National Policy

National Estuaries Week: A Call to Action

A view of wetlands at Great Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in Portsmouth, NH. Photo Credit: NOAA/Sean Linehan

This week is National Estuaries Week—a celebration of the salt marshes, the mud flats, the tidal waters, and the barrier beaches that support our coastal migratory birds and hundreds of other species that can live nowhere else, that shelter communities from storm surges and hurricane damage, that provide and support multi-million dollar tourist and recreational businesses, that are essential sources of numerous recreational and commercial marine fisheries, and that have inspired love and awe in people over the generations for the mysteries of our natural world in millions of people.

Sadly, public recognition of what estuaries are and why they’re so important falls short of what is necessary to build a political constituency to fight for the funding and policies to protect these coastal resources.

Estuaries are in trouble. In addition to the losses and degradation associated with never-ending development pressure along our coasts—the love-them-to-death phenomenon—these critical resources are now battered by ever-stronger storms, chemical changes that are rapidly making the oceans more acidic, and rising sea level.

Conservation groups like Conservation Law Foundation and its regional partners in Restore America’s Estuaries have been working to restore estuary health for years, in collaboration with hundreds of coastal resource protection groups and thousands of volunteers. CLF’s efforts have extended from Massachusetts to Maine, and we have loved working with New England municipalities and conservation groups to remove dams that are blocking fish passage, to re-engineer tidal waters to bring back native salt marshes and mud flats, and to support educational efforts for estuaries.

We have also been working for decades to stop the pollution of New England’s estuaries, and we’ve made progress with the large municipal discharges in New Bedford, Boston, Salem Sound, Portsmouth, and Portland, as well as smaller industrial-based discharges throughout the region. Recent efforts have focused on the much more challenging task of halting pollution from storm water runoff and groundwater contaminated by septic systems.

These efforts, coupled with other federal, state, municipal and conservation group efforts, have reopened thousands of miles of rivers to important forage fish like river herring and shad and restored thousands of acres of salt marshes and mud flats.

But they still fall well short of the scale of restoration that is needed. Restoration efforts probably have not even kept pace with the salt marsh losses and stream degradation associated with poorly controlled human development. What’s more, we seem to be losing even the limited federal restoration funding that was so important to leverage state, municipal, and private money for restoration. For the first time in over a decade, it is likely that CLF will no longer be able to provide funding to new restoration projects.

The numerous businesses that are largely dependent on estuary health and might change the funding politics—from fishing organizations to tourism operators—are strangely silent. In an era in Washington where even squeaky wheels are not getting greased, Congress sees this silence as reflecting low public interest.

Natural Estuaries Week is a celebration of our coastal resources, but it must also be a call to action. Without broader public support for policies to restore estuaries and without more pressure on our Congressional leaders to fund these programs, our estuaries and the businesses, communities, and wildlife they support are at risk.


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