precious marine habitats
valuable fish stocks have been declining for years. Although
overfishing has historically been blamed for this decline,
coastal habitat loss may also be an important factor. Population
expansion, and its associated development, are major causes
of coastal habitat loss and degradation.
National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), part of the United
States Department of Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration, is charged with the protection, management,
and enhancement of the nation's marine fishery resources.
The Essential Fish Habitat (EFH) provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens
Fishery Conservation and Management Act, as well as the
Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act, authorizes the NMFS
to evaluate development projects proposed or licensed by
federal agencies, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. If coastal
development projects have the potential to adversely affect
marine, estuarine, or anadromous species or their habitat,
the NMFS makes recommendations on how to avoid, minimize,
or compensate these impacts.
year the NMFS Northeast Regional Office reviews almost
two thousand requests for federal permits to dredge wetlands
and waterways, deposit dredged material in nearshore waters,
build coastal structures, fill waterways or wetlands, build
dams, and perform other in-water work. The NMFS's technical
reviews are supported by the agency's research on the biological
effects of human activities, the value of coastal habitats,
and methods of reducing habitat loss and degradation.
Affecting Coastal Habitat
NMFS Northeast Region, extending from Maine through Virginia,
is the most populated and visited areas in the United States.
Since colonization by European settlers, humans have greatly
modified the natural coastal geography in this region by
dredging, filling, and other construction activities. As
a direct consequence of these activities, only a small
portion of the formerly expansive coastal marshes remain.
Similar patterns of loss have occurred in other coastal
habitats, notably aquatic vegetation beds and intertidal
flats. As part of its mandated responsibilities, NMFS works
closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers, and other federal and state agencies to ensure
that future development projects have minimal impact on
aquatic habitats and species.
performed in or near the coastal zone, most construction
activities have the potential to harm aquatic species.
For example, dredging can damage seagrasses or other aquatic
bed communities by changing water depths, causing sedimentation
or erosion in surrounding areas, or creating sediment plumes
which decrease light penetration through the water column.
Reducing the spatial extent of these communities affects
many other species by eliminating an important source of
food and shelter. In addition, dredging can resuspend pollutants,
nutrients, or sediments in the water column, potentially
making them available for uptake in living organisms. These
particular impacts have been shown to cause decreased reproductive
success and mortality among many shellfish and finfish
species. Similarly, damming rivers for water storage or
hydropower may restrict migration access by anadromous
species and block vernal floodwaters and their associated
nutrients from reaching estuarine systems downstream. Accompanying
changes in salinity and nutrient regimes may degrade habitat
quality in these estuarine nurseries.
the greatest risk associated with coastal and watershed
development projects is that the magnitude and scope of
their environmental effects are not easily identified.
For example, we are only beginning to realize the importance
of managing non-point source impacts from motor oil, sewage,
industrial wastes, pesticides, and fertilizers. These non-point
source pollutants are often associated with drainage from
urban centers, residential areas, and agricultural lands.
It is important to consider the potential impacts of non-point
source pollutants as projects are designed, evaluated,
and authorized. Responsible management of these and other
coastal activities is necessary to ensure that suitable
habitat remains available for aquatic species.
Habitat Conservation program was established to assess
the effects of infrastructure, commercial, and residential
development on the nation's stocks of fish and shellfish,
and to make appropriate recommendations to federal regulatory
agencies to protect the stocks and the habitats needed
for their survival. The Habitat Program conducts environmental
assessments of coastal and open water ecosystems. These
environments are linked by the water cycle and the species
that depend on them for spawning grounds, nurseries, feeding
areas, or a mixture of these biological requirements.
predominant habitat types of the Northeast Region include
the rocky shores of New England, the sandy beaches of the
Mid-Atlantic, and the extensive salt marsh system that
runs along the back bays and river basins form Maine to
Chesapeake Bay. The nation's living marine resources depend
on the rivers, estuaries, marshes, tidal flats, and shallow
waters of these areas. It is the interconnection of these
habitats that make them so biologically productive.
provide spawning, nursery, and other important habitat
functions for anadromous species (those that swim up rivers
from the sea to spawn, e.g. salmon), catadromous species
(those that swim down rivers to the sea to spawn, e.g.
eels), and resident species (those that live in the area
year round, e.g. perch). Atlantic salmon, American shad,
and striped bass are among the most sought after anadromous
species which are dependent on riverine habitat for early
lifestage survival. American eels, our only catadromous
species, grow in river systems after hatching in the Sargasso
support and transport the first levels of the aquatic food
chain; receiving nitrogen and phosphorus (from decaying
organic matter and fertilizers) and moving these nutrients
and primary producers (phytoplankton) downriver to coastal
waters. Phytoplankton are the single celled plants upon
which primary consumers such as small fish feed. The primary
consumers are, in turn, preyed upon by carnivorous species,
including many commercially-important fish and shellfish.
are formed where rivers meet the ocean and salt water is
diluted by fresh. The input of nutrients, fresh water,
and abundant food combine to provide unique, shallow habitats.
Estuaries provide sanctuary from the harsh action of ocean
currents and waves. These systems are often fringed by
salt marshes and tidal flats and may contain valuable beds
of subaquatic vegetation such as eelgrass and widgeongrass.
As many as forty percent of commercially and recreationally
important species of the Northeast depend on estuaries
for some part of their life cycle.
marshes fringe portions of the protected coastline of the
Northeast Region. Salt marshes filter pollutants from streams
and rivers protecting fragile estuarine nurseries, and
they buffer shorefront property from wave and water damage
during storms and floods. Striped bass and bluefish depend
on these areas for food, while the prey species, such as
killifish and silversides, use the channels and marsh interiors
as habitat throughout their lives.
one moves farther south in the Northeast Region, nontidal
wetlands become increasingly important both in terms of
acreage and their association with coastal plain rivers
and estuaries. Nontidal wetlands provide numerous indirect
values to anadromous and estuarine fish resources. For
example, nontidal wetlands lying adjacent to rivers and
streams enhance or maintain the quality of anadromous fish
instream spawning and nursery habitat.
flats typically exist between mean sea level and the low
tide line. Often composed of fine sediments, they characteristically
extend offshore from the waterward edge of a salt marsh.
Nutrients and particulate biological matter washing from
the adjacent marshes make tidal flats prime habitat for
primary producers, grazers, and scavengers. As the tide
rises, an abundance of resident bivalves, worms, and crustaceans
attract more mobile predators to the area, which are, in
turn, consumed by a variety of commercially and recreationally
shallows and offshore banks, such as Stellwagen and Georges,
are unique areas where nutrients from the land and ocean
mix over preferred substrates. These components combine
to create unique and highly productive habitats for commercially
valuable stocks such as cod and flounder.