Seven Fun and Rewarding Things to Do in America’s Estuaries

In National Estuarine Research Reserve System, visitors can recreate in, learn about, and help protect critical coastal areas

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Seven Fun and Rewarding Things to Do in America’s Estuaries
Bill Streeter of the Delaware Raptor Center and a feathered friend captivate a crowd at the “Science on the River” event at the Hudson River NERR in New York.
Chris Bowser/New York State Department of Environmental Conservation-Hudson River National Estuarine Research Reserve

Estuaries are bodies of water and surrounding coastal habitats typically found where rivers meet the sea. Their brackish waters—a mixture of fresh water draining from the land and salty seawater—support an array of plant and animal communities. Estuaries are some of the most productive ecosystems in the world. They are vital habitat where many types of marine life feed, breed, and nest, and provide food, jobs, and places to recreate for people.

While productive, estuaries also increasingly are vulnerable—to coastal development, sea-level rise, erosion, and other threats. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) works with states to conserve and support long-term coastal habitat research through the National Estuarine Research Reserve System (NERRS)—a growing network of 29 sites, including Rookery Bay in Florida, Great Bay in New Hampshire, and Elkhorn Slough in California, that represent the nation’s diverse estuarine habitats, including salt marshes, mangrove forests, mud flats, tidal streams, rocky intertidal shores, reefs, and barrier beaches. While the reserves fulfill important missions centering on research, education, and training, they also offer recreational and stewardship activities for visitors. In observance of National Estuaries Week, Sept. 14-21, here are seven activities people can enjoy in most of our nation’s reserves.

1. Fishing and hunting

A young fisherman tries his hand with a casting net at Mississippi’s Grand Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve.
Rick Ranew/National Estuarine Research Reserve Association

Many recreationally and commercially favored fish and shellfish species, including striped bass, red drum, and crabs, spend some or all of their lifetime in estuaries. In fact, estuaries are known as the “nurseries of the sea.” In addition, canvasbacks, black ducks, and other waterfowl rely on estuaries. All of this makes NERRS sites natural lures for outdoor sportsmen and women. The management plans that govern estuarine reserves allow recreational fishing in nearly 95 percent of the sites, while 85 percent are open for hunting, according to the National Estuarine Research Reserve Association (NERRA).

2. Bird watching

Budding ornithologists look for birds at the Elkhorn Slough reserve in California.
Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve

One-third of all bird species rely on wetlands as habitat and nursery areas, so the reserves are a top destination for bird watchers. In just one example, birders gather each spring at the Delaware NERR to observe the annual arrival of birds traveling from as far away as South America to feast on horseshoe crabs. Endangered and threatened bird species also take refuge in reserves: Texas’ Mission-Aransas NERR serves as the winter home of the endangered and protected whooping crane, which NOAA says would likely be extinct if the site didn’t offer it safe shelter. Several reserves also have been officially designated by the National Audubon Society as “Important Bird Areas.”

3. Hiking and camping

An NOAA college intern hikes in the Kachemak Bay NERR in Alaska.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The NERR system encompasses more than 1.3 million acres and 4,500 miles of shoreline, which include hundreds of miles of paddle and hiking trails—offering visitors up-close access to many habitats and marine life. At least a dozen reserves allow camping. 

4. Canoeing and kayaking

Kayakers paddle along the Little River Estuary in the Wells NERR in Maine.
Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Canoeing and kayaking are among the most popular recreational pursuits at reserves. Paddlers can view wildlife and enjoy quiet, often relatively unexplored backwaters. For the more adventuresome, the unbroken marsh and river Southeast Coast Saltwater Paddling Trail passes through several NERR sites as it traverses more than 800 miles along the Southeast coast from Virginia to Georgia.

5. Learning

Students study sea creatures at the Jobos Bay Reserve in Puerto Rico.
Augusto Menezes/National Estuarine Research Reserve Association

A central mission of the NERRS system is education, and all 29 sites offer formal programs for every age and activity level, during which participants learn about estuaries and their inhabitants, and how to help conserve them.

6. Citizen science

A volunteer in a program overseen by staff from Florida’s Rookery Bay and Guana Tolomato Matanzas research reserves, and 15 environmental organizations, takes a water sample.
Tyler Jones/Florida Sea Grant

The NERR network counts on volunteer citizen scientists for tasks that range from counting and measuring glass eels on their way up the Hudson River to mapping the locations of nurdles (small plastic pellets) that contaminate the coast and harm marine life. The resulting data provide important information about estuary conditions. This data collection and other tasks undertaken by citizen scientists enable the public to participate in meaningful scientific research.

7. Coastal cleanups

Volunteers remove debris and invasive species from a riverside area of the Tijuana River Valley, which includes the Tijuana River NERR in the far southwest corner of the continental U.S.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Surfrider

The trash and debris that threaten the world’s ocean also endanger reserves by traveling via ocean or river currents into estuaries. Discarded or abandoned fishing line poses a particular risk, often injuring or killing sea turtles, birds, and other marine life that become entangled. Staff and volunteers conduct regular cleanup efforts at NERRS sites to reduce the threats the debris pose. 

Ted Morton directs national policy for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ efforts to protect ocean life and coastal habitats.

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