Wetlands: Nature's Nurseries
March 18, 2021North Carolina Coastal Habitat Protection Plan (2016)
Wetlands are critical spaces for fish nursery and foraging, and for reducing flood damage due to hurricanes and climate change
Wetlands are essential breeding, rearing, and feeding grounds for many species of fish and wildlife. They provide critical ecosystem services that contribute to healthy ecosystems and fisheries habitat. Coastal wetlands cover 40 million acres in the continental United States, with 81% in the southeast. Wetlands require the presence of water at or near the surface and vegetation adapted to wet soils. Wetlands occupy low areas, often marking the transition between uplands and submerged bot- tom, in areas subject to regular or occasional flooding by lunar or wind tides. Wetlands are vegetated with marsh plants such as cordgrass and black needle rush, or forested wetland species like sweet gum, cypress, and willows
Wetlands improve water quality, reduce erosion, and provide food and cover for wildlife
Services provided by wetlands include improving the quality of habitats through water control and filtration; protecting upland habitats from erosion; providing abundant food and cover for finfish, shellfish, and other wildlife; and contributing to the economy. By storing, spreading, and slowly releasing waters, wet- lands are linked to reduced risk of flooding; wetland loss has been linked to increased hurricane flood damage. Wetland communities are among the most productive ecosystems in the world. The plant matter decays into detritus, where it is export- ed to other waters and provides food for numerous organisms. Additionally, wetlands provide food, ideal growing conditions, and predator refuge for larval, juvenile and small organisms.
Nearly all commercial finfish and shellfish depend on wetlands, and even small marshes can reduce wave energy by up to 95%
It is estimated that over 95% of the finfish and shellfish species commercially harvested in the United States, and over 90% in North Carolina, are wetland-dependent. Consequently, wetlands significantly contribute to the productivity of North Carolina’s seafood and fishing industries.
The economic benefit of wetlands in providing flood control, stabilizing shorelines, and trapping and filtering pollutants has been extensively studied. By providing flood control and reducing shoreline erosion, wetlands protect coastal property. Wetlands also protect property by deterring shoreline erosion. Studies have shown that even narrow (7-25m) marsh borders reduce wave energy by 60-95%. These services explain why wetland habitat has been linked to reducing hurricane damage. One study estimated that the loss of 1 acre of coastal wetlands could result in a $13,360 loss in gross domestic product ($14,759 in 2014 dollars), and that U.S. coastal wetlands could provide as much as $23.2 billion/ year (25.63 billion/year in 2014 dollars) in storm protection services.
Throughout the 1800's and 1900's, large amounts of wetlands were lost to ditching and draining for agriculture. More recently, wetland loss is due to development, dredging for navigation channels, and building seawalls and other hard structures
In the late 1800's and early 1900's, large amounts of wetland loss resulted from ditching and draining for agriculture and forestry. Over the years, wetland loss has occurred from dredging conversion to deep-water habitat for boat basins and navigation channels, followed by upland development, erosion, and shoreline hardening.
Wetland impacts are now regulated by numerous federal and state laws including the US River and Harbors Act, the US Clean Water Act, the NC Coastal Area Management Act (CAMA), and the NC Dredge and Fill Law, among others. Wetland filling for development and wetland loss due to erosion and rising water levels are currently the primary threats. Reduction of vegetated buffers can result in wetland loss and increased stormwater runoff. Legislative changes increasing thresholds for permitted impacts could contribute to additional freshwater wetland loss. Mitigation is required for larger wetland impacts. Offsetting historic wetland loss may now be possible through opportunities such as wetland restoration on conservation lands, creating marsh habitat on unused dredge disposal sites, and constructing living shorelines.
Coastal wetlands are critical nursery areas and serve as the primary buffer between land and water-based impacts