Learn more about the development of the Estuary Principles & Concepts
- An Estuary Literate Person Is...
- Principle 1. Estuaries are interconnected with the world ocean and with major systems and cycles on Earth.
- Principle 2. Estuaries are dynamic ecosystems with tremendous variability within and between them in physical, chemical, and biological components.
- Principle 3. Estuaries support an abundance of life, and a diversity of habitat types.
- Principle 4. Ongoing research and monitoring is needed to increase our understanding of estuaries and to improve our ability to protect and sustain them.
- Principle 5. Humans, even those living far from the coast, rely on goods and services supplied by estuaries
- Principle 6. Human activities can impact estuaries by degrading water quality or altering habitats; therefore, we are responsible for making decisions to protect and maintain the health of estuaries.
An estuary literate person:
- understands the essential principles and fundamental concepts (presented here) about the interconnectedness and interdependency of estuarine systems with other earth system in both time and space;
- can communicate about estuaries in a meaningful way; and
- is able to make scientifically informed and responsible decisions regarding estuaries and coastal areas.
Estuarine Principles and Concepts
Principle 1: Estuaries are interconnected with the world ocean and with major systems and cycles on Earth.
- Estuaries are part of important biological, chemical and physical cycles such as food webs, nutrient cycles, and hydrologic cycles. For example, estuarine salt marshes can sequester carbon and filter out toxic substances or nutrients from groundwater.
- Estuarine ecosystems are affected by changes in global systems and cycles such as climate and weather cycles. For example, sea level rise can inundate salt marshes, reducing the habitat available for resident species and eliminating the flood protection important to upland areas.
- Estuaries form an interface linking watersheds and oceans, and receive groundwater and surface water from their entire watersheds. Estuaries are affected by air quality and precipitation from far beyond watershed boundaries.
Principle 2: Estuaries are dynamic ecosystems with tremendous variability within and between them in physical, chemical, and biological components.
- Estuaries have various geologic origins and morphology.
- Estuaries can change slowly over hundreds to thousands of years. For example, they are transformed by changes in sea level, precipitation and vegetation patterns within their watershed, and sediment movement.
- Estuaries can also change quickly, within hours or days. They are constantly shaped by water flowing from uplands as well as tidal cycles moving and mixing of fresh and salt water within the estuary. They can be dramatically changed by single, severe events such as a hurricane or the building of a levee.
- The dynamic nature of estuarine processes presents a challenge to the organisms living there. Organisms that reside in estuaries are adapted to the rhythm of change. For example, tides can change local sea level by several feet each day, leaving sessile organisms alternately inundated with water or exposed to air.
Principle 3: Estuaries support an abundance of life, and a diversity of habitat types.
- Estuaries provide vital nursery and spawning grounds for numerous fish and invertebrates, including a significant proportion of commercially harvested species.
- Estuaries incorporate diverse habitat types. Oyster reefs, salt marshes, mangroves, mud flats, and freshwater tidal marshes can be found in estuaries.
- Estuarine plant and animal species have specialized physical, biological, and behavioral adaptations which allow them to survive in the ever-changing estuarine environment. For example, some plants that grow in salt marshes can excrete excess salt through their leaves.
- Estuaries provide a rich food source for a wide variety of organisms.
Principle 4: Ongoing research and monitoring is needed to increase our understanding of estuaries and to improve our ability to protect and sustain them.
- Through research and monitoring in the National Estuarine Research Reserve System and elsewhere, humans gather scientific data in estuaries that allows us to better understand estuarine processes and to track changes in estuaries. For example, the System Wide Monitoring Program allows scientists to track short-term variability and long-term change.
- Technology plays an important role in how estuarine data is collected, analyzed, and interpreted. Technological innovations have led to increased understanding of estuaries. Technology such as dataloggers, sampling equipment, and remote sensing can provide data which can help people identify the cause of degraded water quality and verify the recovery of a restored system.
- Estuarine research is interdisciplinary. The expertise of many different specialists (e.g., meteorologists, sociologists, geologists, biologists, chemists, economists, computer scientists, engineers, and community planners) is required to study and to understand estuaries.
- Since estuaries incorporate many interacting factors and conditions, research investigations must be carefully designed and results must be considered in context.
Principle 5: Humans, even those living far from the coast, rely on goods and services supplied by estuaries .
- Estuaries provide social services and cultural value to humans. Millions of people use estuaries for recreational activities such as fishing, bird watching, and boating. Estuaries are also a source of inspiration, rejuvenation and discovery. Estuaries have played an important role in determining the lifestyle and culture of different human populations overtime.
- Estuaries provide flood protection to human communities. Coastal wetlands absorb and slowly release water from storms, mitigating storm surge and preventing floods.
- Estuaries provide significant economic value to humans. Many species of fish, crabs, and shellfish which live in estuaries for part or all of their lives provide essential food for humans.
Principle 6: Human activities can impact estuaries by degrading water quality or altering habitats; therefore, we are responsible for making decisions to protect and maintain the health of estuaries.
- Human activities within an estuary system, its watershed, and in distant areas impact the biological, chemical, and physical components of estuaries. In particular, land use changes within an estuary’s watershed can change erosion and subsequent sedimentation rates within the estuary, affecting water clarity or bottom substrate.
- The quantity and quality of goods and services provided by estuaries to humans is dependent on the good health of estuarine ecosystems. Real estate values can decline in areas near overenriched or eutrophic estuaries.
- Humans can use their understanding of estuaries to make informed decisions on how to best protect and manage estuaries, while still allowing for the enjoyment of estuaries. For example, when a city on an estuary improves its wastewater treatment, eliminating sewage outfalls, the water quality in the estuary improves.
- Organizations like the National Estuarine Research Reserve System (NERRS), federal agencies, state and local governments, non profit organizations, and educational institutions, work together to protect estuaries. Estuarine protection and restoration can be implemented via governmental regulations, community education, citizen engagement, and stewardship.
- Actions that will help improve and maintain estuary health include energy conservation, water conservation, habitat protection and restoration, proper wastewater treatment, and education about estuaries.
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