Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Report Documents Great Lakes Coastal Wetlands Increase

Feb 17: While the nation as a whole gained freshwater wetlands from 1998 to 2004, a report by NOAA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service documents a continuing loss of coastal wetlands in the eastern United States. The report, Status and Trends of Wetlands in the Coastal Watersheds of the Eastern United States, shows a loss of 59,000 acres each year in the coastal watersheds of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico from 1998 to 2004, but an increase in the Great Lakes.

Jim Balsiger, acting NOAA assistant administrator for NOAA’s Fisheries Service said, “This report shows the nation’s need to expand the effort to conserve and rebuild valuable coastal wetlands. Coastal wetlands are nurseries for important commercial and recreational fish and are vital to many threatened and endangered species. They also provide natural protection to coastal communities from the most damaging effects of hurricanes and storm surges.”

In a release, NOAA indicates that one reason wetland loss is concentrated in coastal watersheds is because of the large numbers of people living there -- more than half of the nation’s population lives in coastal counties in densities five times greater than inland counties -- the building of roads, homes and businesses have accelerated wetlands loss, particularly along the Gulf of Mexico. Wetland restoration is also more difficult in coastal areas where land values are high and factors such as storms and large expanses of soft muddy ground hamper restoration efforts.

Rowan Gould, acting director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said, “We are concerned by the findings of this report because coastal wetlands provide essential habitat for many migratory bird, fish, and endangered species. The high rate of coastal wetlands losses is even more alarming when we consider the anticipated stresses that climate change will bring to our coasts in the future. We look forward to working with federal and non-federal partners to stop this trend and achieve no net loss of coastal wetlands."

NOAA and FWS are discussing with the U.S. EPA and other interested groups how to best respond to the alarming loss of coastal wetlands outlined in the new report. Michael Shapiro, acting assistant administrator for water at EPA said, "Our coastal wetlands are ecological treasures that help protect shorelines and infrastructure in areas where more than half of Americans live. This report emphasizes the need for action to protect these valuable resources."

According to the report, watersheds of the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts have almost the same amount of total wetland area: 15.9 million and 15.6 million acres, respectively. Watersheds of the Great Lakes had an estimated 8.4 million acres. Considering saltwater and freshwater systems together, there was an estimated loss of 361,100 wetland acres in the coastal watersheds between 1998 and 2004. Both the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico coasts experienced net wetland losses of 14,980 and 370,760 acres, respectively. The Great Lakes coastal watersheds had an estimated net gain of 24,650 acres (10,000 ha).

Access a release from NOAA (click here). Access the complete 36-page report (click here).