Healthy coastal habitat is vital breeding, nesting, feeding and resting territory for fish, wildlife and migrating birds. Humans also derive substantial benefits from healthy coastal habitat. It improves storm resiliency, flood control, water quality, insect control, erosion control, carbon sequestration of greenhouse gases, and access to recreation. This is especially important because while coastal counties make up only 10 percent of the lower 48 states’ land mass, they are home to more than half of the lower 48 states’ population.
“The Refuge System is heavily invested in coastal areas,” says John Schmerfeld, who oversees coastal projects for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. National wildlife refuges and marine national monuments conserve ocean, coastal and Great Lakes habitats. These habitats include salt marshes, rocky shorelines, tide pools, sandy beaches, kelp forests, mangroves, seagrass meadows, barrier islands, estuaries, lagoons, tidal creeks, tropical coral atolls and open ocean.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees work with private and public landowners to restore coastal habitat and estuary ecosystems. Employees with knowledge of local communities, their natural resources, environmental challenges, and political and economic issues collaborate with local partners to develop conservation strategies and leverage funding for projects. Through the Coastal Program, the Fish and Wildlife Service has restored 557,790 acres of coastal wetland and upland habitat, restored more than 2,625 miles of stream habitat, and helped protect more than 2.1 million acres of important wildlife habitat since 1985. This photo essay highlights a handful of national wildlife refuges near restored coastal habitat.
Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge is on the second largest estuary in California. The refuge is almost 4,000 acres, including mudflats, estuarine eelgrass meadows, salt marsh, brackish marsh, seasonally flooded freshwater wetlands, riparian wetlands, streams, coastal dunes and forest. In addition to providing habitat for numerous bird and mammal species, the refuge supports approximately 100 species of fish and marine invertebrates. The Coastal Program has helped restore almost 300 acres of native salt marsh and reopen almost five miles of stream habitat for the benefit of Coho, steelhead and chinook salmon, tidewater goby, sea lamprey and many species of shorebirds and waterbirds.
Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge was established in 2001 to build a sustainable future for the Detroit River and western Lake Erie ecosystems. The refuge consists of nearly 6,000 acres of habitat, including islands, coastal wetlands, marshes, shoals and waterfront lands within an authorized boundary along 48 miles of shoreline. The Coastal Program has helped restore wetlands and buffer strips along the river and fish-spawning habitats in the river, which forms the boundary between Michigan and Ontario.
Johnston Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, one of the world’s most isolated atolls, is in the central Pacific Ocean about 825 miles southwest of Honolulu. The refuge, part of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, supports one of the largest populations of red-tailed tropicbirds in the world. The Coastal Program, refuge biologists and other partners are helping to control invasive yellow crazy ants that have been harming the birds on Johnston Atoll. More.
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, includes more than 28,000 acres of rich tidal marsh, mixed hardwood and loblolly pine forests, freshwater wetlands and croplands. The refuge is home to the largest natural population of the Delmarva fox squirrel. Thanks in part to Coastal Program habitat restoration at and near the refuge, the squirrel was removed from the endangered species list in November 2015.
San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge encompasses approximately 2,620 acres of land and water in and around south San Diego Bay. Since 2011, the Coastal Program has been helping the refuge convert historic salt ponds into 223 acres of intertidal mudflats and coastal salt marsh habitat for the benefit of more than 100 species of migratory and coastal dependent birds.
Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge, west of Houston, is one of the largest remnants of coastal prairie habitat in southeast Texas. The refuge was established to support the recovery of the endangered Attwater’s prairie-chicken, which once was found on six million acres of prairie along the Gulf Coast. The Coastal Program has helped the refuge restore coastal prairie habitat, eradicate invasive fire ants and manage brush habitat for the bird’s benefit.
Green Cay National Wildlife Refuge is a 14-acre island just off the Virgin Island of St. Croix. The refuge is home to the endangered St. Croix ground lizard, which was wiped out on St. Croix proper by non-native mongoose. In 2011, the Coastal Program worked with the refuge, the National Park Service and others to relocate 46 St. Croix ground lizards to Buck Island Reef National Monument. “The population is thriving there now,” says refuge wildlife biologist Claudia Lombard.
In the Florida Keys, home to National Key Deer, Crocodile Lake, Great White Heron and Key West National Wildlife Refuges, the Fish and Wildlife Service is working with partners on a new concept known as living shorelines. Living shorelines use plants, sand and as little rock or concrete as possible to control shoreline erosion. “Compared to traditional shoreline hardening techniques that damage and degrade estuarine habitats, living shorelines maintain and enhance natural processes, including habitat provisioning, nutrient cycling, carbon sequestration, water filtration, storm-surge abatement, secondary production, and flooding and erosion control,” says Coastal Program overseer John Schmerfeld. “So I see living shorelines as a win-win-win. Living shorelines are generally less expensive, usually more effective, and always greatly enhance the ecosystem services of near-shore estuarine and vegetated habitats.”
Blue carbon sequestration is an even newer concept. Coastal blue carbon is the carbon stored by and sequestered in coastal ecosystems, which include tidal wetlands, mangroves and seagrass meadows. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Forest Service are leading a blue carbon pilot project in the low-lying Pacific islands of Micronesia, which is susceptible to sea-level rise. The project is assessing the vulnerability of mangrove ecosystems to climate change and sea-level rise, developing strategies to increase the resilience of mangroves, and evaluating the feasibility of funding mangrove conservation through the marketing of blue carbon credits. The information collected and lessons learned from the pilot program will be transferable to other islands in the Pacific and Caribbean. “Blue Carbon is also a win-win-win,” says Schmerfeld. “When you manage for enhanced blue carbon sequestration, as an ecosystem service you get improved coastal protection, you get improved fish and wildlife habitat, and you get reductions in greenhouse gases. Seems like a no-brainer, right?”