Updated on July 11, 2016
For the past few decades, U.S. coastal wetlands have been disappearing. And they have been disappearing at a faster and faster rate. Coastal wetlands include saltwater marshes, freshwater marshes, swamps, and seagrass beds; these are some of the most valuable habitats in the world.
Why are they disappearing? Because as the human population has grown and more people have moved to coastal areas, we have put increased pressure on our coastal habitats. Around half of the U.S. population lives in coastal communities. We have built on top of coastal habitats and we have destroyed habitats to exploit coastal resources. Each year, developments, agricultural land, barren land, and open water areas replace tens of thousands of acres of coastal wetlands.
I can’t blame people for wanting to live near the coast. I want to live near the coast too [and do]. But we have neglected the very coastal areas we desire to live near.
And now, climate change and rising sea levels are further threatening coastal wetlands. Scientists estimate that rising seas could flood as much as 65% of our coastal wetlands. This jeopardizes the coastal species, fisheries, and coastal communities that rely on them.
Coastal wetlands are extremely productive systems and CRITICALLY important. Unfortunately, I think we often overlook this. Beyond beauty and serenity, coastal wetlands provide a home to numerous fish and wildlife. Fifty percent of fish live in these areas at some point in their life [many baby fish]. And 75% of waterfowl and migratory birds use coastal wetlands for feeding, resting, or reproduction.
They also provide numerous services for you and me. We rely on coastal wetlands for nearly 50% of U.S. commercial fish/shellfish catches and 80% of recreational catches. And for those of us that live near the coast, wetlands protect us from hurricanes and tropical storms – a service worth at least $23 billion! [Next time a hurricane destroys our coastal communities, we shouldn’t blame Mother Nature, we should blame ourselves.] Plus wetlands remove pollutants, renew groundwaters, and offer several recreational and tourist activities.
Recognizing the growing threats coastal wetlands face and their immense value, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has declared the time to protect U.S. coastal areas is NOW! [Well the time was probably years ago, but better late the never.]
NOAA is increasing efforts to protect coastal habitats and they have created a Habitat Conservation Plan. They will devote more resources to monitoring these habitats. And they will work to strengthen habitat policy and legislation to ensure we have laws that adequately protect habitats.
In each U.S. region, they have identified particular habitats to focus on – These include important wetland areas in Puget Sound, the Chesapeake Bay, Charleston Harbor, and the northern Gulf of Mexico. NOAA, along with other partner organizations, will not only work to protect these habitats from further degradation, they will work to restore them where possible. And in the Chesapeake Bay and northern Gulf of Mexico they will assess how rising seas will affect these regions [rising seas pose serious threats to these two areas] and try to determine conservation initiatives.
Hopefully, we can make up for the years we neglected our coastal wetlands and protect them before it is too late!
If you enjoy the coast and all that is has to offer, then please visit our Coastal Habitat Loss page to learn how you can help protect these valuable habitats.
Elizabeth Brown is a research scientist at Blue Ocean Institute.