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What Are Estuaries?

An estuary is a partially enclosed body of water (such as a bay, lagoon, sound, or slough) where two bodies of water, usually saltwater and freshwater, meet and mix. Freshwater estuaries occur where freshwater from a river or stream mixes with water from a lake that is chemically distinct. Scentists classify these environments using two characteristics: geology and water circulation.

Estuaries are often called the nurseries of the sea because so many marine animals depend on them as a food source or spend some part of their lives there. Many plants and animals, including many species of concern, are especially adapted to live in these unique environments. Estuaries are also a major stopover point for migratory animals, and coastal communities rely on estuaries for tourism, shipping and transportation, and fishing.

Each estuary displays unique beauty. One estuary may be enclosed by marshes and barrier islands, while others have a coastline or reef border. Examples include Chesapeake Bay, San Francisco Bay, Boston Harbor, Tampa Bay, and Puget Sound.

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Protecting Estuaries: Research Reserves

One way the United States protects its estuaries is through the National Estuarine Research Reserve System. These sites, which protect over 1.3 million acres, provide monitoring data, research, and community and educational opportunities. Several laws and executive orders form the statutory basis of the Research Reserve System, which was created by Section 315 of the Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA) of 1972.

How to Get Involved

Estuaries require everyone’s help and hard work to keep them clean and safe. You can contribute in many ways to protect estuaries and conserve the valuable natural resource in estuarine ecosystems. Find your local reserve below and get in touch to learn about education programming and volunteer opportunities.

  • 10 ways - PDF you can protect estuaries.
  • Get in touch with your local reserve to learn about volunteer opportunities.

Reserve Contact Information

Website Education Coordinator/Email
Alabama Weeks Bay Angela Underwood
Alaska Kachemak Bay Syverine Bentz
California Elkhorn Slough Virginia Guhin
California San Francisco Bay Bella Mayorga
California Tijuana River Anne Marie Tipton
Delaware Delaware Laurel Sullivan
Florida Apalachicola Jeff Dutrow
Florida Guana Tolomato Matanzas Josie Spearman
Florida Rookery Bay Sarah Falkowski
Georgia Sapelo Island Adam Mackinnon
Hawaii He'eia Fred Reppun
Maine Wells Suzanne Kahn
Maryland Chesapeake Bay Coreen Weilminster
Massachusetts Waquoit Bay Joan Muller
Mississippi Grand Bay Avery Sward
New Hampshire Great Bay Kelle Loughlin
New Jersey Jacques Cousteau Kaitlin Gannon
New York Hudson River Chris Bowser
North Carolina North Carolina Lori Davis
Ohio Old Woman Creek Jennifer Bucheit
Oregon South Slough Jamie Belanger
Puerto Rico Jobos Bay Ernesto Olivares
Rhode Island Narragansett Bay Maureen Dewire
South Carolina ACE Basin Julie Binz
South Carolina North Inlet-Winyah Bay Beth Thomas
Texas Mission-Aransas Adriana Reza
Virginia Chesapeake Bay Sarah McGuire-Nuss
Washington Padilla Bay Susan Wood
Wisconsin Lake Superior Deanna Erickson