of estuaries and why they are important produced by the National Association of Esutuary Programs...

Why Are Estuaries Important?

The sheltered waters of estuaries are home to countless plants and animals that like to live in water that is part fresh and part salty. Examples include horseshoe crabs, ospreys, manatees, mangroves, and seagrasses. Hundreds of fish and shellfish, such as scallops, shrimp, and salmon, live in estuaries at some point in their life.

The Chesapeake Bay is home to blue crabs, oysters, ospreys, many species of aquatic plants, as well as striped bass and other commercially and recreationally important fish species.  Estuaries protect water quality by filtering out dirt and pollution. In addition, estuaries and the land surrounding them are places where people live, sail, fish, swim, and bird watch. As a result, estuaries are often the centers of our coastal communities.

The tangible and direct economic benefits of estuaries should not be overlooked...

 Tourism, fisheries, and other commercial activities thrive on the wealth of natural resources that estuaries supply. The protected coastal waters of estuaries also support important public infrastructure, serving as harbors and ports vital for shipping, transportation, and industry. Some attempts have been made to measure certain aspects of the economic activity that depends on America's estuaries and other coastal waters, for example:

  • Estuaries provide habitat for more than 75% of America's commercial fish catch, and for 80-90% of the recreational fish catch. Estuarine-dependent fisheries are among the most valuable across the nation, estimated to be worth billions of dollars.
  • Nationwide, commercial and recreational fishing, boating, tourism, and other coastal industries provide more than 30 million jobs. Commercial shipping alone employs tens of thousands of people.
  • There are 25,500 recreational facilities along the U.S. coasts and almost 44,000 square miles of outdoor public recreational areas. The average American spends 10 recreational days on the coast each year and nearly 70% of the U.S. population visit the coast during the year. Coastal recreation and tourism alone generate tens of billions of dollars of revenue for local communities.
  • In one estuarine system in the Northeast that was studied some years ago it was found that commercial and recreational fishing generate about $240 million per year. In that same estuary, tourism and beach-going generate $1.5 billion per year, and shipping and marinas generate $1.86 billion per year.

In short, estuaries provide us with a whole suite of resources, benefits, and services. Some of these can be measured in dollars and cents, others can not. Estuaries are an irreplaceable natural resource that must be managed carefully for the mutual benefit of all who enjoy and depend on them.  In 2009, President Obama signed the Chesapeake Bay Executive Order, which recognizes its importance and renews federal efforts to restore and protect the Bay (link: http://executiveorder.chesapeakebay.net/page/About-the-Executive-Order.aspx).

Want to explore further?

EPA, National Estuaries Program

Explore Estuaries; A website created by the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Wetlands, Oceans, and Watersheds for kids with a virtual tour and lots of activities

Association of National Estuary Programs, ANEP...This site includes a link to the 102 estuaries in the United States that are considered to be Nationally Significant.

New Hampshire Public Television NatureWorks On Estuaries… Find an Estuary Near You!

Read more at: Restore America's Estuaries