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What is an Estuary?
What Makes an Estuary 'Nationally Significant'?
What's an Estuary Worth?

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What is an Estuary?

Estuaries are places where fresh and salt water mix. Whether they are called bays, estuaries, harbors, sounds or lagoons, these fertile junctions of sea and stream are among the most productive areas on earth.


As many as 80 percent of the fish that we catch for food or fun depend on estuaries for all or part of their lives. This is why estuaries are often called the "cradles of the sea."
Many of the nation's most celebrated water bodies are estuaries: Chesapeake Bay, San Francisco Bay, Puget Sound and Long Island Sound, for example. Although each estuary is unique, they all share common characteristics such as constant mixing of salt and fresh water by tides and winds, as well as common problems such as excessive nutrient pollution and loss of natural habitats.

There is more to an estuary than you might think just by looking at a shaded area on a map. In fact, estuaries encompass broad ecosystems that usually extend many miles beyond the open waters of a bay or lagoon to encompass surrounding wetlands, rivers and streams. Anything that happens on land within this sprawling watershed has a direct impact on the estuary itself.

What Makes an Estuary 'Nationally Significant'?

Of the 102 estuaries in the United States, only 28 have been designated as nationally significant.

National Estuary Programs are broad-based programs, taking a comprehensive approach to addressing a wide range of pressures and problems facing the nation's estuaries.

These include:
  • Preventing habitat degradation and loss of recreational and commercial fisheries

  • Protecting and improving water quality; pioneering watershed management techniques

  • Controlling sewage outfalls and septic system impacts; mitigating impacts from increasing land development

  • Developing strategies to deal with invasive species and harmful algal

The NEPs are critical because forty-two percent of the continental United States shoreline is within the watersheds of ANEP's 28 estuaries. Over half of the U.S. population lives in ANEP's coastal counties and that percentage is increasing. Economically, the estuaries of national significance produce over $7 billion in revenue from commercial and recreational fishing and related marine industries. Tourism and recreation in the National Estuary Programs (NEP) are valued at over $16 billion annually. 
Beginning with four pilot programs in 1985, the success of and need for the NEPs have led to their current status - 28 estuaries in the national program, all of which have had their Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plans (CCMPs) approved and, as such, have begun implementing it.  ANEP's network of individual programs plays an important role in at least one-quarter of the nation's inland and coastal watersheds.
The NEP process is "stakeholder-driven" and largely focused on the promotion and strengthening of public-private partnerships in resource management. Local citizen volunteers have guided the development and implementation of these plans and work to leverage federal and state dollars with contributions from local governments and the private sector.
Each of the 28 NEPs' CCMPs is unique, but they also share many characteristics.  All the CCMPs are all based on sound science, all are written by local stakeholder groups in partnership with the relevant regulatory agencies, and all are approved by the local and state governments that will be principal partners in implementation.  Local citizens guide the development and implementation of their plans. Each of these NEPs serves as the primary technical and coordination support structure - and frequently the initiator - for a wide web of partnerships and actions to conserve and restore the estuary.
The NEPs work closely with coastal zone management and other programs to coordinate initiatives at the state level. Association members believe there is much to be gained from a more concerted effort to enhance that coordination at the national level as well. While the NEPs are truly "local programs", they face many common challenges that may best be addressed collectively.
What's an Estuary Worth?

It's impossible to put a dollar figure on all the benefits an estuary provides. However, some of the economic impacts derived from estuaries have been well documented.
For example, estimates developed by the National Estuary Program indicate that commercial and recreational fishing contribute about $4.3 billion to the nation's economy each year, while the marine industries supported by these activities add another $3 billion annually.
Tourism and recreation associated with estuaries participating in the NEP generate an estimated annual economic impact of $16.3 billion. For many communities, estuaries are the focal point of tourist-related activities. In the Albemarle-Pamlico Sounds of North Carolina, for example, 10 percent of the local workforce is employed in tourism-related businesses. Tourists visiting Southwest Florida's scenic Charlotte Harbor spend more than $1 billion every year.
Ports established in estuaries contribute billions of dollars to local economies and employ hundreds of thousands of people. More than $40 billion worth of goods passed through ports in Puget Sound last year, while the Port of Tampa in Tampa Bay directly or indirectly provides jobs for 5,000 people and consistently ranks among the top 10 in the nation in trade activity.
Other benefits bestowed by estuaries are less tangible, but are equally important. Estuaries are critical habitats for a magnificent array of fish, birds and other creatures; they provide unparalleled recreational opportunities for people; and the wetlands that border estuaries serve as natural filters for pollutants and buffers against punishing storms.

Consider these facts:
  • More than 45 percent of the nation's surface waters are contained in estuarine systems, making these areas an important source of drinking water for many Americans. In fact, two-thirds of the residents of California obtain their drinking water from freshwater rivers, streams and marshes associated with the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary.

  • The Lower Columbia River Estuary is the most valuable spawning and nursery area for salmon in the continental United States.

  • The Buzzards Bay Estuary in Massachusetts provides critical nesting habitat for 98 percent of North America's endangered roseate terns.

  • Mangrove islands in Tampa Bay in Florida are among the nation's most important waterbird nurseries, annually hosting as many as 40,000 nesting pairs of 25 different species.

  • Fish, oysters, crabs and crawfish are so abundant in the Barataria-Terrebonne estuarine complex in Louisiana that it is known as the "nation's fish market."
In summary, our nation's estuaries, like anything else that cannot be replaced, are priceless.



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