America’s Coastal Habitats Are Beautiful, Vital, and Worth Protecting

Increasingly vulnerable ecosystems sustain marine life, filter water, safeguard shorelines

America's Coastal Habitats Are Worth Protecting
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Osprey, like this one near Long Island, New York, depend on still or slow-moving waters, including lakes, estuaries, and coastal wetlands, for the fish and other creatures they eat.
Vicki Jauron/Getty Images

Although coastal habitats make up only a little more than 3 percent of the United States’ marine territory (about 146,000 square miles), they have an outsized positive impact, encompassing highly productive areas essential to ocean life health.

These habitats, however, are under increasing threat: Pollution, poorly planned development, sea-level rise, and other factors have led to degradation. Examples include:

  • Kelp forests—home to more than 1,000 species—have been reduced to an all-time low along the U.S. west coast.
  • Oyster reefs—which improve water quality, provide habitat for marine life, and provide a popular food for people—have declined up to 90 percent since the late 1880s because of a combination of pollution, disease, and overharvesting.
  • Rocky habitats—which provide shelter and food for more than 1 million seabirds—are increasingly vulnerable to sea-level rise, coastal development, and other threats.
  • Salt marshes—which provide breeding areas and nurseries for fish, invertebrates, and shorebirds—have declined significantly in both size and number throughout the U.S.
  • Seagrass beds—which filter water, reduce erosion, and support marine habitat—are disappearing at a rate of two football fields an hour.

Pew works with national, state, and local officials, scientists, and others to secure formal protections and management plans that are vital to conserving these important areas.

A “ghost forest”—the remnants of healthy forests ravaged by rapid saltwater intrusion caused by sea-level rise—in Maryland’s Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.
A “ghost forest”—the remnants of healthy forests ravaged by rapid saltwater intrusion caused by sea-level rise—in Maryland’s Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.
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Blue Carbon Mitigates, but Also Threatened by Climate Change

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In what’s becoming a distressingly familiar scenario, the scientific evidence that a natural ecosystem can help fight climate change is building just as that same habitat faces increasing threats from a warming planet. In this case, it’s “blue carbon” habitats—such as salt marsh and seagrass beds—which can capture and store significant amounts of carbon but are also imperiled by rising sea levels.

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Salt marshes
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CA Should Include Coastal Wetlands in Climate Plans

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White Paper

New study details why and how to include coastal wetlands in state greenhouse gas-reduction planning

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New Study Shows Climate Benefits of ‘Blue Carbon’

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The San Francisco Bay and its 59,000 acres of tidally influenced wetlands comprise the largest estuary on the U.S. West Coast and offer the region’s more than 7 million residents many benefits.

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Silberreiher
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Louisiana's First National Estuarine Research Reserve

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A portion of Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Coastal Basin, an area rich in plant and wildlife biodiversity and the site of two actively growing deltas, could soon gain federal designation as a National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR).

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Oysters
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Oyster Reefs Are at Historic Lows but Can Recover

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Oysters have been part of the human diet for millennia. In the United States, they were a “founding food,” providing a valuable source of protein for Native Americans and European settlers.