Oceans & Coastal Resources:
A Briefing Book
Congressional Research Service Report 97-588 ENR
Redistributed as a service of the National Library for the Environment

Estuarine Research Reserve System

Prepared by Jeffrey A. Zinn

Senior Analyst in Natural Resources Policy
Environment and Natural Resources Policy Division

Issue Definition
Background and Analysis
Status of the Issue
Continuing Concerns
Sources and References for Further Information

Issue Definition

The Estuarine Research Reserve System, created as an element of the federal Coastal Zone Management Program, encourages states to set aside examples of the Nation's coastal biogeographical regions for research and education. This program has proven popular; 21 sanctuaries are now designated, and 6 additional proposals are being considered. At issue is whether these sites are being used for the purposes that Congress intended, and, if not, how can Congress help resolve these shortcomings. The designated sanctuaries are listed below.

Apalachicola Bay (FL) (1979) North Carolina (NC) (1982, 1991)
Ashepoel Combaheel/ North Inlet, Winyah Bay (SC) (1992)
Chesapeake Bay (MD) (1985, 1990) Old Woman Creek (OH) (1980)
Chesapeake Bay (VA) (1991) Padilla Bay (WA) (1980)
Delaware (DE) (1993) Rookery Bay (FL) (1978)
Edisto Basin (SC) (1992) Sapelo Island (GA) (1976)
Elkhorn Slough (CA) (1980) South Slough (OR) (1974)
Great Bay (NH) (1989) Tijuana River (CA) (1982)
Hudson River (NY) (1982) Waquoit Bay (MA) (1988)
Jobos Bay (PR) (1987) Weeks Bay (AL) (1986)
Narragansett Bay (RI) (1980) Wells (ME) (1984)

Proposed sites are located in New Jersey, California, New York, Mississippi, Alaska, and Florida. The New Jersey site (Mullica) and California site (San Francisco Bay) are far closer to approval that the others.

Background and Analysis

The National Estuarine Research Reserve System, known earlier as the National Estuarine Sanctuary Program, was initially authorized in ยง315 of the Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972. (This program should not be confused with the Environmental Protection Agency's National Estuary Program, created in the 1988 reauthorization of the Clean Water Act.) This system was envisioned as an integral component to the overall success of coastal zone management efforts. It was to provide natural laboratories in all the 27 major coastal biogeographical regions and subregions that could be used for long-term research and monitoring projects and education programs that increase public appreciation of estuarine ecosystems. The system also should provide a basis for more informed coastal management decisions.

The system was renamed in 1985 amendments to the Coastal Zone Management Act. These amendments were designed to strengthen and improve coordination among the sanctuary sites, and to clarify relations between research efforts and sanctuary management. They articulated the important contribution that sanctuaries were expected to make to the coastal management effort, and added further definition to the federal role in supporting the development of the reserve system. Appropriations were most recently reauthorized through FY1999 in 1996.

Coastal states receive matching grants, and overall appropriations have been about $3 million in recent years. Each sanctuary operates education and research programs. These differ from site to site, depending on the characteristics of the sanctuary, the interests of the state program and the sanctuary manager, and other similar factors. Many sanctuaries have built facilities on site to foster education programs and provide logistical support to researchers. All sanctuaries have either permanent staff or designated contacts within state government. Some of the reserve staff members at the older sites have been with their programs for a decade or more, providing continuity to their local effort, and also to the national program.

Status of the Issue

The sanctuary program has proven popular with coastal states. Federal funds have been used to acquire lands and construct sanctuary facilities. However, several potential and real problems remain. One is funding. The federal Coastal Zone Management program primarily supports the establishment of a sanctuary, then the state must seek money for their programs and facilities from other sources. These funds are needed to attract and support long-term research, and to develop and reach out with programs that educate the public about the value and importance of protecting estuarine areas.

While most of the sanctuaries have developed their own research programs, often with local universities, there is still only limited coordinated research that ties the system together. Many believe that this program could come closer to meeting its mandates if all of the biophysical regions were represented, and after NOAA implements an integrated national research program that takes advantage of the diversity of natural conditions and human modifications that are represented in the system.

Continuing Concerns

These concerns and questions are provided to stimulate further discussion of the issues noted above.

  1. Are federal and state efforts to coordinate research and information among sites adequate? How could they be improved? What is the most effective federal role in coordination?
  2. Does the system now represent all the basic biogeographical regions of the United States; if not, should priority be given to designations in the remaining unrepresented regions?
  3. What actions can be taken to make the system more valuable, as a system for research efforts, in the future? How could Congress help facilitate planning for the system's future? Are there any major impediments to this planning, and can they be overcome?

Sources and References for Further information

U.S. Dept. of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Ocean Service. Estuaries of the United States: Vital Statistics of a National Resource Base. Rockville, MD: 1990. 79p.

---------, The National Estuarine Research Reserve System. Building a valuable National Asset. Robert Knecht, ed. Rockville, MD: 1993. 34 p.

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