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Wetlands Decline Along East, Gulf Coasts, Report Shows

Renee Schoof

Aerial view of Hazen Bay wetlands. (photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

WASHINGTON - A new U.S. government report Tuesday shows a high rate of decline in wetlands along the Atlantic Coast and the Gulf of Mexico, raising concerns about habitat for migratory birds and sea life as well as for humans, who also need wetlands as buffers from stormy seas.

The report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the most recent data available shows a net loss of 59,000 acres each year from 1998 to 2004. It finds that population pressure and development are main reasons for wetlands losses, especially along the Gulf of Mexico.

The report found that the Gulf of Mexico lost nearly 371,000 acres while the Atlantic coast lost nearly 15,000 acres during the six-year period. The Great Lakes coastal watersheds had a net gain of 24,650 acres. The next report, in several years, will include Pacific Coast data; other studies have shown wetlands losses in the Sacramento Delta and Puget Sound, said Susan-Marie Stedman of NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service, one of the report's authors.

The federal government's goal is to reverse the trend, said Rowan Gould, the acting director of the Fish and Wildlife Service.

"We are concerned by the findings of this report because coastal wetlands provide essential habitat for many migratory birds, fish and endangered species," Gould said in a statement. "The high rate of coastal wetland losses is even more alarming when we consider the anticipated stresses that climate change will bring to our coasts in the future."

Some of the probable consequences of global climate change include more rapidly rising seas, which will result in further erosion of coastal wetlands, Stedman said. There also could be decreases in the amount of salt in some marshes due to heavier rainfall, killing the plants that live in salt water and turning the marshes into mud flats, which are more prone to erosion, she said.

Climate change also could mean that stronger and more frequent storms batter the coasts, where wetlands usually serve as a buffer, she said.

The study examined the period before Hurricanes Rita and Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005.

Stedman said that about one-third of the wetlands loss in the Gulf of Mexico had been in Louisiana, due to changes in the Mississippi River and its delta, canals cut through wetlands to access oil and gas, and other causes.

The other two-thirds of losses came elsewhere in the Gulf Coast and appear to be related to the building of houses, businesses and roads as the population along the coast has boomed, the report found.

More than half the U.S. population lives in coastal counties, and the population density of those counties is five times greater than those that are inland, the report says. It notes that population density on the coasts is expected to increase further.

The losses in the East and South took place while the country as a whole gained wetlands by 32,000 acres annually.

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