Biodiversity Coastal Management Conservation Restoration

Protecting Our Fish and Birds by Protecting Their Wetland Homes

Adults salmon spawn in shallow water. (Credit: wikicommons)
Adult salmon spawn in shallow water. (Credit: wikicommons)

Commercial fishing and aquaculture is one of the most important industries on Earth. The blue crab harvest from the Chesapeake Bay in 2007 was valued at about $51 million. Currently, California’s salmon industry is valued at $1.4 billion. Markets such as these not only feed billions of people across the planet, but also provide and create millions of jobs.

Unfortunately, many of these markets are facing crisis as critical fish populations have collapsed. In the United States, mismanagement of wetlands has led to fish spawning grounds disappearing or becoming unsuitable to support their populations.

Wetlands are the link between land and water, and are some of the most productive ecosystems on Earth. They need our protection, for the commercial fisheries we depend upon, for the recreational opportunities they provide us, and for the benefit of the species that use them.

The North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) is one way to protect the species vital to our fisheries and popular on our dinner plates. This year, Congress is debating on whether to continue the legal status of this program, and we should act now to urge its continued support.

What is NAWCA?

NAWCA is a conservation program created in 1989 to support activities under the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, an international agreement that recognized the importance of long term protection of wetlands for waterfowl and other migratory species. Since then, our understanding of the importance of wetlands has evolved so much since its creation, and we’re now finding that these ecosystems are vital to not only the animals that need them, but also to the health of our coastlines and economy.

It is an extremely successful, incentive-based, voluntary program. A nine-member council meets periodically to decide which projects, that have applied for funding, to award grants to. Every dollar awarded on the federal level must be matched by non-federal sources. Because this program is so effective, the NAWCA funds are usually doubled or tripled on the local level.

(Source: Ducks Unlimited, Inc.’s Governmental Affairs Office)
(Source: Ducks Unlimited, Inc.’s Governmental Affairs Office)

Since its inception in 1989, NAWCA grants totaling more than $1.48 billion have been matched by $4.34 billion in contributions from partners. Over 5,600 corporate, small business, non-profit, state and local partners have tripled NAWCA dollars with matching funds to average a match of 3:1. This funding has resulted in the conservation of more than 33.4 million acres of wetlands across North America.

Why Are Wetlands Important?

The abundance (and diversity) of wildlife supported by wetlands translates into multi-billion dollar activities for Americans. Through grants and matching contributions, NAWCA protects and restores vital habitat for salmon and other critical fish, and expands recreational opportunities for people who enjoy hunting, fishing, wildlife viewing, and photography. On average, Americans annually spend $646 billion on outdoor recreation, and the recreation industry directly supports over 6.1 million jobs.

Pelicans, godwits, geese, gulls and sanderlings share this wetland in San Diego. Credit: Circe Denyer.
Pelicans, godwits, geese, gulls and sanderlings share this wetland in San Diego. (Credit: Circe Denyer)

Of course, wetlands, in particular coastal wetlands, are important for other reasons besides the economic boost. They provide habitat for many federally threatened and endangered species – two of North America’s migratory bird flyways pass over the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, where coastal wetlands provide temporary habitat. Wetlands increase water quantity and quality – plants and soils remove high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, and in some cases, remove toxic chemicals before entering the water supply. They also provide flood protection, erosion control, and carbon sequestration.

Wetlands are an essential component of commercial fisheries, as many marine fishes enter coastal wetlands to spawn. More than 75% of the fish and shellfish that are commercially harvested worldwide are linked with wetlands.

For instance, the Columbia River Estuary in coastal Oregon supports some of the largest and most diverse fish runs in the Columbia River drainage. And currently, only a very small portion of the watershed is managed for conservation. Additionally, in Young’s Bay, 4 species of federally-listed fish are reported in its tributaries. Extensive diking of floodplain along the tributaries of Young’s Bay has severely limited rearing and migration habitat for salmon within the area.

What is Harming Wetlands?

The wetlands did not start disappearing of their own accord. Direct impacts include conversion of wetlands to other uses, primarily urban and agricultural. Indirect impacts originate from surrounding land uses, based on the fact that what occurs on surrounding uplands usually ends up in wetlands. Sediments, nutrients, petroleum products, and agricultural chemicals from uplands all move downslope and downstream, and some even move into groundwater.

Runoff of nutrients from farm fields can harm coastal wetlands. (Credit: Lynn Betts/USDA)
Runoff of nutrients from farm fields can harm coastal wetlands. (Credit: Lynn Betts/USDA)

In Oregon alone, 40% of the state’s original wetlands are already drained, diked or filled. Indirect threats like invasive species and urban storm water are an additional impact to the health of wetlands here. More than 500 acres of wetlands are lost annually in the Willamette Valley, and approximately 53% of western Oregon’s wetlands have been converted to other uses. With these losses, native fish populations have diminished, migratory shorebird numbers have dwindled, and flooding has amplified in both frequency and severity.

Reauthorizing and Supporting NAWCA

Now with new laws and projects, the loss of wetland acreage in North America has slowed. Reauthorization of NAWCA can help keep this progress going.

In the House of Representatives, H.R. 1099 – the North American Wetlands Conservation Extension Act – will reauthorize funding for NAWCA through the year 2022. A reauthorization of this bill would give NAWCA the legal power to operate and exist, making it easier for Congress to awards essential grants.

The bipartisan bill, introduced this February, is sponsored by Representatives Wittman (R-VA) and Thompson (D-CA). “Washington should be doing more to identify those federal programs that have proven successful,” said Wittman. “Protecting, restoring, and managing wetland habitat is a productive endeavor, and it is critical that we invest efficiently to conserve our natural areas for the use and enjoyment of future generations.”

Nationally, nearly 35% of all rare and endangered animal species depend on wetland habitats for survival. There are people in Congress who know and understand that, and some who don’t. I encourage you to take a moment, pick up the phone, and call your congressperson or senator to urge them to support reauthorization for NAWCA and the protection of our wetlands.

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