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Why Are Estuaries Important? The Economy and Environment

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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.


Many estuaries support healthy recreational fisheries. This, in turn, provides financial security for communities that rely on tourists to support their economies. Click on image for a larger view. (Photo: Rookery Bay NERRS site)

Environmental Benefits

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.

Economic Benefits

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).

fish boat

The fishing industry depends on healthy estuaries to provide essential nursery areas for many commercially important fish and shellfish species. Click on image for more details and larger view. (Photo: Apalachicola NERRS site)

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.

canoeing   bird watching

Healthy estuaries provide tranquil oases where canoists, kayakers, sailors, fishers, and many others can appreciate nature. Coastal recreation and tourism generate from $8-$12 billion per year in the United States alone. Click on image for larger view. (Photo: Rookery Bay NERRS site)  

Birdwatching is a hobby enjoyed by millions of Americans. Healthy estuarine ecosystems provide excellent opportunities for birders to see diverse avian species in their native surroundings. Click on image for larger view. (Photo: Rookery Bay NERRS site)



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