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Several laws and executive orders form the statutory basis of the National Estuarine Research Reserve System.

Coastal Zone Management Act

The reserve system was initially created by Section 315 of the Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA) of 1972, as amended. Originally established as estuarine sanctuaries, the name was changed to estuarine research reserves in the 1988 reauthorization of the CZMA.

Full Text of the 1972 Coastal Zone Management Act (PDF)

U.S. Code, Title 16, Section 1461, National Estuarine Research Reserve System (Section 315)

Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program (CELCP)

U.S. Code, Title 16, Section 1456d created the Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program to protect important coastal and estuarine areas that have significant conservation, recreational, ecological, historical, or aesthetic values, or that are threatened by conversion from their natural or recreational state to other uses. Hundreds of acres of the coastal and estuarine habitat acquired through CELCP have been added to the National Estuarine Research Reserve System.

Marine Protected Areas

Four of the national estuarine research reserves were among the charter members of the network of marine protected areas designated in 2009 in compliance with Presidential Executive Order 13158 (2000), which established the National Marine Protected Areas (MPA) Center. NOAA's MPA Center, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of the Interior, developed a framework for the national system of MPAs. The MPA Center provides federal, state, territorial, tribal, and local governments with the information, technologies, and strategies to support the system.