By Liz Hartje, Coastal Projects Manager, Coastal Services Division
September 17 – 24 is National Estuaries Week. Since 1988, National Estuaries Week has celebrated the many ways we benefit, from healthy, thriving coastal ecosystems. National Estuaries Week is a terrific opportunity to learn more about estuaries and the perfect excuse to spend time on your favorite creek or river!
Estuaries and their surrounding wetlands are bodies of water usually found where rivers meet the sea. Estuaries are home to unique plant and animal communities that have adapted to brackish water – a mixture of fresh water draining from the land and salty seawater. Estuaries are among the most productive ecosystems in the world. Many animals rely on estuaries for food, places to breed, and migration stopovers (NOAA). Strong currents run through estuaries, bringing nutrients together from upland and the ocean. Incoming ocean currents and tides also bring the larvae and juveniles of many species of recreational and commercial fish and shellfish (SCDNR).
Estuaries are delicate ecosystems. Congress created the National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR) System to protect estuarine land and water. These estuarine reserves provide essential habitat for wildlife, offer educational opportunities for students, and serve as living laboratories for scientists (NOAA).
There are two NERRs located in South Carolina. The North Inlet-Winyah Bay NERR, designated in 1992, protects nearly 20,000 acres and is located in Georgetown County, about 30 miles south of Myrtle Beach and 50 miles north of Charleston. This reserve provides habitat for many threatened and endangered species including sea turtles, sturgeons, least terns and wood storks. The ACE Basin NERR, also designated in 1992, protects nearly 95,000 acres and is located about 45 minutes south of Charleston. This site protects cultural heritages as well as many endangered or threatened species, such as short-nose sturgeon, wood storks, loggerhead sea turtles and bald eagles.
Celebrating Our Estuaries
All throughout the country, local organizations arrange events, like beach clean-ups, hikes, canoe and kayak trips, workshops and more to recognize the special role estuaries play in our everyday lives. You can help celebrate and protect these important ecosystems by volunteering at an event near you or just going out and exploring these dynamic coastal environments.