Hiding in plain sight among U.S. public land and water programs is one that conserves ecologically sensitive coastal areas, provides jobs and significant revenue for communities and serves as a platform for research and education on endangered wildlife and vulnerable habitats.
The National Estuarine Research Reserve System (NERRS), which Congress created under the 1972 Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA), has grown to a network of 29 protected estuaries and estuary-like habitats in coastal and Great Lakes states and territories. Recently published data show how much these sites economically benefit their neighboring communities.
A study, co-funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and The Pew Charitable Trusts, the organization I work for, reviewed data from four NERRS sites — Rookery Bay, Guana Tolomato Matanzas, and Apalachicola in Florida and South Slough in Oregon — and estimated that together “they generate more than $165 million in annual revenue for their communities, including $56.4 million in wages paid for at least 1,762 jobs.”
This study helps counter the argument that policymakers and governments must choose between conservation and economic success. But that’s far from the only reason to create and sustain NERRS sites.
These reserves and their staff educate and engage millions of visitors annually and serve as training grounds for scientists and educators. Recreational activities offered by many of the reserves like fishing, wildlife viewing and kayaking, among others, are a hit with the public and have a big economic benefit that boosts local economies.
It should be no surprise that NERRS sites are popular in their communities, and that many of the largest ones draw heavy visitation. South Slough, for example, which was designated in 1974 as the first NERRS site, boasts open-water channels, tidal and freshwater wetlands, riparian areas, and forested uplands across nearly 7,000 acres in the Coos estuary of southern Oregon. People come here to hike, kayak and hunt, and programs for students include summer camps and field trips, while the reserve’s Coastal Training Program educates local decision-makers. According to the NOAA-Pew study, the site generates $6.1 million in revenue each year, it provides support to commercial oyster growers and serves as a nursery habitat for fisheries.
The designation of a NERRS site involves several steps, starting with the selection of a site that represents one of 29 specific biogeographic regions detailed in the authorizing legislation. This selection is made by representatives of state government, and a public university or nongovernmental organization in the state. Prospective sites undergo extensive follow-up studies before being formally proposed to NOAA and are then eventually presented to the U.S. secretary of commerce for formal designation.
Estuaries and their surrounding wetlands are usually found where rivers meet the sea or near large bodies of freshwater — which, together, form some of the world’s most productive habitats. These freshwater and salt marshes, seagrass beds, mangroves, vernal pools, upland forests and riverine islands provide shelter and food for fish, shellfish and birds; buffer developed areas from storms and sea-level rise; and support recreation and resource-based economies.
The estuarine reserve system already protects more than 1.3 million acres of Great Lakes and coastal habitat, including reserves in Hawaii and Puerto Rico, and will almost certainly continue to grow. The Biden administration, in its recent “Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful” report, directed NOAA to expand the system and highlighted the 30th NERR, expected to be designated in Connecticut in January 2022. Meanwhile, Louisiana has begun the process of creating that state’s first site. And Wisconsin is investigating the possibility of a reserve in Green Bay — the largest freshwater estuary in the world — to complement the state’s existing reserve in the St. Louis River estuary on Lake Superior.
And there’s ample room and reason to expand the system: Louisiana is among the nine states and territories with oceanic or Great Lakes shorelines that have no NERRS sites, and there are no reserves in nine of the biogeographic subregions in which the CZMA calls for representation.
Congress appropriates a set amount of money for the entire NERR system, which is split equally among the sites. In fiscal 2021, NOAA, through congressional appropriations, invested more than $33 million in the system, with state and university partners adding $9 million. States and territories have demonstrated the desirability of reserves by pursuing the designation of new sites and requesting expanded education, research, and training programs at existing reserves. This new research confirms what those jurisdictions likely already know: NERRS sites promote environmental and economic resilience and bolster states’ outdoor recreation and tourism sectors — a quadruple win for nature and people.
Jennifer Browning directs the Pew Charitable Trusts' work to protect nearshore ocean ecosystems and marine life in the United States, Puerto Rico and the Caribbean.