Human Disturbances to Estuaries

toxic substances | nutrient pollution | pathogens | invasive species

Half Moon bay under Construction

Construction projects like this housing development can cause major damage to estuaries through a variety of mechanisms. Click on image for more details and a larger view. (Photo: Bernz/Clearwater)

Because they are transitional areas between the land and the sea, and between freshwater and saltwater environments, estuaries can be seriously impacted by any number of human, or anthropogenic, activities.

The greatest threat to estuaries is, by far, their large-scale conversion by draining, filling, damming or dredging. These activities result in the immediate destruction and loss of estuarine habitats. Until the last few decades, many estuary habitats in North America were drained and converted into agricultural areas; others were filled to create shipping ports and expand urban areas. In the United States, 38 percent of the wetlands associated with coastal areas have been lost to these types of activities (Good et al., 1998). In some areas, the estuarine habitat loss is as high as 60 percent.

Of the remaining estuaries around the world, many are seriously degraded by pollution. People have historically viewed estuaries and waterways as places to discard the unwanted by-products of civilization. Pollution is probably the most important threat to water quality in estuaries. Poor water quality affects most estuarine organisms, including commercially important fish and shellfish.

The pollutants that have the greatest impact on the health of estuaries include toxic substances like chemicals and heavy metals, nutrient pollution (or eutrophication), and pathogens such as bacteria or viruses.

Another, less widely discussed human-caused disturbance is the introduction of non-native or invasive species into estuarine environments.


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