National Estuary System Helps Power Local Economies, Study Finds

Analysis details contributions that 4 reserves make to their communities

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National Estuary System Helps Power Local Economies, Study Finds
Guana Tolomato Matanzas NERR
Students from Santa Fe College and Bethune-Cookman University work to improve nesting habitat for the American oystercatcher—a bird once hunted to near-extinction—at the Guana Tolomato Matanzas Reserve near Jacksonville, Florida. National Estuarine Research Reserve System sites like this one strengthen local economies by collaborating with partners to protect and steward ecosystems that are important to marine life, industries, and communities.
Guana Tolomato Matanzas NERR Flickr Creative Commons

A recently published study, commissioned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and The Pew Charitable Trusts, offers a glimpse into the significant contributions that the National Estuarine Research Reserve System (NERRS) makes to local economies. The analysis by Eastern Research Group Inc. looked at just four of the system’s 29 reserves—Rookery Bay, Guana Tolomato Matanzas, and Apalachicola in Florida and South Slough in Oregon—and conservatively estimated that together they generate more than $165 million in annual revenue for their communities, including $56.4 million in wages paid for at least 1,762 jobs. In short, the study concluded that the reserves’ work to build environmental resilience also supports local economic resilience.

The analysis was completed in January and released March 31, and NOAA will host a June 14 webinar for reserve managers from across the country to discuss the research process and how the findings may be applied to advance the NERRS’ objectives.

The four sites in the study educate, train, and entertain nearly 1 million visitors annually, according to the analysis. And the activities that make reserves popular with the public—including fishing, hunting, wildlife viewing, kayaking, hiking, canoeing, horseback riding, ecotourism, and school and professional training programs—also produce much of their economic contribution.

In addition, the four reserves provide roughly 423,475 acres of crucial habitat and nesting or calving grounds for diverse species, including threatened and endangered Atlantic green, loggerhead, and leatherback sea turtles, critically endangered North Atlantic right whales, threatened Florida panthers, and bald eagles.

Reserve system works to protect vulnerable estuaries

Estuaries and their surrounding wetlands are usually found where rivers meet the sea and form some of the world’s most productive habitats. Congress created the NERRS in the early 1970s under the Coastal Zone Management Act, which was designed to use management plans and other tools to safeguard the country’s vulnerable coastal ecosystems from increasing residential, recreational, commercial, and industrial development and activities. The reserve system protects more than 1.3 million acres of coastal and Great Lakes estuarine habitat, including areas on the islands of Hawaii and Puerto Rico, and fosters research, monitoring, stewardship, training, and education.

NERRS sites are created and managed through a partnership between NOAA and individual states. NOAA provides most of the funding and national guidance, while the day-to-day management of each reserve is led by a state agency or university, often assisted by local, regional, or statewide nongovernmental organizations.

In fiscal year 2021, NOAA, through congressional appropriations, invested more than $33 million in the reserve system, with state and university partners adding $9 million. However, federal funding has remained basically static over the past several years, especially when accounting for inflation, despite increasing demands on NOAA’s resources and significant interest among states in establishing new sites. For example, Connecticut is in the final stages of designation of its first reserve, Louisiana has begun the process to create its first site, and Wisconsin is investigating the possibility of a second reserve.

NERRS’ economic contributions could be much greater

Because the study’s methodology and calculations are quite conservative, its valuations “do not include the many economic benefits, such as ecosystem service values, that result from the reserves carrying out their missions. Incorporating these benefits would result in a much higher total economic value,” the researchers said. Specifically, the report and supporting materials developed by the National Estuarine Research Reserve Association (NERRA) show that the reserves:

  • Protect economically important assets. For example, the Apalachicola reserve supports a local fishing industry that is worth $14 million to $16 million annually.
  • Power local economies. The Rookery Bay reserve, for instance, attracts more than 285,000 annual visitors, who spend nearly $11.5 million in the region each year.
  • Generate revenue. For example, operational spending for Oregon’s South Slough NERR, including construction and maintenance of facilities, and wages paid through the 56 jobs directly or indirectly associated with the reserve contribute $5.3 million to the local economy.
  • Create jobs. Spending by visitors to the Rookery Bay reserve, for instance, directly creates 104 jobs and sustains at least another 408, primarily among businesses that offer recreational activities.

The NERRS is designed to protect and study estuarine ecosystems. The NOAA-Pew study demonstrates that reserves also generate significant economic contributions for surrounding communities. The system is poised for expansion, and given its importance to local economies and ecosystems, the additional public and private sector investment necessary to achieve that growth would be money well spent.

Highlighting 4 National Estuary Reserves

The economic contributions that the country’s 29 National Estuarine Research Reserves make to their communities are as varied as the sites themselves. The economic, operational, and environmental characteristics of the four reserves in the NOAA-Pew study reflect the distinctive cultures and climates of each region.

Apalachicola, Florida

Loggerhead sea turtles
Loggerhead sea turtles are one of three endangered turtle species that nest at Florida’s NERRS sites, including the Apalachicola reserve.
Janice Becker Florida Department of Environmental Protection

The Apalachicola reserve, which spans Franklin, Gulf, and Calhoun counties, is home to scores of freshwater and saltwater fish species prized by Florida anglers, as well as fiddler crabs, alligators, dolphins, and more than 280 species of native birds. Second in size only to Alaska’s Kachemak Bay NERR, the reserve also contains three barrier islands and a large part of the Apalachicola River, bay, and tributaries.

  • Acreage: Nearly 235,000.
  • Annual visitors: 476,077 to 563,271. (The reserve’s vast size and numerous access points make calculating a precise figure difficult.)
  • Jobs: 664.
  • Revenue generated: $46.4 million, including $15.1 million in labor income.
  • Noteworthy: Supports a fishery that generates $14 million to $16 million annually and directly supports up to 85% of the local population. Part of the UNESCO World Network of Biosphere Reserves.

Guana Tolomato Matanzas, Florida

brown pelican
A brown pelican soars above the Guana Tolomato Matanzas NERR, which contains habitats and nesting grounds for numerous species of marine life.
Steve Allen Alamy

From Ponte Vedra Beach to the north to Palm Coast to the south, the reserve crosses Duval, St. Johns, and Flagler counties and is home to mangroves, salt marshes, and other critical habitats. It provides shelter and nurseries for dolphins, manatees, American alligators, indigo snakes, and bald eagles.

  • Acreage: About 73,000.
  • Annual visitors: 222,361.
  • Jobs: 521.
  • Revenue generated: $57.6 million, including $20 million in labor income.
  • Noteworthy: The reserve has nesting grounds for threatened and endangered Atlantic green, loggerhead, and leatherback sea turtles, and winter calving grounds for the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale.

Rookery Bay, Florida

Rookery Bay, Florida
Two anglers take advantage of coastal fishing at the Rookery Bay NERR. Outdoor recreation accounts for a substantial amount of the reserve’s economic contributions to the surrounding communities.
Sue Christensen

The Rookery Bay NERR stretches across most of the northern Ten Thousand Islands region in Collier and Lee counties of Florida, encompassing mangroves, marshes, and upland habitat that attract dolphins, manatees, roughly 150 species of birds, and the endangered Florida panther. The reserve also is home to breeding grounds for blue and stone crabs, snook, tarpon, and snappers.

  • Acreage: About 110,000.
  • Annual visitors: 285,369.
  • Jobs: 512.
  • Revenue generated: $55 million, including $19 million in labor income.
  • Noteworthy: Rookery Bay has one of the largest mangrove-forested estuaries in North America. More than 90% of the reserve’s visitors in 2019 were boaters.

South Slough, Oregon

South Slough NERR
Canoeists paddle through the South Slough NERR, which, despite its relatively small acreage and remote location, attracts thousands of outdoor enthusiasts annually.
Greg Vaughn Alamy

The South Slough reserve in Coos County, Oregon, has uplands with conifer forests and freshwater streams, lowland wetlands and ponds, high- and low-salt marshes, mud flats, and eelgrass beds—diverse habitats that support salmon, herons, bald eagles, elk, and crabs.

  • Acreage: Nearly 5,000.
  • Annual visitors: 9,947.
  • Jobs: 65.
  • Revenue generated: $6.1 million, including $2.3 million in labor income.
  • Noteworthy: The reserve’s conservation supports commercial oyster growers and provides important nursery habitat for nearby fisheries.

Thomas Wheatley manages ocean conservation efforts in the Gulf of Mexico as part of Pew’s conserving marine life in the United States project.

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