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N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources

NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources
Coastal Management - Ecosystem Services

Coastal Management

 Ecosystem Services

 Maybe you have heard the term "ecosystem services" recently, but are unsure of exactly what that means. Simply stated, ecosystem services are the benefits that humans get from the ecosystems where they live and around the world. These are typically not benefits that people pay for directly and often we are unaware that we are getting anything at all. One example of an ecosystem service is the production of oxygen by trees. While people do not directly pay for this service, it is one we all rely upon daily. When ecosystems are negatively impacted by human activities, the value of the lost ecosystem services is generally not included when considering the costs of development or habitat loss.

The estuarine salt marshes of North Carolina provide many of the ecosystem services shown in the picture above or in the table below. For example, marsh vegetation provides a buffer between high energy waves and adjacent shoreline. This marsh fringe can keep shoreline property from eroding. Such marshes also absorb floodwaters and break up wave energy during ocean storm events. 

Marsh habitat is critical for many animals. Many fish, especially juveniles, rely upon the food and shelter they find in the marsh. These fish are important components of the aquatic ecosystem.  Blue crab, shrimp, flounder and red drum – these valuable fish resources are just a few of the aquatic animals that need marsh to survive and grow.  Many of our favorite coastal birds like pelicans, egrets, herons and osprey forage and live in the marsh.    

Another ecosystem service provided by estuarine marshes is water filtration.  Plants and animals in the marsh filter out nutrients and chemicals, providing people and animals with clean and safe water.  Excess nutrients can result in harmful algal and bacterial blooms, which may cause fish kills. 

 

 
Ecosystem Services Provided by Estuaries in North Carolina

Ecosystem

Service

Description

 

Habitat
Example

 

Erosion Control

The presence of marsh between shoreline property and open water decreases the erosive effects of wave energy. Healthy marshes trap sediment and can keep property from eroding.

 

Spartina Marsh
Habitat

Many aquatic animals rely on marsh habitats for food and shelter. This includes important commercial and recreational species like blue crab and red drum. Many bird species rely on marshes as feeding grounds.

 

Oyster Reef
Recreation

Fishing, hunting, kayaking, bird watching and hiking are among the many activities enjoyed by the people that live on the coast.

 

Sound-side Marsh
Water Quality

Plants and animals in the marsh filter water and remove excess nutrients. This process keeps our waters clean. Excess nutrients can lead to harmful algal blooms. Clean water provides a beautiful and safe place for people and animals.

 

Intertidal Mud Flat
Storm Protection

Marshes provide a barrier from ocean storms that can damage homes, buildings and other infrastructure. Marshes absorb floodwaters and decrease damaging wave energy.

 

Juncus or Spartina Marsh
Eco-tourism

The aesthetic value of coastal marshes draws visitors to the area. Vacationers, artists, sportsmen and photographers travel to the coast and support the local economy throughout the year.

 

Coastal Marsh




When marshes are intact and healthy, people derive many benefits and services.  Because we get many of these benefits for no direct cost, it is often easy to forget that there is economic value associated with ecosystem services.  The cost to society in terms of lost services when marshes are adversely impacted or destroyed is difficult to calculate.  However, efforts are underway to begin putting dollar figures on what salt marsh is worth.  For example, studies are underway to evaluate how much it would cost to remove nitrogen from water in a treatment facility and then compare that to the rate at which a marsh removes it naturally.  This provides an estimate of the monetary value of just one service.  Continued refinement of similar estimations for other ecosystem services will provide a more realistic picture of the true value of the services provided by salt marsh and other ecosystems. 


For a printable version of this page click here.

 

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