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New Tool Shows how Humans are Impacting US Coastal Waters

Aug 18, 2014 08:14 PM EDT

A new tool developed by scientists at Michigan State University shows how humans are impacting US coastal waters, thereby helping environmental officials determine what action, if any, needs to be taken to preserve various ecosystems, a new study shows.

Described in the journal Estuaries and Coasts, researchers provide a sweeping assessment to understand how human activities are affecting estuaries, the nation's sounds, bays, gulfs and bayous. These are places where freshwater flows into the oceans. They are also popular areas for commercial and recreational fishing.

Land use changes, through commercial and residential development, farming and industrial activities, can threaten delicate ecosystems that nurture valuable fishing resources. However, this study is the first look at how such long-term changes compare to other ecosystems in the United States.

"Estuaries provide ecosystem services for commercial and recreational purposes, and are important to us all," lead author Joe Nohner said in a statement. "But groups charged with protecting them need to determine what areas should receive their funding and effort. They don't always have the broad-scale data to help set these priorities. What we've created is an informational tool that helps them determine what problems to address and where."

The project analyzed over a decade's worth of data collected from monitoring an estuary's stressors. This provided a big-picture view of US coastal waters, from small river mouths to large deltas. The analysis showed issues like sewage leaking into a river, deforestation as a result of urbanization and changes in the flow of a watershed.

"There's a myriad of ways we impact our land and waterways, and we've been able to create an overview of the cumulative changes of a lot of small decisions that normally slip under the radar," Nohner explained.

Fishery managers now not only have a map of data about their coastal regions, but can also see how their waters compare to others throughout the nation.

The estuary assessment was part of a nationwide assessment of estuaries, rivers, and reservoirs produced by the National Fish Habitat Partnership.

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