Healthy habitats

The National Estuarine Research Reserve System protects more than 113 million acres of coastal and estuarine habitats around the country. Along our crowded coastlines, these natural lands offer us the increasingly rare opportunity to connect with nature, enjoy a coastal vista, catch a breath of fresh salt air. When healthy and functioning effectively, habitats like the ones reserves protect also play a central role in the economies and wellbeing of coastal communities. Reserve-managed protected areas serve as living laboratories, where scientists and stakeholders can work together to better understand how estuarine habitats function and how they respond to the pressures of human activity and climate change. Through training and education, reserve staff leverage this work to develop and share best management practices for sustaining healthy habitats nationwide.

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Why it matters

For many of us, coastal landscapes are the backdrop of irreplaceable memories we’ve shared with families and friends. They provide moments of quiet, dramatic beauty, a connection to the wild, and endless opportunities for stillness and reflection. These habitats also support us in more subtle ways. Healthy estuaries are the foundation of coastal tourism and fishing and all of the businesses connected to these industries. They also perform numerous other services, including water quality improvement and storm protection. These important places are under growing pressure as coastal development increases and the climate changes, causing habitat loss and fragmentation, the spread of invasive species, and the decline of important fish and wildlife. Preserving the critical functions that these habitats provide requires that we better understand how they function, how they respond to change, and which restoration and management practices will be most successful as we plan for the future.

How we help

Reserves advance the restoration and protection of coastal and estuarine habitats in many ways, from research, monitoring, and training programs to direct land acquisition and stewardship.

  • Taking the pulse: To sustain healthy habitats for the future, communities and management agencies need to understand how these environments function, the services they provide, and the ways in which they respond to change. Coastal and estuarine habitats protected by reserves serve as living laboratories for long-term research and monitoring focused on the impacts of climate change, land use decisions, and management efforts. Reserve-based research and monitoring programs like the System Wide Monitoring Program (SWMP) map the distribution and extent of different habitats, investigate their functions and values, and track how they change over time. This information is crucial to understanding the benefits of these habitats for communities and the nation and also to inform appropriate management efforts to sustain these critically important ecosystems.
  • Restoring natural habitats: A fraction of our nation’s original coastal habitats remain today, and some areas are experiencing unprecedented rates of loss. Reserves not only protect more than 1.3 million acres of valuable habitats, they also provide local demonstrations of restoration methods, including, for example, how to control invasive species, replant wetlands, or reconstruct oyster reefs. Local citizen volunteers are often a driving force in these projects. Through this work and related trainings and outreach, reserves advance best management practices for restoration in surrounding watersheds, while promoting an enhanced understanding of the benefits of protecting and restoring coastal habitats.
  • Putting nature to work: Decisions about coastal development and land use are becoming more complex as the climate shifts and the need for protection from increasing storms and sea level rise grows. To meet this challenge, there is growing interest in sustainable approaches to managing shorelines and treating stormwater that incorporates natural features such as vegetation, wetlands, oyster reefs, and dunes. To incorporate these ideas into their planning process, communities and resource managers need science-based information and guidance about the cost, effectiveness, maintenance, and impact of different solutions so that they can assess trade-offs and make balanced, informed decisions. Reserves help by engaging stakeholders to identify information gaps, conducting demonstration projects, developing decision-support tools, and providing support for tough conversations communities need to have to plan for the future.

What you can do

Interested in helping to protect habitats in your community? Here’s where you can start…

  • Learn more: Find out what your town or city is doing to protect coastal habitats and what the challenges are. Your local reserve is a great first stop for what’s happening and who’s behind it.
  • Get involved: Volunteer a few hours to support a reserve-based citizen science, training, or education program that supports healthy habitats.
  • Give: Consider a contribution to your local reserve for conservation, research, monitoring, or education activities.