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The Future: Managing, Protecting and Restoring Estuaries

Estuaries Tutorial

water lillies

Estuaries are both beautiful and ecologically bountiful. Their natural expanses provide habitats for a wide range of animal and plant species. This is an image of the Old Woman Creek National Estuarine Research Reserve. It is located on the south-central shore of Lake Erie in Erie County, Ohio, three miles east of Huron. It is one of the "Great Lakes-type" freshwater estuaries in the National Estuarine Research Reserve System, and features freshwater marshes, swamp forests, a barrier beach, an upland forest, and a portion of nearshore Lake Erie.

Estuaries are biologically and economically invaluable natural resources. Assaulted by natural and anthropogenic disturbances, estuaries, and the plants and animals that call them home, are in danger of disappearing if actions are not taken to protect them.

During the last century, millions of acres of estuarine habitats have been destroyed; many more are in poor health and in danger of being lost. In 1996, 62% of estuaries had good water quality. By 2000, only 49% of estuaries had good water quality. How we choose to treat our estuaries today will have an enormous impact on their existence in the future.

Recognizing the value and importance of estuaries and the dangers facing them, Congress created the National Estuarine Research Reserve System (NERRS) in 1972. The system is dedicated to protecting a network of estuaries that represent the range of coastal estuarine habitats in the United States and its territories. The system protects more than one million acres of estuarine land and water in 23 states and Puerto Rico. These reserves serve as laboratories and classrooms where the effects of natural and human activities on estuaries can be monitored and studied by scientists and students. In addition, all estuaries, whether or not they are in the National Estuarine Research Reserve System, are protected under every U.S. state’s coastal zone management program. Many states have designated estuaries as areas to preserve or restore for their conservation, recreational, ecological, historical, and aesthetic values.


Many species, like these great egrets, nest and breed in estuaries around the world. In addition, estuaries provide critical nesting grounds and nurseries to many threatened and endangered species. (Photo Credit: Miriam Sutton)

When we have failed to protect estuaries, another course of action is to restore them. Restoring habitats involves removing pollutants and invasive species from the water and surrounding lands, reestablishing natural ecosystem processes, and reintroducing native plants and animals. The goal is to rebuild the estuary to a healthy, natural ecosystem that works like it did before it was polluted or destroyed.

In November 2000, the Estuary Restoration Act (ERA) was signed into law. It makes restoring our nation’s estuaries a national priority, with a goal of restoring one million acres of estuarine habitat by 2010. NOAA is providing the necessary data, science, tools and long-term monitoring efforts to help reach the ERA’s million-acre goal.

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Author: NOAA

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