What Ordinary People Can Do to Save them!
Estuaries are ecosystems that form where rivers join the ocean. These estuarine ecosystems are unique spaces where salt and freshwater systems meet with their own diverse plant and animal life. However, estuaries are also highly threatened by industrial development, human activities, farming methods, and more.
Without estuarine habitats to help filter the water runoff from the land to the ocean, our oceans will suffer much greater pollution and massive fish and wildlife losses. Here’s what’s at stake and (more importantly) what you can do to help.
The Importance of Estuaries
Estuarine habitats are known as nanny environments where many immature fish and wildlife begin life.
The unique combination of silt, decomposing plant matter, eco reefs, and the diverse natural processes that produce nutrients all contribute to making an ideal environment for smaller fish and ocean species to grow, reproduce, and continue their life cycles.
Without estuaries, floods, and tidal waves are much more damaging to human infrastructure as estuaries mitigate the deadly impact of waves and reduce flooding.
Since estuarine areas also breed a huge diversity in marine life, estuaries offer several socioeconomic benefits for tourism, fishing, and recreation. Some other estuarine functions include:
Habitat for Wildlife
The unique bio footprint of many estuaries offers a safe haven for diverse wildlife and plants.
Most, if not all, fish species consumed in the U.S. spend some time in estuaries. Without these marshy nurseries, salmon, crab, oyster, and herring won’t reach maturity, and this can seriously affect the U.S. fishing industry.
The coral reefs, native plants, seagrass beds, and salt marshes with their mangrove forests are but a taste of what a truly vital and dynamic estuarine system is like.
Millions of interactions are needed to fully sustain and grow an estuary. When we have damaged an estuary, the restoration efforts often fall short since we don’t fully know what is needed to recreate that amazing biodiversity of a marsh habitat that allows fish, shellfish, and other marine animals to thrive.
The water quality of estuarine environments is usually one of the first things to take a beating. To maintain such wide biodiversity, we need the right pH in the water and no chemicals, excess nutrients, or pollutants.
Since an estuary works entirely with a biofilter from the plant mass that is found in the system, it’s really difficult to restore this balance once it’s been upended.
Estuaries create soft buffers that protect the coastline against tidal waves, coastal storms, and floods. Acting like a sponge, these areas help protect the coastline, while also holding onto the vital biological components that would otherwise be washed away.
In areas where estuaries have degraded or been removed and placed under concrete, flooding has become commonplace, often with massive property damage and loss of life.
Since estuaries offer protection of the coast, the first benefit is less property damage from storms. Additionally, estuaries offer a natural beauty that tourists can visit by boat and kayak.
With sustainable fishing methods, estuaries also create thousands of jobs and produce several tons of fish annually. The socioeconomic benefits of estuaries can’t be emphasized enough.
Education and Research
Estuarine systems are ideal places to learn about biodiversity, and marine and coastal sciences students and volunteers often participate in projects to restore estuaries and protect the wildlife in these areas. School trips to these coastal ecosystems fill children with awe and delight, and we can all learn to protect the estuarine habitat.
Threats to Estuaries
The biggest threat to estuaries isn’t nature. It’s humans and our factories, towns and cities, industries, farms, and harmful fishing methods. Estuaries are the filters that keep our worlds alive, yet we happily destroy these.
Here’s how we threaten the survival of estuarine areas:
Pollution, and not just the kind where you throw a chocolate wrapper into the local stream or river, and other anthropogenic stressors are at the heart of estuarine degradation.
People damage their world with the effects of their carbon footprint. From the chemicals we use to clean our bodies and homes to the entertainment we engage in with watersports and diesel-powered boat engines, we are always busy consuming and destroying the world around us.
What you flush down your basin or toilet ends up in the local waterways, so buy biodegradable products and manage septic systems better.
We unwisely manage and interfere in the wetland areas with activities like draining land for construction purposes. These estuaries are home to thousands of different wildlife species, which are soon left homeless.
Estuary landscapes are rich in different fish species, and small-scale fishermen can contribute to overfishing with unwise fishing practices such as catching juvenile fish, laying out cages to catch smaller marine species, and employing drag nets.
When overfishing happens, the fish species are threatened, as is the surrounding landscape, where leftover fishing nets, lines, hooks, and crates collect.
Climate change affects estuaries in a big way. Excessive rain can make the sea level rise, flooding swamps, removing eelgrass beds and kelp forests, and upending ecological processes.
With the close proximity of towns, cities, and landscaped gardens, invasive plant and animal species can easily upset the balance of plant and animal life in these most productive ecosystems.
Even simple invasive species like smooth cordgrass, introduced in the San Francisco estuary, can cause havoc on local habitat conservation efforts or the Lionfish, currently wreaking havoc in the Florida Keys.
Dams and Water Diversions
Several estuary restoration projects have tried to fix the damage done by dams and waterways that diverted water from estuaries with mangrove restoration projects, and other wetland restoration projects to rebuild natural seagrass habitats.
Local communities and legislators have realized the importance of estuaries, which is why the Estuary Restoration Act was passed, giving the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to engage in restoration projects aimed at better coastal management.
Under the Act, tidal creeks, marine habitats, mangrove marshes, estuarine fish, and certain target species with ecological applications have been placed in the spotlight.
Some of the measures taken for estuarine restoration and protection include:
Conservation of Wetland
Through careful mapping and analysis of waterways and water quality, estuarine areas like the Chesapeake Bay have set restoration targets.
Restoration sites such as tidal marshes have been identified and are now managed by federal agencies to ensure better habitat restoration through activities like opening coastal watersheds and restoring the seagrass habitat of fish species that naturally graze in the waterways.
Water Quality Management
With the cooperation of local universities’ marine science departments, ecological restoration begins at the source by starting with water quality management. Sanctions hold companies that spill effluent into the waterways accountable.
Building artificial reefs like oyster reef barriers and removing tide gates and levees that had blocked up the natural waterflow helped the restoration ecology of many local estuaries.
However, these are all restoration projects that take decades to complete. Yet success is being seen with estuaries finally reconnecting to their original rivers and fish migrating upstream to spawn for the first time in more than a decade.
Volunteers are invaluable in helping to clean up pollution from the estuarine landscapes, and local park rangers help patrol for perpetrators who litter or dump pollutants illegally. Even a gallon of diesel or motor oil can severely damage a fragile estuary system.
While local communities need the income generated from fishing in their local estuaries, strict quotas and licenses, and permits are needed, which ensure that immature fish are cast back.
Climate Change Mitigation
Climate change may require mitigation of increased temperatures (which leads to greater water loss), rising sea levels, changed rainfall patterns, water quality, ocean salinity, and drought.
Invasive Species Management
Invader plants being allowed in local gardens pose a massive threat to estuarine spaces, where these plants crowd out native plants and lead to erosion. Fines help discourage the planting of invader species in local gardens.
Public Education and Awareness
Restoration success will depend on spreading knowledge. Only when people realize why estuaries have a conservation status will they do their part to protect their local wetlands. The community of Chesapeake Bay’s involvement have made all the difference.
Monitoring and Research
The delicate estuarine systems require constant management, monitoring, and research. Constant discussion and debate ensure wetland viability for commercially important species while managing natural resources.
The involvement of communities like Chesapeake Bay ensures a steady stream of volunteers to collect data, build artificial reefs, and replenish oyster reefs.
On a Personal Level
What can you do to help restore, manage, and preserve your local estuarine systems?
Reduce Water Usage
Excessive water use may cause droughts, so close taps, fix broken pipes, and ensure drains are in optimal condition.
Decrease wastewater, garbage, and other waste to ensure the estuarine systems remain in optimal health. Use garbage bins and recycle where possible for cleaner ecosystem services.
Support Sustainable Fishing
Many fishermen make a living off the estuarine ecosystem, but this doesn’t mean you need to overfish or give up fishing altogether. Sustainable fishing means each fisherman is awarded a permit, educated on the time of the year for fishing, and restricted on the amount they catch.
Support Conservation Organizations
Coastal management and federal agencies need your support. Report littering, and do your share to run an eco-friendly property that is estuary-friendly (from your septic tank to your garbage bins).
Advocate for Conservation
Conservation efforts don’t help much without lobbying to help improve local and federal legislation on the conservation of estuarine nurseries. Use restoration activities to help create awareness and improve the conservation of your local wetlands.
When you care about something, you automatically become a teacher. If you find someone harming the ecology out of ignorance, it’s up to you to share the truth about estuaries, since walking away without saying anything makes you as guilty. Teach others and help the community own their footprints in life history.
Reduce Carbon Footprint
Your carbon footprint, the amount of greenhouse gasses or carbon monoxide you generate in a year based on your activities, is the impact you create on the environment. Even if you never set foot in an estuary, your carbon footprint could be destroying it. Change today, change loudly, and help your community to change.
Tick your basic boxes: carpool, lower electricity usage, buy recycled materials for packaging, wear natural fiber clothes, and go paperless in life.
Human disturbance is the root cause of estuarine degradation. If we aren’t careful in our reckless use of natural resources, we may end up being the particular species that go extinct next. Now isn’t that disturbing?
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