National Estuarine Research Reserve System

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Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve, Florida. Reserves protect and conserve 1.3 million acres of coastal and estuarine habitat, while also facilitating improved stewardship of coastal habitats outside of the reserve boundaries.

The National Estuarine Research Reserve System is a network of 28 estuarine areas — places where freshwater from the land mixes with saltwater from the sea — established across the nation for long-term research, education, and coastal stewardship. The reserves are a partnership between NOAA and the coastal states and territories. NOAA’s Office for Coastal Management is responsible for administrating the reserve system. Each reserve is managed on a day-to-day basis by a lead state agency or university, with input from local partners. The mission of the reserves is to practice and promote coastal and estuarine stewardship through innovative research and education, using a system of protected areas.

National network

The reserve system was established by Section 315 of the Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972 to be a network of estuaries that represent different biogeographical regions of the United States. Currently, reserves are located in 22 U.S. coastal states and Puerto Rico. The sites within the reserve system protect more than 1.3 million acres of coastal land and waters from Alaska to Florida. Reserves range in size from 366,100-acre Kachemak Bay NERR, Alaska, to 573-acre Old Woman Creek NERR, Ohio.

Science to management

Reserve staff work with local communities and regional groups to address natural resource management issues, such as stormwater runoff, habitat restoration, and invasive species. Through integrated research and training, the reserves help communities develop strategies to deal successfully with these coastal resource issues. The NERRS Science Collaborative, a new partnership between NOAA and the University of New Hampshire, puts reserve-based science to work for coastal communities grappling with coastal management issues. The program brings community members into the research process so their perspective can inform the research design, implementation and the application of the project results to a particular problem.

Research and monitoring

Estuarine Reserves serve as living laboratories for on-site staff, visiting scientists and graduate students who study coastal ecosystems. In this capacity, the reserves serve as platforms for long-term research and monitoring and as reference sites for comparative studies on coastal topics such as species management, habitat conservation and restoration, and ecosystem dynamics. In an effort to understand and track long-term changes in estuaries and coastal areas, the estuarine reserves established the System Wide Monitoring program (SWMP) in 1995. SWMP collects a variety of data, including water quality, weather conditions, and habitat changes. The information collected by SWMP has provided many coastal communities with the tools to address and manage resource management problems.

Education and training

Estuarine reserves serve as "living classrooms" for educators, students, and the public. The reserves take a local approach in advancing estuary literacy and generating meaningful experiences for all kinds of people interested in learning about, protecting, and restoring estuaries. For example, reserves offer classes for K-12 students; support teachers through professional development programs in coastal and estuary education; and provide public education events.

The Coastal Training Program at reserves provides up-to-date scientific information and skill building opportunities to individuals who are responsible for making decisions that affect coastal resources. Through this program, estuarine reserves can ensure that coastal decision-makers have the knowledge and tools they need to address critical resource management issues of concern to local communities.


Reserves protect and conserve 1.3 million acres of coastal and estuarine habitat, while also facilitating improved stewardship of coastal habitats outside of the reserve boundaries. The estuarine reserves take an approach to stewardship that uses the best available science to inform the restoration and maintenance of healthy, productive and resilient ecosystems. Volunteers have been instrumental to the stewardship efforts of estuarine reserves. On average volunteers have donated 100,000 hours a year on a variety of projects including beach clean-ups, restoration projects, educational tours and monitoring programs.

Benefits of estuaries

Estuaries are some of the most productive ecosystems in the world and are home to many different plants and animals. The reserves are designed to protect these areas and the species that inhabit them. Estuaries are also crucial spawning areas for at least two-thirds of the nation’s commercial fish and shellfish. Wetlands associated with estuaries buffer uplands from flooding.

Estuaries are important parts of our lives – connected to our economy and culture. Estuaries support the U.S. economy in the form of seafood sales, jobs, and recreational activities such as fishing, bird watching and boating. Estuaries offer cultural importance to Americans because they are often city and trade centers, are an important source of food, and have a long history of use by Native Americans.

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Did you know?

Estuaries and their surrounding wetlands are bodies of water usually found where rivers meet the sea. Estuaries are home to unique plant and animal communities that have adapted to brackish water—a mixture of fresh water draining from the land and salty seawater.

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