Dec 9. (UPI) -- The U.S. lost more than 360,000 acres of wetlands from coastal watersheds between 2004 and 2009, the equivalent of seven football fields every hour.
In a report published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the loss has been largely attributed to fierce storms, coastal development and activities related to tree farming.
These factors have largely countered government restoration efforts, and crucial wetlands continue disappearing.
Coastal wetlands serve as nurseries for fish and other marine life. Nearly 50 percent of all commercially harvested fish and shellfish and 80 percent of recreational catch in the U.S. depend on such wetlands. They are also home to three-quarters of the nation’s waterfowl and migrating birds.
Wetlands are an essential buffer against sea surges that cause flooding during powerful storms -- such as Hurricane Sandy last year. With nearly half of the U.S. population living in coastal counties, this loss means less protection for them.
While wetlands have been able to stave off or reduce the impact of storms in the past, residential and commercial development along the coasts and coastal farming have degraded their quality.
“The plumbing of the whole system is altered,” Tom Dahl, a senior scientist for wetlands status and trends for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told the Washington Post.
The loss during this period was 25 percent more than the loss recorded during the previous study period of 1998 to 2004.
But Dahl and his co-author, NOAA fisheries biologist Susan-Marie Stedman warn that diminishing wetlands are more than just an environmental problem, and that coastal economies will feel the effects. According to the NOAA, coastal counties generated $6.6 trillion largely on warm-weather recreation and tourism.
“You’re losing recreational opportunities for bird-watching and canoeing. You’re affecting hydrology. The areas are no longer able to retain water," Dahl said.
One of the regions the researchers looked at was the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, which has lost 60,000 acres of wetlands since the 1940s due to population growth and farming. Further south in Virginia, officials said the state had lost nearly half its wetlands and were making efforts to add to the one million acres that remain.
[The Washington Post]