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Economic Benefits of Wetlands - December 25, 2016

              Wetlands are a very important natural resource that are overlooked by many of us. Often when people think of wetlands, they picture unpleasant landscapes, mosquitoes, and strange smells, but what many of us overlook are the handful of benefits that these habitats provide for the ecosystem as a whole. These natural benefits often are translated into economic goods. When we look into all of the great things that wetlands do for us, it is hard to deny that we cannot do without them.

                Wetlands play a key role in regulating water quality and availability in certain areas. When heavy rains occur, wetlands slow down the flow of water, and during this process, water replenishes groundwater systems, sediments drop of the water, and surrounding plants absorb many excess nutrients. Wetlands are so effective at regulating water quality that, in some cases, they can replace water treatment plants. That in itself can save billions of dollars around the country. Even further, the act of slowing water flow helps mediate flood damage. By acting as a natural buffer wetlands can typically store around one million gallons of potential flood-water, which will reduce property damage for people who live downstream. In 2010, $34 billion was spent in the United States on repairing damage caused by floods. With stronger wetland habitats that number could have been greatly reduced. It is without question; wetlands are a landscape feature every property should be fighting for.

                Another important role wetlands play is ensuring the health of our national fisheries. About 75 percent of the commercially available harvested fish and shellfish spend a portion of their life cycle within wetland habitats. Young fish and crabs rely on clean wetlands for food and shelter. Healthy fish and shellfish are crucial for the continuation of the seafood industry. In 2014, the United States’ fish and shellfish catch was worth about $5.4 billion, according to a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

                Wetlands provide us with places for numerous recreational activities such as fishing, hiking, hunting, kayaking, and photography. The outdoor industry generates nearly $108 billion to the economy. This includes equipment for hiking and camping, fishing gear, and cameras for photography. Recreational fishing alone brings in an estimated $37 billion, which includes money spent on equipment, fishing trips, and licenses. Wildlife, like waterfowl, attracts many hunters, birdwatchers, and photographers to wetlands. Egrets, swans, herons, geese, and many other birds spend a lot of time in and around wetlands, as well as many other bird species which utilize them for nesting. Without these areas, we could see a decline in population of fish and birds, which are a vital part of the outdoor industry. These recreational pursuits also mean job security for many people within these industries.

                Unfortunately in the last century we have lost more than 50 percent of our national wetlands, and that number continues to rise every year.  Some of the main culprits of wetland loss are agricultural projects as well as urban development that are pushing them out. Excess nutrients from waste water and fertilizers deprive wetlands from oxygen to keep them alive. This creates dead zones in the habitat, rendering the once helpful area useless. Also public perception about wetlands leads to the continued mistreatment of them. If we continue to treat wetlands as wastelands, then we will continue to pollute them, or destroy them for our needs. There have been many cases where we have tried to recreate natural wetlands which we have destroyed, but have found that they are not nearly as effective as a natural wetland.

                The importance of these habitats is especially true for those of us who live on Delmarva, which is surrounded by wetlands. A large portion of our economy in this area relies on healthy wetlands for our seafood industry and recreation. . As people of Delmarva, we should be familiar with all of the great things wetland habitats do for us. Local policy makers should be working to ensure the value of wetlands is considered in land use decision making, and that wetlands are protected from projects that do not ensure benefits to society as a whole. Educating the public about the importance of these habitats will also help people’s attitude towards them as well. Stronger environmental education starting in grade school, as well as on the job training for careers that involve interacting with the natural environment will help this. It is important to conserve what is left of our natural wetlands in order for a happy and healthy environment, also it doesn’t hurt to know that our country would be saving billions of dollars in the process.

White is an intern with Maryland Coastal Bays Program and senior at Salisbury University



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