- Roadmap to Resources
- Tutorial PDF
- Subject Review
- Podcast - Estuaries
- What is an Estuary?
- Economy and Environment
- Ecosystem Services
- Water Circulation
- Estuarine Habitats
- Adaptations to Life in the Estuary
- Monitoring Estuaries
- The Future
Why Are Estuaries Important?
Disturbances to Estuaries
Why Are Estuaries Important? The Economy and Environment
Healthy estuaries are critical for the continued survival of many species of fish and other aquatic life, birds, mammals, and reptiles. All of the animals pictured above live in the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. Located on the gulf coast of Florida, Rookery Bay represents one of the few remaining undisturbed mangrove estuaries in North America. (Images: Rookery Bay NERRS site)
Estuaries are important natural places. They provide goods and services that are economically and ecologically indispensable. Often called nurseries of the sea (USEPA, 1993), estuaries provide vital nesting and feeding habitats for many aquatic plants and animals. Most fish and shellfish eaten in the United States, including salmon, herring, and oysters, complete at least part of their life cycles in estuaries. Estuaries also help to maintain healthy ocean environments. They filter out sediments and pollutants from rivers and streams before they flow into the oceans, providing cleaner waters for marine life.
Estuaries provide critical habitat for species that are valued commercially, recreationally, and culturally. Birds, fish, amphibians, insects, and other wildlife depend on estuaries to live, feed, nest, and reproduce. Some organisms, like oysters, make estuaries their permanent home; others, like horseshoe crabs, use them to complete only part of their life cycle(Sumich, 1996). Estuaries provide stopovers for migratory bird species such as mallard and canvasback ducks. Many fish, including American shad, Atlantic menhaden and striped bass, spend most of their lives in the ocean, but return to the brackish waters of estuaries to spawn.
Estuaries are often the economic centers of coastal communities. Estuaries provide habitat for more than 75 percent of the U.S. commercial fish catch, and an even greater percentage of the recreational fish catch (National Safety Council’s Environmental Center, 1998). The total fish catch in estuaries contributes $4.3 billion a year to the U.S. economy (ANEP, 1998).
Estuaries are also important recreational areas. Millions of people visit estuaries each year to boat, swim, watch birds and other wildlife, and fish. Coastal recreation and tourism generate from $8-$12 billion per year in the United States alone (National Safety Council’s Environmental Center, 1998).
Many estuaries are important centers of transportation and international commerce. In 1997, commercial shipping employed over 50,000 people in the United States (National Safety Council’s Environmental Center, 1998). Many of the products you use every day pass through one or more estuaries on a commercial shipping vessel before ever reaching your home.
The continuing prosperity many coastal communities reap from transportation, fishing and tourism is clearly linked to the health of their estuaries. The economy and the environment are completely intertwined.