by George Patten
There are an estimated 41 million acres of wetlands, including both saltwater and freshwater, in coastal watersheds of the US. These wetlands are an important environmental resource that provides critical ecological services to society, such as shoreline stabilization and protection against impacts from sea-level rise. However, according to a recent report issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) coastal wetlands have declined substantially in recent years – threatening the important ecological services they provide.
The social and ecological importance of wetlands in many areas of the coastal United States is becoming increasingly recognized, particularly in the wake of severe coastal storms and environmental contamination.
The report by the USFWS studied wetland trends from 2004 – 2009 in the Atlantic Coast, Gulf of Mexico, Great Lakes, and the Pacific coast regions. The results of the study indicate that wetlands in coastal watersheds in the US had declined by over 360,000 acres, which is roughly a 25% increase over the previous study period (1998 – 2004).
Losses to wetlands have significant implications for environmental systems and to society. Coastal wetlands provide habitat and support an array of aquatic and terrestrial life, as well as provide ecological services to society. These may be less direct service provisions, such as nutrient cycling and as reservoirs of biodiversity, or more socially-pertinent services such as support for fishing industries or for coastal area tourism, a $6.6 trillion industry. Furthermore, coastal communities recognize the critical role of wetlands for shoreline protection and as a buffer to sea-level rise. Although the report doesn’t delve deeply into the issue of sea level rise, studies indicate that marshes cannot compensate if seas rise too quickly and may become submerged and die back.
The report does highlight the importance of wetland reestablishment or restoration projects, which help to offset wetland declines. These projects can be pivotal in supporting fragile wetlands systems and ecosystem services, as well as help to meet the federal policy of preventing impacts to wetlands impacts from development or other human activities, known as the “no net loss” rule.
Successful wetland restoration projects enhance ecological function and can also add economic and cultural value by increasing tourism and recreation opportunities as well as attracting local businesses particularly in urban areas. Over the past decade, wetland restoration and enhancement has been a significant focus in New York City, transforming degraded urban waterfront sites into thriving natural eco-systems. As a part of a multidisciplinary team, Great Ecology has helped enhance a number of waterfront sites including the Brooklyn Bridge Park, East River Waterfront Eco-Park, and Randall’s Island. The City continues to support restoration projects as demonstrated by the community board approval of Matthews Nielsen’s master plan for the Pier 42 revitalization.
Although wetland losses have been significant and rates of decline are increasing in the coastal U.S, the potential for new restoration projects and greater awareness from this report could help mitigate future loss of our wetlands.
T.E. Dahl and S.M. Stedman. 2013. Status and trends of wetlands in the coastal watersheds of the Conterminous United States 2004 to 2009. U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Marine Fisheries Service. 46 p.
Fears, Darryl. Study says U.S. can’t keep up with loss of ecologically-sensitive wetlands. The Washington Post. December 8, 2013. Accessed Online.