Coastal & Estuarine

Science Center Objects

Coastal areas and estuaries contain a variety of habitats that serve many purposes including protecting other lands from flooding and storms, habitats important to commercially harvested fish and shellfish, recreational uses, and habitat for wildlife. We work with U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, National Park Service and other federal and state land managers that are charged with managing our nation’s coastal areas and estuaries to ensure these habitats are productive and serve their many purposes well.  Our scientists assist these land managers by answering such questions as “Are European Green Crabs affecting eelgrass habitat in coastal Maine?” and “How can we make decisions to optimize salt marsh habitat for my refuge?”

Collecting measurements from SET

SET – MH Station: Reading a surface elevation table – marker horizon (SET – MH) station in a Jamaica Bay, NY salt marsh. (Public domain.)


Surface Elevation Table

The Surface Elevation Table (SET) is a portable mechanical leveling device for measuring the relative elevation change of wetland sediments. This website presents information on the purpose, design, and use of the SET. The website is specifically designed to be a forum for researchers in wetland science who use or might use the device and to offer more information about the proper use of the SET and interpretation of its data. But we encourage anyone who wants to learn more about research techniques and their development to visit the site as well.





Forest Schematic

(Public domain.)



Conservation of Rare Vegetation Communities of the Atlantic Coastal Barrier Islands

A synthesis of the role of disturbance, in all of its manifestations, on the establishment and development of the American Holly forest is required to guide future conservation measures. Because many forest fragments have already endured >30 years of chronic deer herbivory, a legitimate question of how much more impact by deer can be tolerated and still conserve the essential type and character of the maritime forest remains unanswered.




Salt marsh hydrologic measurement

Measuring groundwater level in shallow salt marsh wells. (Public domain.)


Development of a Multimetric Index for Integrated Assessment of Salt Marsh Condition in the Northeast Coastal and Barrier Network

The integrity and sustainability of salt marshes in National Park units of the Northeast Coastal and Barrier Network (NCBN) are severely threatened by human activities. These marshes provide critical fish and wildlife habitat and essential ecosystem services in the northeastern coastal zone, and are a high priority for NCBN Vital Signs monitoring. Biennial monitoring of nekton (i.e., fish and free-swimming crustaceans) and vegetation has been conducted in NCBN parks since 2008. There is now a critical need for tools to integrate Vital Signs measures in a way that allows assessment of the overall condition of park salt marshes.





Teaching Eelgrass Restoration Techniques

Project partners are instructed in eelgrass planting methods. (Public domain.)

Recovery of Eelgrass (Zostera marina L.) in Casco Bay, Maine, Following Destruction by European Green Crabs

Eelgrass provides essential functions to the ecology and economy of Maine’s coastal zone. When over half the eelgrass in Casco Bay, Maine, disappeared between 2012 and 2013, USGS experimental evidence identified disturbance from invasive European green crabs as the leading cause. Loss of vegetation is expected to precipitate a range of impacts, including reduced fish and wildlife populations, degraded water quality, increased shoreline erosion, and reduced capacity to remove anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions and mitigate coastal acidification. Therefore, reversing eelgrass loss in Casco Bay is of critical ecological and economic importance.





Estuarine water-quality monitoring

Scientist collects data on underwater light attenuation. (Public domain.)

Integrating Estuarine Water-Quality Data in Northeastern National Parks

Estuaries in northeastern states are severely threatened by the adverse impacts of nutrient over-enrichment. USGS led the development of a vital-signs protocol to monitor estuarine nutrient status in northeastern National Parks, and monitoring has been operational in coastal parks from Massachusetts to Virginia since 2006. Monitoring results must be synthesized and interpreted in a spatial and temporal context to determine if nutrient inputs are nearing thresholds that would result in shifts in ecosystem structure and function.





Eelgrass (Zostera marina)

Eelgrass at Cape Cod National Seashore. (Public domain.)







Variation in Nitrogen Isotope Ratios of Eelgrass to Detect Trends in Estuarine Nutrient Status

Seagrasses are productive and important components of shallow coastal waters, and they have suffered extensive declines worldwide. Because seagrasses are directly in the path of watershed nutrient inputs, a major cause of habitat loss is coastal development and consequent water quality degradation. Improved approaches for detecting threats of nutrient enrichment are paramount to seagrass conservation.









A hardened shoreline (rip-rap revetment)

Shorelines hardened with rocks or bulkheads have become a common site in the Chesapeake Bay. Yet, the implications of these changes are largely unknown.  (Public domain.)


Shoreline Changes and Impacts to Natural Resources in Chesapeake Bay

Climate change and sea level rise are expected to affect many miles of shoreline in the Chesapeake Bay and elsewhere along the Atlantic Coast in the coming years. In this scenario, federal and state agencies need to make more detailed assessments of how different watersheds and shoreline types might influence an array of ecosystem functions and components. Recently, most states are promoting “living shorelines” (soft engineering with marsh vegetation) rather than hardening methods (riprap or bulkheads) to cope with sea level rise and erosion. Not all methods can effectively be applied in all locations; therefore both field and modeling approaches are needed to determine how different shoreline types and watershed conditions influence water quality, submerged vegetation (SAV), and macrofauna, including top-level trophic waterbirds.




Salt marsh nekton monitoring

Throw trap in a salt marsh pool at Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge. (Public domain.)


Use of Structured Decision Making to Optimize Salt Marsh Management Decisions at Northeastern National Wildlife Refuges

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) needs tools to inform decisions regarding the management and restoration of salt marsh ecosystems on northeastern National Wildlife Refuges. Previously, we developed a structured decision making (SDM) framework for optimizing refuge management decisions. This SDM framework served as the foundation for FWS to implement a consistent approach to monitoring salt marsh integrity on refuges throughout the region, in which the monitoring variables are linked explicitly to management goals. Monitoring data now exist to provide the basis for prioritizing local management options.




Ditcher in Marsh

This machine is excavating the marsh as a means to control the habitat and limit its utility to mosquitos. (Public domain.)


Coastal Salt Marsh Management Along the Atlantic

A number of coastal states have been altering marshes for mosquito control since the early 1900s, but for the past four decades, changes have been made in the methods used to alter high-marsh environments. However, in most states, research and monitoring activities are still needed to inform the management methods employed. Although modern Open Marsh Water Management (OMWM) methods, including pond and radial ditch creation, have reduced mosquito populations in most areas, questions remain about the overall ecosystem impacts of these alterations.