Why are estuaries important?

Crisp Point Lighthouse Lake Superior

Estuaries Support the Economy

Estuary regions are home to roughly 40% of the U.S. population, including eight of the ten largest U.S. cities. Economic output in these areas accounts for 47% of the country’s GDP, including tourism, shipping, commercial fishing, and development. In the U.S., more than 68% of commercial fish caught spend some or all their life in an estuary, including salmon, blue crab, and oysters. 

Estuaries are also  culturally significant to diverse communities including Indigenous communities. 

Additionally, estuaries and coasts are a favorite destination for American travelers with more than  189 million people visiting the coasts each year. Tourism and recreation alone contribute $143 billion to the national economy,  according to NOAA. Whether you prefer fishing, sailing, bird watching, or bike riding – estuaries have something to offer everyone, and each visit contributes dollars to local restaurants, lodging, and small businesses.  

Fishing Boats

Coastal restoration is also an important economic driver, though. In Huntington Beach, California, a $13 million habitat restoration project resulted in property values rising $36 million, nearly a 3x return on investment. In fact, for every $1 million invested in restoration, between 17-33 jobs are created, according to a  2014 report.  

Estuaries Protect Against Climate Change

Beach Erosion

Marshes, mangrove forests, and seagrass beds act as a buffer against storms, protecting communities and infrastructure from floods and rising seas. When flooding occurs, estuaries absorb excess water before it reaches our communities. In fact, a single acre of one-foot-deep wetlands  can hold up to 330,000 gallons of water. On the opposite end of the spectrum, in drought conditions wetlands can replenish ecosystems due to their water storage capabilities.  

Coastal wetlands also sequester and store substantial amounts of carbon, also known as  blue carbon. Tidal wetland ecosystems can capture and store atmospheric carbon at 10x the rate of a mature tropical forest,  per NOAA. In Pamlico Sound in North Carolina, 37,000 hectares of blue carbon ecosystems store more than 10.8 million tons of carbon – the equivalent to the annual emissions of 2 million cars.  

Estuaries are great at protecting shoreline communities from wave energy, too, specifically mangrove forests.  In a study from the Nature Conservancy and Wetlands International, researchers found a 500-meter width of mangrove forest can reduce wave height by 50 to 99%. Submerged aquatic vegetation, such as seagrass, have also shown the ability to slow down and lessen wave height by creating drag – preventing coastal erosion and protecting infrastructure and communities.  

As we continue to see more drastic weather shifts, estuary ecosystems will become even more critical in protecting both coastal and inland communities. 


Estuaries Provide Critical Habitat

Fish and Bird Habitat

Estuaries are home to thousands of species of birds, fish, and mammals. Mangroves are imperative for juvenile bonefish and tarpon growth and survival. Salt marshes provide critical habitat for migratory birds and young salmon. Crabs rely on seagrass for protection and spawning. The list goes on and on. More than 2/3 of the commercial fish species caught in the U.S. spend some or all their lives in an estuary, per NOAA Fisheries

Hunters and anglers depend on coastal habitats to pursue their passions too, and in turn contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to conservation each year. In 2019, America’s sportsmen and sportswomen  generated nearly $1 billion in excise taxes last year that support state conservation programs, according to the Department of Interior. The sale of hunting and fishing licenses, permits, and the tax revenue on sporting equipment through  Pittman-Robertson Act and the  Dingell-Johnson Act, this money goes directly to restore and protect habitat for the game species we love to hunt and fish for.  

Birdwatching is also a favorite pastime of American’s and is a huge economic driver, with more than 20 million Americans taking “birding specific” trips and contributing  $41 billion to the economy. All outdoor recreation combined provides a whopping $800+ billion to the U.S. economy. 

Hunting, fishing, birdwatching, kayaking, and more all depend on the habitat that estuaries provide the fish, birds, and other wildlife of America’s estuaries.