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Water: Oceans, Coasts, Estuaries & Beaches

Treasured Waters

Our coastal and ocean waters are critical to the well-being of our quality of life–from ecological, economic, recreation, and esthetic perspectives. Coastal and ocean waters include some of the most biologically diverse and productive habitats on the planet. Marine waters of the United States include over 6,000 square miles of coral reefs, ecosystems that are second in species diversity only to rainforests. The coastal and near-shore marine areas of the United States provide habitat for almost half of all protected, threatened, and endangered species. At least half of all non-game migratory birds and almost a third of all migratory waterfowl spend part of their annual cycle in coastal areas. The coastal areas of the United States can also assist in flood control, provide filtration of river-borne pollutants, decrease shoreline erosion, and serve as the first barrier for extraordinary storm events, such as hurricanes.


Our oceans and coasts are also among the most economically productive areas. The coastal recreation and tourism industry is the largest employer in the United States, and the second largest contributor to the gross domestic product. Over 180 million people visit America's coasts for an average of 10 days each year, generating almost $600 billion in revenue from their trips. In addition, one of every six jobs in the United States is marine related.

People fishing from a boat in the ocean

Two-thirds of all commercial and recreational fishing catch comes from U.S. coastal waters. The commercial fish and shellfish industry contributes $45 billion to the U.S. economy annually; the recreational fishing industry adds another $30 billion to the economy.

A number of current pharmaceutical products are derived from marine sources, such as algae and other marine plants, snails, sea cucumbers, and corals. A product derived from marine algae and mosses is used to make a vast number of food items, ranging from chocolate milk, to peanut butter, to ice cream and cake batters.

Even though we depend on our oceans and coasts for so many things, some of our coastal areas contain the nation's most degraded watersheds. The "National Coastal Condition Report," released in 2002, found the national overall condition of coastal areas to be only fair to poor. There are fish advisories for nearly three-quarters of the overall coastline of the lower 48 States. The vast majority of the most impaired waters are along the coastline. There is a very large area in the Gulf of Mexico where oxygen levels will not support life. Further, studies have shown that eutrophication (where the flow of increased nutrients to coastal waters can result in adverse effects, such as algal blooms and reduced oxygen levels) is likely to worsen in the majority of the nation's estuarine areas (where freshwater from rivers and streams flows into the ocean) in the foreseeable future.

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