In late September, people all around the country celebrate National Estuaries Week. Great Bay and Hampton-Seabrook are New Hampshire’s estuaries – economically and ecologically valuable and unique places where fresh river water and salt water from the ocean come together.
Since you live in the seacoast region, you may have celebrated National Estuaries Week without even knowing it. If you ate an oyster or had fish for dinner or went boating on any of the seven major rivers that connect our towns to the ocean, you celebrated it. If you went hunting or swimming or took your dog to the water … if you drove over the General Sullivan bridge and appreciated the view or enjoyed watching the scene along the Portsmouth waterfront, then you were celebrating our estuaries, too.
Estuaries play a big role in the beauty and health of our seacoast surroundings. Because of the mix of salt and fresh water, and unique plants such as eelgrass and salt-marshgrass that thrive there, estuaries are essential to healthy fish and wildlife, and clean water. Salt-marsh ecosystems and oysters naturally filter and clean water coming from the land and rivers, and the marshes act as a sponge to protect adjacent property from flooding during storms and high tides.
We can’t take the health of our estuaries for granted. Every five years, we assess the health of the estuary using over one million data points. That data is organized into 22 indicators that tell us about our estuarine system. Much like a visit to your doctor, where indicators of wellness might be weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol, indicators of estuarine health include things like the extent of eelgrass, oyster population, and nutrient levels. Over the past twelve years, many of our estuarine indicators have demonstrated cause for concern. In the last State of Our Estuaries Report, fifteen of 22 indicators fell into the “cautionary” or “negative” status.
As we learn more about our estuaries and how they contribute to our quality of life, we also understand more about how our choices impact the land and water around us. We need to be mindful that when we make decisions as individuals or as a community, there is often a consequence for the natural world. National Estuaries Week is an ideal time for all of us to commit to collective action to protect and improve our estuaries. Many of our towns and cities are answering the call by installing rain gardens, reducing unnecessary pavement, purchasing conservation land along our rivers and bays, providing bags for pet waste in parks, and improving municipal waste systems.
As residents, there are many things you can do to support healthy estuaries: maintain your septic system, avoid pouring waste or chemicals down storm drains, properly dispose of paints, use less lawn fertilizer, plant a drought-resistant native species in your yard, pick up your dog waste, support public and private land conservation, and protect natural landscapes along our waterways. Any action you take, no matter how simple, will make a difference.
The most important thing you can do today is to get outside and enjoy New Hampshire’s wonderful estuaries. Go fishing or a paddle or a swim, or bring your kids to the Great Bay Discovery Center. We need all our seacoast residents to become motivated advocates for our estuaries. If we all continue to work in the spirit of protecting the amazing natural gifts afforded to us on the Seacoast, we can and will maintain thriving estuaries that are worthy of celebrating again next year.
Rachel Rouillard is director of the Piscataqua Regional Estuaries Partnership. Cory Riley is manager of the Great Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, New Hampshire Fish and Game Department.