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National Estuaries Week Celebrates Benefits of Estuarine Ecosystem - September 18, 2016

                This week marks the 28th annual National Estuaries Week, a time to celebrate estuaries and the many benefits they provide. So you may be wondering, what exactly is an estuary? Estuaries are partially enclosed bodies of water, where fresh water from rivers and streams mixes with salt water from the ocean. Estuaries, such as our Coastal Bays, form the transition between the land and the sea; creating a unique and diverse ecosystem.

                Estuaries are one of the most productive ecosystems in the world, along with coral reefs and tropical rain forests. They filter water brought in by the surrounding watershed, which is the area of land that drains into a particular body of water. This filtered water brings nutrients from the watershed, but also many of the pollutants. Estuaries and their surrounding wetlands filter out pollutants such herbicides, pesticides, heavy metals, and excess nutrients and sediments. Due to this action, estuaries are one of the most fertile ecosystems, but also have the potential be the most polluted.

                Thousands of species of wildlife are dependent on estuaries for their survival. Many commercially important species of fish, such as herring, menhaden, sea bass, and striped bass, spend a portion of their life cycle in estuaries. Coastal waters and estuaries provide necessary habitat for about 75% of the United States’ commercial and almost 85% of the recreational fish catch. Estuaries function as important spawning ground for these species and provide protection for juvenile fishes. Migratory waterfowl utilize estuaries as areas to rest and feed on their seasonal journeys. Crustaceans and shellfish, such as the infamous blue crab and Eastern oyster, also make estuaries their home, residing in underwater grasses.

                Wetlands and estuaries also act as a “buffer zone”. They absorb flood waters and protect against storm surges by acting as sponges and absorbing excess water. Wetlands and estuarine plants stabilize shorelines, which minimize erosion caused by waves, wind, and ice. Additionally, these wetlands sequester or store large amounts of carbon in their soils. Carbon sequestration is beneficial as it helps mitigate the effects of climate change.

                While estuaries provide many ecological benefits, they provide economic benefits as well. Approximately half of the United States’ population lives in coastal communities. These communities only account for 17% of the United States land area, meaning these are densely populated regions.  While half of the population lives in these communities, an additional 20% of the population visits them annually. Coastal counties provide almost 70 million jobs, and estuaries contribute nearly $1 trillion annually to the economy.

                Despite all of the benefits that estuaries provide, there are many threats to their survival. In the past 200 years, we have lost more than half of the nation’s original coastal wetlands. While some of this is due to natural erosion, a large portion of this land loss is due to development. Decades ago, it was common for, estuarine wetlands to be drained and filled in to create more land for agriculture and land development along much of our coastline.  

                Since wetlands and estuaries act as a filter to pollution and excess nutrients, these contaminants can often build up and cause what is known as eutrophication. Eutrophication is caused by excess nutrients and may contribute to excessive growth of algae, depleting the water of oxygen when algae die. This lack of oxygen, known as anoxia, is problematic for wildlife in the estuaries and can result in significant mortality among fish populations. Pollution is a critical issue in our estuaries and waterways throughout the United States. In a recent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report, it was stated that nearly 40% of our lakes, rivers, and estuaries are too polluted for safe fishing and swimming.

                To help combat these issues and to preserve our estuaries, Congress established the National Estuary Program (NEP) in 1987, under the Federal Clean Water Act. There are 28 designated National Estuary Programs along our nation’s coasts and Puerto Rico. According to the EPA, NEPs were established “to restore the water quality and ecological integrity of estuaries of national significance.” Each estuary program works within its community to develop a Comprehensive Conservation Management Plan (CCMP) designed to protect water quality, habitat and living resources within its watershed. As a NEP, Maryland Coastal Bays Program aims to protect and enhance the coastal bays watershed, including Ocean City, Ocean Pines, Berlin, and Assateague Island.

                So this week, let’s celebrate our estuaries and all of the benefits they provide. To view our own management plan, or to learn more about the Maryland Coastal Bays Program in general, please visit www.mdcoastalbays.org for information about estuaries, what they do, volunteer events, and most importantly – what you can do to help.

 

Phillips is the Program Manager for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.



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