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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Importance of Being an Estuary: A Visit to Great Bay

Air Date: Week of

On New Hampshire's Great Bay Estuary Richard Langan shows host Steve Curwood the abundance of life that a healthy estuary can support. Professor Langan directs the Jackson Estuarine Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire, and runs a technology research program for the nation's 21 federally chartered Estuarine Research Reserves.


CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood, with an encore edition of Living on Earth.

(Watercraft engines)

LANGAN: We're right now heading up Little Bay. We look over to our left there. That's one of the 7 rivers that comes into this estuary; that's the Oyster River. It's aptly named. There used to be bountiful oyster resources up in there.

CURWOOD: Along our nation's coastlines, where freshwater washes into the tidal rhythm of the sea, shellfish are declining along with many other forms of marine life. Today, we're out on New Hampshire's Great Bay Estuary with Richard Langan to better understand why. Professor Langan directs the Jackson Estuary Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire and runs a technology research program for the nation's 21 Federal estuary reserves. Professor Langan has brought us out in a converted lobster boat to see the abundance of life that a relatively healthy estuary can support.

(Engines continue)

CURWOOD: Okay, we're seeing a little rock outcropping. A lot of birds on there. What are we looking at, cormorants there?

LANGAN: That's what those are. Those are double-crested cormorants.

CURWOOD: Do you see seals in here?

LANGAN: Oh, yeah. The tide's up a little high now, but one of their favorite rocks is straight up ahead. We call it Half-Tide Rock. And as soon as that water goes down you'll see, oh, half a dozen seals on any given day sitting on the rock. This is a good spot to pull over there. There's 3 or 4 habitats of interest. We're just passing over an eel grass bed right here, and not too far away from it there's an oyster bed.

(Engine slows)

LANGAN: In Great Bay, the primary feature in terms of shellfish are the oyster populations. There are also soft-shelled clams and mussels, but the dominant shellfish in here is oysters. We have oyster beds that are actually sitting within a few feet of us here. At one time, however, there were far more oysters in this bay than there are now, and reasons that there are fewer may have to do with over-harvesting in the 1800s. And also with sedimentation. Sediments bury oysters that can't move, and we've lost some oyster beds to sedimentation here.

CURWOOD: Oysters here are good to eat?

LANGAN: The oysters in Great Bay are some of the best I've ever tasted. And I do like oysters, so I taste them from everywhere.

CURWOOD: So, Dr. Langan, tell me: what is an estuary and why is it so important? And how do they work?

LANGAN: Well, estuaries are transitional zones between fresh water and ocean and it's basically how they're defined is by that mixture of salt water and freshwater. So it's neither environment. It's not the fresh water environment, it's not the oceanic environment. Creates a very unique system, where the plants and animals that live there are unique to that system. The one interesting thing about it is that they are extremely productive systems, among the most productive systems in the world. Much more so than the fresh water environment, and much more so than the marine environment. And that has to do to a great extent with the nutrients that come from the land, coming in, mixing with the sea water, creating the basis for plant production and, from there, animal production up to fish and birds, and the whole ecosystem.

CURWOOD: A lot of life out here, huh?

LANGAN: That's right.

CURWOOD: Now, is it true that estuaries are responsible for some large portion of all the fish babies and marine babies?

LANGAN: That is very true in certain areas of the country. For instance, the mid-Atlantic and South Atlantic, very true. Most of the commercial fish species have a life stage that depends upon the estuarine areas. In New England and particularly in the Gulf of Maine, it's a little bit different. Most of our important commercial species spend all their time in the ocean. That doesn't mean some of the productivity that comes from the estuaries isn't exported offshore to support some of those populations.

CURWOOD: Are estuaries in trouble?

LANGAN: Yeah, they sure are. There are some estuaries right now that I'd say are in deep trouble. Other estuaries, maybe not in trouble now but may be looking at it down the road. A number of different things. Pollution, habitat loss, over-fishing. Just our everyday lives, if we're not careful, can wreck an estuary. You put too much fertilizer on your lawn, it doesn't go into the grass. It comes into the water. If your septic system isn't working properly, you may be causing pollution to your nearest water body.

CURWOOD: So, estuaries are in a lot of trouble because of people, huh?

LANGAN: Well, I think that if you were to try to find one single cause for it, that would probably be it. Everybody seems to want to live at the coast. Right now we have about 50% of the population of the United States living at the coast, and that's projected to increase. So, the population pressure and development pressure is certainly there. You could see some of the houses here, nice lawn all the way down to the water. That's removing the buffer zone. It's a nice view for those folks, but anything they put on their lawn is going to run right into the bay.

(Engine starts up)

LANGAN: Why don't we head on back to the lab, now?

(Engine continues, watercraft in motion)

CURWOOD: What's the prognosis for the whole national estuarine research reserve system? Does it seem to be getting better and stronger, or have the government cutbacks really marginalized it?

LANGAN: Unfortunately, they're adding more reserves. I mean, I think it's a good thing that they're adding more reserves, but they're not adding more money. So the funding for reserves hasn't gone up appreciably in a number of years.

CURWOOD: Okay, I'm a taxpayer. I suspect most of the people listening to us are taxpayers. Why should we care about this? Why should we put our money into a national estuary research reserve program?

LANGAN: Well, I think it depends upon how much do you individually value the experience of having these places to go to, to visit? To know that you have natural areas that are protected. That there's fish and shellfish that can be caught and eaten safely. I think that's what every individual has to ask themself that question.

CURWOOD: Richard Langan, director of the Jackson Laboratory on Great Bay, New Hampshire.



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