Habitat degradation and loss are adversely affecting coastal, estuarine, and riverine ecosystems that are essential for spawning, feeding, growth, or as migratory routes for a majority of the nation's living marine resources.  Nationally, the primary habitat threats (in priority order) are now recognized to be depletion and alteration of freshwater flows, physical alteration of important habitats such as water bodies and wetlands, toxic chemical releases, and nutrient over-enrichment, which are often occurring in combination thus acting cumulatively.  Demographic trends indicate that development and its associated adverse effects will occur in coastal regions where the dependency of living marine resources' is highest (Chambers 1991) adding urgency to the need for conservation of remaining habitats and an increased consideration of habitat protection in national policy and land use decision making.
The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is the Federal steward of the nation's living marine resources under authority of the Fish and Wildlife Act of 1956, and is responsible for their conservation and management under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSFCMA).  However, more than 75% of the commercial landings of the total U.S. and 80-90% of the sport fishery catch of the lower 48 states are composed of species dependent on inshore and inland waters for their survival.  Habitat degradation and loss occurring far inland can therefore have a profound adverse effect for decades on marine fishery populations harvested far offshore.
Without including fishery habitat protection as an essential element, "fishery management" is merely the management of harvesting, which alone will not ensure maximum sustainable populations for future generations.  In the view of many, the protection of essential habitats must be adopted as a co-equal objective with protection of stocks if the national goal of conservation of populations of marine fish and shellfish is to be realized.
The nation's interconnected coastal waters, which include marine waters, bays, sounds, lagoons, coral reefs, estuaries, the Great Lakes, tributary rivers, and their adjacent wetlands, provide essential support for living marine resources and are valuable assets.  (Such ecosystems will be referred to collectively as "inshore" waters.)  These environments are among the world's most biologically productive.  However, inshore waters also serve as sites for extensive commercial, recreational, residential, and industrial activities that often have significant adverse effects on ecosystem health and sustainability.  Most inshore-dependent living marine resources have experienced substantial population declines as a result of excessive harvesting as well as coast-wide habitat degradation and loss.  The latter is ultimately caused by development and unsound water and land use management practices in adjacent watersheds.
Coastal communities have long operated under the presumption that the nation's waterways could continue to be used to:  accept pollutant loads from land drainage and waste discharges;  accommodate dam construction, navigation channel construction, and port development;  provide huge amounts of water for agriculture, municipal, industrial, and energy production;  withstand logging, agriculture, and other resource consumptive uses in adjoining watersheds;  and provide more land for housing and other development through sacrifice of additional wetlands and shallow water habitats.  Because these demands can adversely affect the ability of natural systems to support aquatic life and maintain their ecological integrity, competition and conflict over the fate of inshore habitats have risen with the accommodation of increasing development.
Maintaining clean and productive inshore waters also has a significant effect on regional and national economies. Degraded inshore waters can inhibit or preclude any expansion of domestic seafood production and can affect tourism in coastal regions, as we have observed in areas experiencing significant urban sprawl and industrial development.  Many coastal communities, which formerly were important family-oriented, water-related recreation areas no longer support such tourism often because of water quality issues, aesthetic losses, and a lack of quality recreational fishing, creating economically depressed areas.  Improving environmental quality and expanding fish populations in these areas could be a key to returning such communities to sustainable or productive entities, improving property values, and increasing jobs and tax revenues.  Moreover, declines in fisheries and loss of clean water for recreation, coupled with the increased demand for these resources, can increase the outflow of dollars to import foreign seafood or to take foreign vacations.
The U.S. Congress stated in its report, entitled "Coastal Waters in Jeopardy:  Reversing the Decline and Protecting America's Coastal Resources," that:  "The evidence of the decline in the environmental quality of our estuaries and coastal waters is accumulating steadily.  The toll of nearly four centuries of human activity becomes more and more clear as our coastal productivity declines, as habitats disappear, and as our monitoring systems reveal other problems...The continuing damage to coastal resources from pollution, development, and natural forces raises serious doubts about the ability of our estuaries, bays, and near coastal waters to survive these stresses.  If we fail to act and if current trends continue unabated, what is now a serious, widespread collection of problems may coalesce into a national crisis by early in the next century" (MMFC 1989).
A national symposium on coastal fish habitat conservation was held in 1991 at Baltimore, MD, to identify the primary causes of U.S. coastal habitat degradation, fishery declines, and the adequacy of legislative authorities and the Federal resource agencies' budgets to protect the public interest.  The symposium, "Stemming the Tide of Coastal Fish Habitat Loss," was sponsored by the National Coalition for Marine Conservation, NMFS, Sport Fishing Institute, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and Chesapeake Bay Foundation.  The inescapable conclusion was that "the increasing loss of fish habitat, to pollution, unwise development and other human activities, is the single largest long-term threat to the future viability of the marine fisheries of the United States."  (Hinman and Safina 1992).
Today over half (53%) of our total population lives on the 10% of our land area that can be defined as "coastal" including the Great Lakes (Edwards 1989).  Populations along the Gulf of Mexico and Pacific coasts have more than doubled since 1960.  Eastern Florida has increased more than 200%.  By 2030, births and immigration will drive total U.S. population from 252 million to 345 million, and most of that growth will be in coastal counties, especially in California, Texas, and Florida.  The coastal population is projected to grow from 80 million to more than 127 million, between 1960 and 2010, an increase of almost 60 percent.  Growth in coastal counties is averaging four times the national average (Culliton, et al. 1990).  This is important to marine fisheries and ecosystem sustainability because increased human growth in coastal regions has typically resulted in increases in development;  wetland fills;  pollution;  channelization;  conversion of natural aquatic habitat to urban or industrial sites;  loss of freshwater to agriculture, municipal, or industrial uses;  modification of aquatic areas for port development, harbors, and marinas;  channel dredging;  dredge spoil disposal;  and sewage treatment and waste discharges.  Generally, the coastal areas that are experiencing the highest levels of environmental stress due to cumulative habitat degradation are those most densely populated.  But this is not always the case, particularly for ecosystems affected by freshwater diversions and flow alteration (e.g., the Columbia River Basin in the Pacific Northwest, California's Central Valley, Texas' estuaries, and the "Everglades" and Florida Bay).

Habitat Protection Division
Inshore-Dependent Fish and Shellfish
Primary Causes of Fishery Population Declines
Dams and Flow Diversions

Wetland Destruction

Toxic Contaminants

Nutrient Over-Enrichment

Economic Benefits of Effective Habitat Protection


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Chambers and Associates

9814 Kensington Parkway
Kensington, Maryland 20895
(T) (301) 949-3003  (Fax) (301) 949-3003

Email   [email protected]

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