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World Leader in Wetlands Conservation

Wetlands on the Edge

Threatened by development, pollution, and rising seas, coastal marshes face an uncertain future
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  • photo by Nic Ross
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by Matt Young

While most of North America's waterfowl breed far inland on the prairies and in the boreal forest, many of the birds raised in the interior of this continent can be found much of the year on coastal wetlands. From Chesapeake Bay and the Mississippi River Delta to Puget Sound and Lake Erie, coastal wetlands provide vital habitat for a great number and variety of waterfowl. The birds flock to the coasts for the same reasons people do: a favorable climate, pleasant living conditions, and good seafood.

Acre for acre, coastal wetlands are among the richest ecosystems on Earth, rivaling tropical rainforests and greatly exceeding the most fertile farmland in biomass production. These varied wetlands, which include tidal marshes, swamps, and open-water flats and shoals, owe their productivity to their unique location along the coastlines of large bodies of water. Coastal wetlands receive a constant supply of organic matter and nutrient-rich sediments delivered by rivers and tides, nurturing food webs that support a profusion of aquatic life. In estuaries and deltas where fresh and salt water meet, diverse plant and animal communities flourish in wetland zones with varying levels of salinity. These rich environments often yield huge quantities of prime waterfowl foods like eelgrass, wild celery, widgeon grass, various pondweeds, and innumerable small invertebrates.

Coastal wetlands not only provide food and habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife but also serve as nurseries and spawning grounds for an abundance of fish and shellfish. Collectively, coastal wetlands produce more than three-quarters of the seafood caught in the nation's waters. Moreover, coastal wetlands provide recreation for millions of hunters, anglers, birders, boaters, and photographers who annually contribute billions of dollars to the U.S. economy in pursuit of their hobbies. Coastal wetlands also help protect communities and vital infrastructure from flooding and storm damage and filter pollutants and sediments in water.

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