|Biodiversity and Conservation|
source ref: biobook.html
|LOSS OF AQUATIC SPECIES
Major Wetlands in the United States
Prairie Pothole region
Louisiana Coastal Wetlands
Coastal Wetlands of Southern California
International Efforts to Preserve Wetlands
The Ramsar Convention
U.S. Laws Protecting Wetlands
The Clean Water Act
Reauthorization of the Clean Water Act
Funding for Wetlands Protection
California Coastal Commission
The California Coastal Conservancy
OCEANS AND COASTS
Freshwater ecosystems are being contaminated and destroyed the world over, and failure to protect these productive and diverse areas have resulted in more than 20 percent of the world's freshwater fish species becoming extinct, endangered or threatened.
The situation in North America illustrates the problem clearly. 364 (30%) of the species or subspecies of freshwater fish found north of Mexico are endangered, threatened, or of special concern, almost always (93% of cases) because of habitat loss. 17 species or subspecies have gone extinct, 7 of them in California.
Many freshwater invertebrates and fishes are found only in individual lakes and rivers and therefore they are very vulnerable to habitat loss and pollution. Construction of dams, channelizing of streams, and capping or tapping of springs has endangered many freshwater species. We have already discussed how habitat alteration (construction of dams, and deforestation) contributed to the decline of several species of salmon.
Streams and rivers have also been easy targets for dumping of sewage and industrial wastes. Many of the rivers in industrial areas are so polluted and low in oxygen that very few species can live in them any more. The Rhine, Danube, Illinois, Cuyahoga and Mississippi are some of the worst examples, but there are many more.
In his 1997 State of the Union Address, President Clinton announced the American Heritage Rivers Initiative, a program to help restore and protect America's rivers. The President designated ten rivers as American Heritage Rivers in calendar year 1997. These designated rivers receive special recognition and federal support. They are supposed to serve as models of the most innovative, economically successful and ecologically sustainable approaches to river restoration and protection in the United States.
The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968 has allowed protection of the free-flowing nature of over 10,000 miles of rivers in the U.S., which otherwise might have been dammed and channeled. The flow of over 600,000 miles of river is blocked by an estimated 60,000 dams. The Act prohibits dam construction and limits streamside development in order to preserve the character of each stretch of protected river. More than 60,000 miles of river qualify for inclusion but are not yet included.
|Wetlands are loosely defined as lands that are covered by shallow water or by water part of the time. They include prairie potholes, vernal pools, bogs, fens, swamps, marshes, floodplains, and shallow lakes. Some are coastal (brackish or salt) and some are inland (usually freshwater). Wetlands are often incredibly rich in wildlife, partly because of the complexity of the habitat and partly because of the abundant nutrients provided by runoff from the land. They are second only to Rain Forests in the amount of Biodiversity they support.||
Numerous attempts have been made to define and classify
wetlands. The following is from a study by the National Research Council:
|Wetland type||Flooding||Typical vegetation|
|Tidal salt and brackish marsh||Tidal||Salt-tolerant grasses and rushes|
|Freshwater marsh||Seasonal to permanent||Grasses and sedges|
|Prairie potholes||Temporary to permanent||Grasses, sedges, herbs|
|Fens||Permanent (mineral-rich)||Grasses, sedges, shrubs, trees|
|Bogs||By precipitation||Mosses, shrubs, trees|
|Swamp||Prolonged||Cypress, gum, red maple|
|Bottomland||Seasonal||Oak, sweetgum, hardwoods|
The most obvious and well-known wildlife in wetlands are birds. Wetlands are vital feeding and nesting grounds for waders (herons, egrets, storks, ibises, flamingos, etc.) feeding areas for fish-eating birds (osprey, pelican, skimmers) and wintering grounds for migratory birds (ducks- e.g. green-wing teal, geese). An estimated 43% of all endangered species spend part of their lives in wetland habitat.
Coastal wetlands are also breeding grounds for economically important fish and shellfish. About 3/4 of the nation's $4 billion annual harvest of fish and seafood comes from species that are dependent on wetlands for breeding and feeding. Marine species such as striped bass, shad and alewife utilize estuarine wetlands for spawning and then return to the ocean. Eels and salmon will undergo strenuous migrations of hundreds of miles - moving from the oceans upstream through rivers and finally into tiny tributary streams for spawning. Coastal wetlands are also essential for important shellfish including shrimp, blue crabs, oysters and clams.
Wetlands also provide important environmental services - they filter out toxic wastes, pathogens, excess nutrients, sediment and other pollutants. They help prevent erosion, reduce flooding by storing storm water, and (in the case of coastal wetlands) reduce storm damage by absorbing wave energy.
Wetlands also generate economic activity. A study commissioned by the National Audubon Society in 1994 reported that wetlands generated the following revenue:
In the past, wetlands have often been seen by builders, farmers, and engineers as obstacles to development, and they have therefore been drained or filled to make land available for roads, railroads and farms, or they have been dredged for harbor and marina development. The United States originally had about 340,000 square miles of wetlands, but now the figure is about 150,000 square miles; i.e. 57% of U.S. wetlands has been lost since colonial times. In some states (e.g. California) 90% of all wetlands have been drained. Recent estimates indicate that we are continuing to lose wetlands at a rate of about 500 square miles a year. Across Canada, where a large percentage of the United States' wintering waterbirds nest, regional wetland losses range from 29 to 71 percent.
The Prairie Pothole region. Prairie potholes are natural depressions that can be a fifth of an acre up to 500 acres in size. They exist in vast numbers in five north-central states and three Canadian provinces. Prairie potholes provide the most productive breeding habitat in North America for water birds.
In 1986 the United States and Canadian governments, together with a duck-hunting group Ducks Unlimited, signed the North American Waterfowl Management Plan (NAWMP), an agreement designed to return waterfowl populations to the levels of the 1970s through habitat protection, restoration, and enhancement. Special efforts have been made to work with farmers to get them to enhance wetlands on their property. More recently, the Mexican government also has signed on and the name has been changed to Continental Conservation Plan. Results have been better than expected. A survey of duck breeding areas in the U.S. and Canada conducted in the spring of 1997 shows the highest number of ducks since surveys began in 1955. The total number of breeding ducks is estimated at 42.5 million, a 13 percent increase from 1996 and 31 percent higher than the average from 1955 to 1996.
In 1998 the estimate of total ducks in the traditional survey area was 39.1 million birds, an 8% decrease from 1997 but still 20% higher than the long-term average. The number of ponds in May (4.6 million) was 38% lower than last year, and 6% lower than the long-term average.
Wetlands in Alaska provide nesting, rearing, and feeding habitat for more than 70,000 swans, a million geese, and 12 million ducks, including some species that nest nowhere else in the world.
Vernal Pools. Vernal Pools (one type of Ephemeral Pool) are seasonally flooded depressions on impermeable soils (hardpan, claypan, or volcanic basalt). They retain water for longer than the surroundings do, but may dry up several times during a season. Some plants and animals (including invertebrates, crustaceans, and amphibians) are adapted to this unpredictable habitat, making the pools very interesting biologically. Seeds, eggs and cysts are buried in the mud left behind when the pool dries up, and await wetter conditions to germinate or develop. Plants produce brightly-colored concentric rings of flowers that are the unique signature of vernal pools. Vernal Pools are common in many parts of California's Central Valley (map) where they provide food and resting sites for many species of migratory water birds. In San Diego County, 97% of the vernal pools have been lost due to urbanization, and most of the remaining 3% are on the Miramar Naval Air Station. These pools provide habitat for three endangered plants, three endangered animals, and one proposed threatened plant. Many, but not all, of these pools are protected. A collection of government agencies is developing an interagency agreement to provide better protection for vernal pool ecosystems.
Louisiana has 41% of the coastal wetlands in the U.S, but they are disappearing at an alarming rate: up to 40 square miles per year sink under water, for unknown reasons.
The Everglades. This huge watershed originally stretched from Lake Okeechobee on the north to the southern tip of Florida. It supports huge numbers of fish, alligators, snakes, birds and mammals, it makes the Florida climate subtropical, and it provides drinking water for 4 million people. The wetlands were originally maintained by water flowing in a huge sheet a few inches deep, but up to 50 miles wide and 100 miles long. This shallow "river" started as overflow from Lake Okeechobee and eventually emptied into the Gulf of Mexico. But today, most of this flow has been stopped and the wetlands drained to provide land for sugarcane production. The only part that still maintains this surface flow is about 10% of the original wetland now located in Everglades National Park. Since the park was established in 1947 the number of waders nesting in the Everglades has declined by 90%.
The Everglades provides a striking example of environmental damage caused by misguided government subsidies. In 1948, Congress authorized the Army Corps of Engineers to divert huge amounts of Everglades water into the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico by constructing 1,500 miles of canals and levees. Altogether about 2,250 square miles of wetlands were lost. About 1,000 square miles of the drained wetlands are used for sugarcane farming, and the rest is urban sprawl.
In addition to paying for the land reclamation, the federal government has subsidized the Florida sugarcane industry through loan programs, price guarantees and tariffs on foreign sugar. The policy is to maintain a domestic price of 18 cents per pound, nearly twice the price on the open global market. The cost of the price guarantee is, of course, passed on to the consumer. Overall, the sugar program is estimated to cost U.S. taxpayers $1.4 billion a year.
Sugar growers use huge amounts of phosphorus-based fertilizer, most of which runs off into the Everglades and promotes the growth of exotic cattails in place of the native sawgrass. This change in habitat affects the entire food chain and is probably one of the main reasons for the decline in wading birds mentioned above.
The federal government is proposing to spend $100-150 million per year for five years to establish a pumping system that will mimic the original water flow pattern in the Everglades. The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Web Site | James Payton's Constructed Wetlands Page | National Wetlands Inventory (NWI), U.S.F.W.S | Low biodiversity key to Everglades survival | FIU Everglades Interactive Learning Case Study
|California has lost 91% of its wetlands, more than any other state. Birds wintering in California's wetlands have declined from 60 million to 2 million, largely because of destruction of this habitat. The Central Valley of California originally contained 4-5 million acres of wetland habitat, but this has been reduced to less than 300,000 acres, about 5 percent, of the original area, by draining for agriculture and water supplies for cities, mainly Los Angeles. Now there are over 100 dams, and thousands of miles of canals, within the Central Valley drainage basins. Tulare, Buena Vista and Kern Lakes are virtually dry. However, many migratory birds are dependent on the remaining Central Valley wetlands. 20% of North America's migratory birds use the Pacific Flyway, and of these, about 60% winter in the Central Valley.||
For the Pacific flyway as a whole, there has been some improvement over the past ten years, partly because of the end of a multi-year drought in the northern breeding areas for these birds, but also because of a successful effort to restore Central Valley Wetlands, by an organization called the Central Valley Habitat Joint Venture. Overwintering bird numbers are up about 5% on the Pacific flyway (not on other flyways though).
Over the past decade in California, there has been a 30% decline in the commercial landings of fish that depend on wetlands. There was once a very active and productive fishing industry in Los Angeles and Orange counties, but today it is almost non-existent. This is largely due to the loss of most of our coastal wetlands.
California Wetland Policies and Programs
Southern California's coastal wetlands have been nominated as "Wetlands of International Importance" in accordance with the Ramsar Convention (see later). The southern part of the state once had 53,000 acres, but that is now down to 13,000. Most of them are estuarine salt marshes along the shores of bays and estuaries where freshwater streams meet the sea. Also important are freshwater marshes, freshwater ponds, vernal pools, and riparian wetlands.
Many of the salt marsh species have evolved special adaptations to survive oxygen deprivation, heat, inundation, and salt. For example:
The Bolsa Chica wetlands in Huntington Beach are the focus of a continuing controversy over wetland development. The area is the largest stretch of unprotected coastal marshland south of San Francisco, providing 1700 acres of habitat, 1100 of which are wetlands. It supports many species of fish, birds and mammals, including at least four endangered species of birds (California least tern, light-footed clapper rail, peregrine falcon). A series of successful law suits by the Amigos de Bolsa Chica and the Bolsa Chica Land Trust led in 1998 to an agreement to protect the entire wetland area. Under the agreement, 880 acres of the wetlands were placed into public ownership. The Metropolitan Water District also donated 24.5 acres of land to the Bolsa Chica Land Trust, making a total public acquisition of 904.5 acres. This makes it the largest publicly-owned coastal wetland reserve in Southern California. Environmentalists are now working to block development on the mesa above the wetlands, and to save the entire 1700 acres. A unanimous decision by the Coastal Commission in November 2000 approved the development of only 60 acres of the mesa.
The Ballona wetlands, a 1,087-acre fragment of degraded wetlands located near Marina del Rey in Los Angeles County, is the site of the factory where Howard Hughes built his famous "Spruce Goose" airplane in the 1940s. It is one of the largest undeveloped pieces of land in the city, but might become one of the biggest real estate developments in the city's history. The wetlands remained undeveloped for decades because Howard Hughes did not need to develop it. Now Playa Capital, a consortium of New York investment banks, with $35 million in subsidies from the Los Angeles City Council, is planning to construct a new city on the site, called Playa Vista. The development would be the largest mixed-use real estate development in the history of Los Angeles, and include 13,000 housing units, 5.6 million square feet of commercial and retail space, and 750 hotel rooms. It would provide 100,000 construction jobs over the 10-15-year life of the project and will be a "major economic engine for the LA region in terms of employment and business growth". Bulldozers have already begun work, but a coalition of 86 environmental groups, Citizens United to Save All of Ballona (CUSAB) is still fighting the project in the courts. The Ballona Wetlands Land Trust, Wetlands Action Network and California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG) sued the Army Corps of Engineers for granting the developers a permit to dredge and fill wetlands at Ballona without adequate environmental review. The United States Federal Court ruled that the decision to grant the permit was "arbitrary, capricious and otherwise not in accordance with the law". The attorneys are now trying to stop ALL construction activities at the site until a comprehensive Environmental Impact Study is completed. Recent documents show extensive contamination by toxics and explosive gases at the site. For several years, movie maker Steven Spielberg was planning to be the major tenant in Playa Vista, with a $250 million film studio called DreamWorks. But on July 1, 1999, facing enormous public opposition to the plan, DreamWorks abandoned their involvement in the project. Ballona Wetlands Deal Announced
Upper Newport Bay is an 880-acre State Ecological Preserve within a mile of the UCI campus. It was saved from development by a dedicated pair of conservationists, Frank and Fran Robinson, who devoted a great part of their lives to saving the bay. The bay includes saltmarsh, shallow and open water, tidal channels, mudflats and numerous islands, and a freshwater pond. It is home to up to 30,000 birds including six endangered species. The endangered species include the largest population of Light-footed Clapper Rails, marsh birds with a characteristic "clapping" song. Other wetland birds found at the bay are Virginia Rails, Sora and American Bittern. The freshwater areas around the bay are home to several kinds of ducks including Green-winged and Cinnamon Teal, American Widgeon, Canvasbacks and Eared and Pied-billed Grebes. Waders include Snowy and Great Egrets, Great-Blue Herons, Black-capped Night Herons and Green Herons. The islands at the top of the bay, that were created by a dredging project, provide nesting or roosting sites for many species of shorebirds including Forster's, Elegant, Least and Caspian Terns and Black Skimmers, Gulls, Grebes (Western, Clark's, Eared, Horned and Pied-billed). Raptors are abundant and include Osprey, Peregrine Falcon, Northern Harriers, Red-tailed, Red-shouldered, Coopers and Sharp-shinned Hawks, White-tailed Kites and Barn Owls.
The San Joaquin Freshwater Marsh Reserve is a 202-acre wetland adjacent to the University of California, Irvine (UCI) campus and west of campus drive, that is owned and managed by the University. East of Campus Drive is 300 acres of which 150 acres are restored wetlands, owned by the Irvine Ranch Water District. Together these 500 acres make up the largest coastal freshwater wetlands in Southern California. The wetlands had to be restored because the area had dried up during years of use for farming, and the realignment of San Diego Creek had diverted much of its water supply.
Both Upper Newport Bay and the San Joaquin freshwater marsh are remnants of what was originally a huge wetland area, now minimized by draining, channelizing and filling.
The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance was signed in Ramsar, Iran in 1971. The "Ramsar Convention", as it has come to be known, provides a framework for international cooperation in the preservation and use of the world's wetlands. As of 1997, 101 countries had signed the agreement resulting in the establishment of 881 wetland conservation sites. The Ramsar Convention requires the Contracting Parties to do four things:
1. Designate at least one wetland for inclusion in the List of Wetlands of International Importance, and maintain its ecological character.
2. Include wetland conservation considerations within their national land-use planning and promote the wise use of wetlands in their territory.
3. Promote the conservation of wetlands in their territory through the establishment of nature reserves on wetlands, whether or not they are included in the List of Wetlands of International Importance, manage wetlands for the benefit of waterfowl and promote training in the fields of wetland research, management and wardening.
4. Consult with other Contracting Parties about implementation of the Convention, especially as regards transfrontier wetlands, shared water systems, shared species, and development aid for wetland projects.
The U.S. does not have laws that explicitly protect wetlands for their own sake. Instead, wetlands are protected as a by-product of the Clean Water Act (also known as the Federal Water Pollution Control Act), which was enacted in 1972 to "restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the Nation's waters." The Act established as national goals that the discharge of pollutants into our waters be eliminated by 1985 and that all of our waters should be safe for fishing and swimming by 1983 [40% of U.S. waters are still too polluted for fishing and swimming].
The bill itself did not establish any requirement to protect wetlands; in fact, it did not even mention wetlands. The most controversial part of the Clean Water Act is Section 404, which prohibits the "discharge of dredged or fill material into the navigable waters" of the United States unless a permit for such activity is issued. This was intended to keep waterways open for boat traffic, but it has been interpreted much more broadly to control practically any activity that disturbs wetlands, whether or not they are navigable.
Implementation. Ironically, the organization responsible for protecting wetlands in the U.S. is not any of the natural resource agencies, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the same organization that has been most responsible for destroying wetlands in the past. Together with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the Corps has established regulations for implementing Section 404 of the Clean Water Act by administering a permitting program for the filling of wetlands. Permit applicants are encouraged to avoid, minimize and then mitigate the effects of their projects.
A local example. In a recent local case the EPA blocked permits from the Corps for the Capistrano Unified School District to build a new high school at a 12-acre Alkali Wetlands site in San Juan Capistrano. The site is the largest of this rare wetland type in Orange County, and one of only eight known in the state. The development also threatens the survival of the Southern spikeplant.
Challenges to Corps Authority. Because the CWA did not specifically provide for protection of wetlands, the authority of the Corps and the EPA to regulate wetlands has been challenged numerous times in the courts. Usually the courts have ruled in favor of the regulations. However, the confusing history of these regulations has led to calls for a law that more explicitly recognizes the value of wetlands.
What CWA does NOT Regulate. The main weakness of the CWA is that the program is based largely on water quality and fails to address other wetland values such as fish and wildlife habitat and flood control. Another of the main problems with use of the CWA to protect wetlands is that it governs only discharges into wetlands and the filling of wetlands. It does not regulate other acts that reduce wetlands, such as draining, flooding and normal, farming, ranching, and forestry activities. Furthermore, about 20% of the Nation's wetlands are excluded from the regulatory program because of their small size or because they are isolated (not linked to a tributary water system). As a result, the 404 program is applicable to only about one third of the proposals to alter wetlands.
An estimated 6,500 wetland acres have been lost since June 1998, when a federal court ruled that the Corps could no longer require permits for digging ditches in wetlands unless dirt spoil was deposited directly into wetlands.
92% of the wetland impacts permitted under section 404 were a result of the "Nationwide 26" process, a fast-track permit application that is not reviewed by the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service for effects on threatened or endangered species. It allows landowners to drain three acres of wetland without agency review. In addition, Permit #29" allows destruction of half-acre parcels for single-family houses. These policies have resulted in the destruction of an estimated 20,000 acres of wetlands each year. The Corps want to modify the permitting process, but environmentalists find that the Corps' proposal would violate the Clean Water Act and lead to even more loss of wetlands.
Wetlands Homepage | The Clinton Administration's Clean Water Initiative
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently received a
devastating "Report Card" from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility
(PEER). They find that:
"The Corps is granting more development permits than ever and denying almost none. The Corps has doubled its reliance on Nationwide and Regional Permits, issuing more than 60,000 in 1998. Meanwhile, individual permits which require environmental evaluations have fallen by more than half.
The number of wetlands restored under Corps auspices has declined by almost two- thirds since 1992.
Permit inspections have dropped nearly 40% nationwide. Instances of where the Corps has taken violators to court are becoming rare events litigation to remedy unauthorized wetland destruction nose dived by nearly 80% between 1992 and 1998."
On May 16, 1995, The House of Representatives passed Representative Bud Shuster's (R-PA) bill, H.R. 961, The Clean Water Act (CWA) Amendments of 1995. This bill (called the "Dirty Water Act" by its opponents) would weaken the Clean Water Act in many vitally important areas, mainly related to water quality. The changes in the section dealing with wetlands would have devastating impacts on our rivers, lakes, wetlands, and coastal estuaries:
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said that the Republican CWA amendments would fundamentally weaken one of the nation's most successful environmental laws. "This is a polluter's bill of rights, written in secret by industry lobbyists, and rammed through the House of Representatives before the public had a clue," DeFazio said. "It gives polluters new license to degrade the nation's water supplies and will allow our lakes, streams and coastal waters to become significantly more polluted for the first time in 25 years."
"The Republicans are saying that the nation's water is too clean," DeFazio said. "Their Dirty Water Act takes us back to the bad old days in Oregon when the Willamette River was virtually an open sewer."
Two main issues have made it difficult to make progress toward reauthorization of the CWA:
1. Whether, and how, to compensate landowners whose property value is reduced because their ability to develop the property is limited by the CWA
2. How to deal with non-point source pollution. The CWA has been quite successful in reducing pollution from point sources such as power plants and factories. But now the main sources of water pollution are runoff from agriculture, city streets and storm sewers, which are much more difficult to regulate.
Since comprehensive CWA reauthorization has been difficult to get started, numerous pieces of legislation have been introduced to deal with wetlands issues on an individual basis. President Clinton and Vice President Gore released The Clean Water Action Plan on Feb. 19, 1998, which calls for over 100 actions.
The Farm Bill, through the "Swampbuster" program, has paid farmers to protect wetlands rather than drain and farm them. This has resulted in farmers restoring nearly 300,000 acres of wetlands and placing them under permanent protection. More than 30 million acres of former agricultural lands have been restored to grasslands or forest, and polluted runoff from fields has been reduced. Wildlife has benefited substantially from this program. The Farm Bill was reauthorized in the Federal Agricultural Improvement and Reform Act of 1996.
In a 1997 report the Sierra Club estimated that Americans are paying at least $7 billion a year in subsidies for federal programs that destroy wetlands. The subsidies are for access roads that provide developers to build in wetlands and on flood plains, for farmers who drain or fill wetlands, and for homeowners who buy federal flood insurance.
Coastal development in California is regulated by a special agency called the California Coastal Commission, which was established by voter initiative in 1972 and made permanent by the Legislature in 1976. The mission of the Commission is to plan for and regulate development in the coastal zone consistent with the policies of the California Coastal Act. The Commission must review and approve Local Coastal Programs for each of the 73 cities and counties in the coastal zone. The Commission is also responsible for granting permits for any new development in tidal and submerged lands, and must work on and promote wetland restoration.
The Commission has received mixed reviews for the work of its first 25 years. Although developers complain that it is difficult to get building permits, the agency has approved 98% of the proposals that have come before it. And it has failed to force many cities and counties--including Los Angeles--to adopt their required LCPs. It is being argued that the Commission's regulatory approach is not enough to protect the coast, and that the state needs to provide money for outright purchase of threatened areas. It is estimated that $835 million will be needed over the next 10 years to purchase the areas most threatened by development.
The California Coastal Conservancy, a unique state resource agency established in 1976 by the Legislature, "uses entrepreneurial techniques to purchase, protect, restore, and enhance coastal resources, and to provide access to the shore". They work in partnership with local governments, other public agencies, nonprofit organizations, and private landowners. The Conservancy has undertaken more than 630 projects along the 1,100 mile California coastline. Their goals include protecting and enhancing coastal wetlands, streams and watersheds. They are also involved in improving public access, protecting agricultural lands, and restoring urban waterfronts.
Wetlands: when construction stops monitoring starts | Audubon Wetlands Campaign.
EPA Wetlands Homepage | National Wetlands Inventory Homepage | NWRC Fragile Fringe Index | National Wetlands Research Center Home Page | Wetlands - AEME Homepage | Society of Wetland Scientists
Coral reefs are another type of endangered aquatic habitat. With their associated communities they cover 230,000 square miles, mostly in the tropics.
Coral reefs are very rich in species. The Great Barrier Reef, off the east coast of Australia, supports more than 300 species of coral, 1500 species of fish and over 4000 species of mollusks. 252 species of birds nest and breed on the coral, and 5 species of turtle live on the reef. The Great Barrier Reef occupies 0.1% of the ocean surface of the world, but it supports 8% of the world's fish species - six times the number of species found in an equivalent area of the Atlantic coast of the U.S.
Coral reef ecosystems off the coasts of 93 countries have
been destroyed or degraded because of several factors. It is estimated that human
activities have led to the death of 5-10% of the world's reefs (Weber, 1994).
When properly protected, coral reefs can apparently recover quite quickly. Only about 6 percent of Australia's Great Barrier Reef now suffers from bleaching.
Coral Farms. Efforts are being made to relieve the harvesting pressure on coral reefs by developing coral farms. Coral is capable of growing from 2 to 7 inches a year depending on the species and can therefore be thought of as a renewable resource. The Waikiki Aquarium at the University of Hawaii, for example, maintains 74 species of stony corals from Fiji, Solomon Islands, Palau, Guam, and Hawaii. "Cuttings" from these corals made available to other public aquaria and researchers. Sea World of Ohio has also begun a successful coral propagation program and is able to supply the other Sea World parks in California, Florida and Texas with live coral fragments for their aquarium displays, thereby minimizing Sea World's use of coral collected from the wild. Geothermal Aquaculture Research Foundation, Inc. is a nonprofit organization that promotes aquarium culture of live corals. They offer an on-line reef aquarium farming school and newsletter for aquarium coral propagation. Today, approximately 20% of the world's demand for live coral is satisfied through captive propagation.
In October 1998 Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt convened the first meeting of the Coral Reef Initiative Task Force, including representatives from 11 federal agencies and from Florida, Hawaii, American Samoa, U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and the Northern Marianas Islands. They developed a comprehensive set of programs and partnerships to address problems facing coral reef systems off the U.S. coast.
Additional Information on Coral Reefs:
ENN - Coral Reefs in depth | Coral Reef News Flashes | ACTION ATLAS: Coral Reefs | Benthic Habitats of the Florida Keys | WRI: "Reefs at Risk" | Coral Cay Conservation | World Conservation Monitoring Center
Kelp forest depletion | Sea Plants Field Guide to Economically Important SeaWeeds | Maine Seaweed Company - North American Kelp | Monterey Bay Aquarium Habitats Path - Our Kelp Forest Exhibit
The Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge was established by Congress in 1989 to protect the vanishing breeding beaches used by sea turtles. These undisturbed stretches of beach are essential to the survival of loggerheads (listed as a threatened species) and green turtles (listed as an endangered species) in North America. Even the endangered leatherback turtle occasionally used this refuge as a nesting site. The USFWS, The State of Florida, Brevard and Indian River Counties, and the private Mellon Foundation have joined forces to purchase additional beachfront acreage in order to increase the size and effectiveness of the Refuge.
Simply preserving habitat is often not sufficient to ensure successful sea turtle proliferation. Loggerhead and other sea turtles nest along the 24 miles of undeveloped beach and wetland of Canaveral National Seashore in Florida. Egg predation, primarily by raccoons, has become a serious threat to turtle survival. "Under natural conditions, sea turtle nests should exist in such concentrations that natural predators like raccoons wouldn't decimate populations," says Dr. Robert J. Warren, a wildlife ecologist at the University of Georgia. "But human development along the coast has removed so much of the nesting environment that every nest is critical." Compounding the raccoon problem is the fact that the normal predator/prey balance of the coastal ecosystem has been disrupted by the elimination of red wolves and panthers, which once preyed on raccoons, by human activity. Achieving the 60% sea turtle hatch rate for lands within the National Park Service mandated by the Loggerhead Turtle Recovery Plan has been difficult. In a recent study conducted at the Canaveral National Seashore, however, turtle egg losses were kept to under 8% by covering nesting sites with screening to keep out raccoons and other predators.
Loggerhead sea turtles go the distance
A similar approach to protecting Kemp's ridley sea turtle is being tried. Since the primary breeding ground for this sea turtle is in Rancho Nuevo, Mexico, it cannot be protected by a National Wildlife Refuge. The final Recovery Plan approved by the National Marine Fisheries Service in 1992, however, called for cooperative efforts between the U.S. and Mexico. During the April to September nesting season, teams of conservationists patrol 80 miles of Rancho Nuevo beach three to five times a day, locate newly laid eggs, and remove them to fenced corrals where they are counted, reburied and monitored during their 42-62 day incubation. Hatchlings are released soon after birth to begin their lives at sea. 1997 saw the largest arribada (massive nesting event) since the inception of the program at Rancho Nuevo. In 1996, 2,080 nests, 186,000 eggs and about 120,000 hatchlings were recorded. So far in 1997, more than 2,170 nests and 212,000 eggs have been protected. The hatchling count for 1997 is expected to exceed 30,000. Recent scientific studies show a steady rebuilding of the Kemp's ridley population.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) includes a coastal
plain that serves as the spring calving ground for the 150,000 caribou in the Porcupine
river herd. The refuge also provides a year-round home for Musk oxen, a summer home
to many migratory bird species, and is the largest polar bear denning area on land in the
U.S. Unfortunately, the Bush administration is eager to open up this pristine wilderness
area to oil and gas exploration and drilling. A Bill to open up the coastal plain to
the oil and gas industry has passed in the House of Representatives but faces strong
The goals of the National Marine Sanctuary Program are "to provide enhanced resource protection through conservation and management of the Sanctuaries that complements existing regulatory authorities; to support, promote, and coordinate scientific research on, and monitoring of, the site-specific marine resources of the Sanctuaries; to enhance public awareness, understanding, appreciation, and wise use of the marine environment; and to facilitate, to the extent compatible with the primary objective of resource protection, multiple uses of the National Marine Sanctuaries." However, commercial fishing is still allowed in these "sanctuaries".
Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary | Marine Protected Areas | Govt announces Great Australian Bight Marine Park | Twelve U.S. marine parks get attention | No-Take' Zones Spark Fisheries Debate by Karen F. Schmidt | Sustainable Oceans and Coasts | California Coastal Commission - California Programs for Biodiversity Conservation (Information Center for the Environment - ICE) | OCEAN98