Coastal Issues | Coastal Habitats

Coastal Habitats

a beach

Sandy beaches provide important nesting habitat for sea turtles. Here yellow survey tape designates sea turtle nests in Puerto Rico.

The coastal zone of the United States contains a wide range of natural habitats such as sand dunes, marshes, coastal and mangrove forests, coral reefs, and submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) beds. These coastal habitats are economically and ecologically valuable. They provide food, shelter, and breeding grounds for coastal and marine species, including commercially important species such as crabs, shrimp and salmon. The commercial fishing industry is a multi-billion dollar industry in the United States. According to NOAA's Fishery Service, approximately 75 percent of the commercially important fish species depend upon coastal wetlands and estuaries at some point during their lifetime.

Coastal habitats provide numerous recreational opportunities such as swimming, diving, and hiking. As noted in the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy's Final 2004 Report, over 180 million visitors come to our coastal areas and coral reefs each year for recreation, accounting for 85 percent of U.S. tourism revenues.


Wetlands, like these in Florida, help filter pollutants from water.

Coastal habitats also provide other irreplaceable services. Marshes filter pollutants and retain nutrients, helping to maintain good coastal water quality. Wetlands, barrier islands, and coral reefs provide significant protection against coastal storms—dissipating wave energy and absorbing flood waters. A 2006 report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), "In the Front Line: Shoreline Protection and other Ecosystem Services from Mangroves and Coral Reefs," notes that areas buffered by coral reefs and mangrove forests suffered significantly less damage after the 2004 Southeast Asia tsunami compared to areas that were not protected by these coastal habitats.

Unfortunately, many coastal habitat areas are facing intensified pressure from human activities in the coastal zone. More than 153 million people (over half of the U.S. population) reside in U.S. coastal counties—up nearly 33 million since 1980. By 2008, the coastal population is expected to exceed 160 million. While activities such as constructing new homes or condominiums, dredging navigation channels, and renourishing beaches can provide economic benefits to coastal communities, they also have the potential to negatively impact delicate coastal ecosystems. Coastal development can directly lead to habitat degradation or loss. Development also leads to increased water pollution that damages or destroys aquatic habitat. Furthermore, non-native or invasive species that are introduced into coastal and estuarine habitats also threaten these habitats and can have significant economic consequences. For example, according to the Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force, Great Lakes power plants and municipalities spend tens of millions of dollars every year to control zebra mussels, an invasive species that grows on and clogs essential water intake pipes and other structures.

Roseate Spoonbills

Roseate spoonbills wade in marsh created by a restoration project at Big Island, LA.

Since tidal wetlands, sand dunes, and other natural areas provide so many economic and ecological benefits, many coastal communities are now looking for opportunities to restore degraded coastal habitats to recreate some of the features that have been destroyed. While it is always better to protect habitats from degradation and destruction, restoration also plays an important role in managing coastal habitats. Restoration projects can range from re-creating or enhancing habitat at a single site to a large-scale, ecosystem wide restoration project, such as Louisiana's Coastal Wetlands Restoration Plan. Restoration science is still a fairly young discipline. Restoration scientists and managers continue to develop and refine more effective and efficient restoration methodologies.


NOAA Restoration Center — The Restoration Center provides funding and technical assistance to restore degraded coastal habitats, advance coastal habitat restoration science, promote restoration technology, and foster habitat stewardship.

U.S. Geological Survey National Wetlands Research Center — National Wetlands Research Center is a source and clearinghouse of science information about wetlands.  The Center also conducts status and trends inventories of wetland habitats, evaluates wetland problems, and conducts field and laboratory research on wetland issues.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Coastal Program — The Coastal Program works to conserve fish and wildlife and their habitats to support healthy coastal ecosystems by providing assessment and planning tools to identify priority habitats that should be protected and restored, supporting locally-initiated conservation efforts to conserve pristine coastal habitats and restoring degraded coastal wetland, upland, and stream habitats.

Restore America’s Estuaries — Restore America’s Estuaries (RAE) is a national non-profit organization that seeks to preserve the nation’s estuaries through on-the-ground restoration projects and producing restoration tools and guidance documents. RAE also hosts are biennial restoration conference.

For additional information, contact Elizabeth Mountz.