National Estuarine Research Reserve System


caption Map of the Biogeographic Regions. (Source: NERRS)

The National Estuarine Research Reserves System is a network of 27 areas representing different biogeographic regions of the United States that are protected for: long-term ecological and environmental sciences research; water-quality and habitat monitoring; education; and coastal stewardship.

A biogeographic region is a geographic area with similar dominate plants, animals, and prevailing climate. There are 11 major biogeographic regions around the U.S. coast, with 29 sub-regions. The reserve system currently represents 18 of those sub-regions. The reserve system is designed to include sites representing all 29 biogeographic sub-regions, with additional sites representing different types of estuaries. In the near term, priority for federal designation of new National Estuarine Research Reserves will be given to coastal states that are in unrepresented biogeographic regions.

The coastlines of the United States and its territories have been divided into the following areas based on their biologic and geographic characteristics:

Reserve Year Acres Sq. Mi Sq. Km Region
South Slough, OR 1974 4,779 7.0 18.2 Columbian (7)
Sapelo Island, GA 1976 6,110 9.5 24.7 Carolinian (7)
Rookery Bay, FL 1978 110,000 171.9 445.2 West Indian (10)
Apalachicola Bay, FL 1979 246,000 385.6 998.6 Louisianian (11)
Elkhorn Slough, CA 1979 1,400 2.2 5.6 Californian (15)
Padilla Bay, WA 1980 11,000 16.7 43.3 Columbian (19)
Naragansett Bay, RI 1980 4,259 6.7 17.2 Virginian (3)
Old Woman Creek, OH 1980 571 0.9 2.3 Great Lakes (21)
Jobos Bay, PR 1981 2,883 4.4 11.3 West Indian (9)
Tijuana River, CA 1982 2,513 3.9 10.2 Californian (14)
Hudson River, NY
(4 components)
1982 4,838 7.6 19.6 Virginian (3)
North Carolina
(4 components)
1985, 1991 10,000 15.6 40.5 Carolinian (6)
Wells, ME 1986 1,600 2.5 6.5 Acadian (2)
Chesapeake Bay, MD
(3 components)
1985, 1990 4,820 7.5 19.5 Virginian (5)
Weeks Bay, AL 1986 6,016 13.3 34.6 Louisianian (11)
Waquoit Bay, MA 1988 2,600 3.5 9.1 Virginian (3)
Great Bay, NH 1989 5,280 8.3 21.4 Acadian (2)
Chesapeake Bay, VA
(4 components)
1991 4,435 6.9 17.9 Virginian (5)
ACE Basin, SC 1992 134,710 213.4 552.8 Carolinian (7)
N. Inlet Winyah Bay, SC 1992 12,327 19.3 49.9 Carolinian (7)
Delaware 1993 4,930 7.7 20.0 Virginian (4)
Jacques Cousteau, NJ 1998 114,665 178.1 461.3 Virginian (4)
Kachemak Bay, AK 1999 365,000 570.3 1477.1 Fjord (25)
Grand Bay, MS 1999 18,400 28.1 72.8 Louisianian (12)
GTM, FL 1999 55,000 85.9 222.6 Carolinian (8)
San Francisco Bay, CA 2003 3,710 5.8 15.0 Californian (16)
Mission-Aransas, TX 2006 185,708 290.2 751.5 Louisianian (13)

The reserve system is a partnership program among the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and coastal states that has protected more than 1.3 million acres of coastal and estuarine habitat since the program was established by the Coastal Zone Management Act in 1972. NOAA provides funding, national guidance, and technical assistance; however, each reserve is managed on a daily basis by a lead state agency, non-profit organization or university with input from local partners.

System-wide Monitoring Program

The National Estuarine Research Reserve System-wide Monitoring Program tracks short-term variability and long-term changes in estuarine waters to understand how human activities and natural events can change ecosystems. It provides valuable long-term data on water quality and weather at frequent time intervals.

Coastal managers use this monitoring data to make informed decisions on such local and regional issues as “no-discharge” zones for boats, and measuring the success of restoration projects.

The reserve system currently measures physical and chemical water quality indicators, nutrients and the impacts of weather on estuaries.

As the program expands, plans include adding a biological monitoring component and tracking changes in land-use through remote sensing.

Habitat Restoration Science in the National Estuarine Research Reserve System

As living laboratories, National Estuarine Research Reserves are ideal settings to investigate the restoration and protection of estuarine and coastal habitats. The reserve system offers habitat diversity, scientific expertise, monitoring programs and education.

Many reserves are engaged in restoration science and have experience in planning and conducting small- to medium-scale restoration projects (.5 to 250 acres). They have explored both engineering-based and natural approaches to return areas to approximate natural conditions.

National Estuarine Research Reserves are protected areas that represent various biogeographic regions of the country. Most reserves contain a spectrum of habitats ranging from relatively pristine to significantly distributed. Reserves with pristine habitats serve as reference sites for restoration projects in similar physical settings. Less pristine reserve habitats are a result of such historical human impacts as marsh conversion to agricultural lands; coastal hydrology altered by roads, dikes and other human structures; lost native forest and meadows impacted by invasive, and non-indigenous species; beaches and dunes used for commercial or recreational purposes; and damage resulting from accidental spills or groundings. These disturbed areas within the reserve system provide a spectrum of opportunities, from scientific investigation to large-scale habitat restoration.

Reserves conduct and consult on individual restoration projects on a case-by-case basis. As a network, the reserve system is now developing a national approach to the science of habitat restoration.

Further Reading



(2008). National Estuarine Research Reserve System. Retrieved from


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