Estuary\’es-chu-wer-ee\n: an arm of the sea at the mouth of a river.
Estuaries are places where fresh water from rivers mix with salt water from the sea. Estuaries can take the shape of a bay, lagoon or river delta. Whatever the form, estuaries are important areas on many levels.
Also known as cradles of the ocean, estuaries are used as spawning grounds by at least two-thirds of the nation’s commercially important fish and shellfish. Birds, sharks and numerous other animals are also known to rely upon estuaries for breeding or raising their young.
People benefit from estuaries as well. The wetlands associated with estuaries buffer uplands from flooding during storm events. Estuaries provide many recreational opportunities, such as swimming, boating, fishing and bird watching.
Healthy estuaries are critical to our economy here in Southwest Florida. In Collier County, the value of commercial finfish and shellfish harvests are estimated around $3 million. Almost $890 million is generated annually in the county by tourism and many of these dollars are attributed to boating, recreational fishing and nature watching.
The value of one local estuary was realized nearly half a century ago when local residents, seeing the potential for unprecedented coastal development in the Naples area, took a stand to protect it.
With the help of National Audubon Society, The Collier County Conservancy and others, money was raised to purchase a few thousand acres of land surrounding a bird rookery for which Rookery Bay was named. This area ultimately became the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve.
The Rookery Bay Reserve represents one of the few remaining, relatively pristine mangrove estuaries in the United States. Nestled between Marco Island and Naples, among one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the country, the Reserve now encompasses 110,000 acres of coastal lands and waters.
Managed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection in cooperation with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Reserve provides a basis for informed coastal decisions through stewardship, research and education.
The Reserve’s staff conducts research on coastal wildlife and monitors environmental conditions. They restore estuarine habitats and provide stewardship in effort to keep the ecosystem in its natural condition. The Reserve promotes public access and enjoyment as well, and works to help educate the community through exhibits and programs at the Rookery Bay Environmental Learning Center.
A lot has changed in Southwest Florida over several decades and undoubtedly more changes are in store. The protection of this piece of coastline was a tremendous first step and every effort makes a difference in preserving this coastal treasure for years to come.
The time has arrived for a new generation to embrace stewardship of the Rookery Bay estuary.
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This is the first of a series of columns to be submitted by Renee Wilson, research translator for Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, a part of the Department of Environment Protection. For general information about Rookery Bay, visit www.rookerybay.org or call (239) 417-6310.