These key messages are selected facts about marine nurseries written in a manner to appeal to a general audience.  You may want to pick and choose from these key points to match your audience, or use them as a guide for presentations.  Also refer to the Marine Nursery Areas Fact Sheet.

Problem Statement

Marine nursery areas provide an essential ecosystem service: essential for the oceans and for us as well.  Nursery areas allow a whole host of marine creatures to survive, are necessary to maintain the workings of coastal ecosystems, and provide for continued production of commercially and recreationally important fisheries. Yet marine nurseries are amongst the most highly threatened habitats on earth.

Marine Nursery Facts

There are many types of nursery areas.  They include estuaries, shallow banks, mangroves, coastal forests and wetlands, seagrass beds, coral and rock reefs, sea mounts, and even static portions of the oceans such as the Sargasso Sea.1 2

Nursery habitats provide critical living space for eggs, larvae, juveniles, and sub-adults of the vast majority of coastal and pelagic (open ocean) marine organisms. These areas provide food, shelter, space, and pathways among habitats used by the species. 3 4 5 6

In the marine environment, all habitats are ultimately connected – and water is the great connector.  Currents and mobile organisms themselves provide the linkages between habitats such as coral reefs, nursery areas, and places where organisms move to feed or breed. 7 8

The ocean and coastal habitats are not only connected to each other, they inextricably linked to land.  Many nursery habitats, such as estuaries, are tied closely to land and are greatly affected by land use and terrestrial habitat alteration.9 10 11

Marine nurseries provide humans with a multitude of economic, health and recreational benefits. Commercial and subsistence fishing, recreational fishing and coastal tourism all depend heavily on marine species that use nursery habitats for survival. 12 13 14 15

The Problem

Marine nurseries throughout the world are dying the death of a thousand cuts, and their fate in United States is no exception.  Habitat loss due to coastal development, over-fertilization and toxics contamination, coastal waters being clouded by sediment from run-off, freshwater diversion from estuarine areas, invasions by alien species, and global climate change all act to undermine the health of these areas and the crucial ecological services they provide. 16 17 18  19 20 21

Destruction of marine nurseries has implications for the entire marine food web, including charismatic ocean dwellers like whales, dolphins, and sea turtles, and for terrestrial beings like humans as well. 

Loss of key nursery species has cascading effects that can causes serious ecological imbalances, lowered productivity, and even ecosystem collapse. 22 23 

Although marine nursery areas are essential for the reproduction of many marine species, many types of nursery areas are being lost or degraded daily, leading to the decline of economically important species as well as the health of the plants and animals in these coastal ecosystems. 24 25

More than half the wetlands in the contiguous United States have been destroyed.  A large proportion of these are coastal wetlands that act as nursery areas. 

In the Gulf of Mexico alone, wetlands the size of football fields disappear every hour.26 27

Estuaries, the most important of all nursery areas, are slowly being transformed by freshwater diversion and by pollutants.

Reefs, seagrass beds and other important nurseries continue to be impacted by over fishing, land-based sources of pollution, unsustainable use by tourists, and inadequately controlled coastal development.28 29 30

Value to Fisheries and Tourism

The vast majority of marine species that are targets for commercial and subsistence fisheries rely on nursery areas for their young.31 32 33

The most commercially important fisheries such as shrimp, lobster, crabs, oysters, clams, mussels, rely on intact nursery habitats.  In 1999, the world marine fisheries catch was over 70 million metric tons – most of this productivity directly dependent on nursery habitats.34

U.S. coastal fisheries are currently valued at $111 billion and provide approximately 1.5 million jobs.  Most of these target fish and invertebrate species that rely on marine nurseries.35 36 37

Marine-based sports fishing is a big business in many parts of the world. In the US over 17 million people participate in marine recreational fishing, and generate billions of dollars in revenue. The vast majority of the species fished use nursery areas. Coral reef based recreational fisheries alone generate over a $100 million annually.38 39

Uncontrolled tourism is responsible for degrading the very environments that draw tourists in the first place.40

Global tourism has been deemed the world’s most profitable industry, and coastal tourism may be its fastest growing sector.41 

Much of the tourism demand is for diverse and biologically rich biomes such as coral reefs, which provide nurseries but are also dependent on other marine habitats.

Reef-based tourism generated over $1.2 billion in the Florida Keys alone, while in Hawaii, annual gross revenues generated from just a single, half square mile coral reef reserve exceed $8.6 million.42 43 44

Costs of Destroying Nurseries

The U.S. government estimates that the destruction of coastal estuaries from 1954-1978 cost taxpayers $200 million annually.45 46

Once degraded or lost, restoration of nursery areas is extremely expensive, difficult, and often not possible.47 48

The total cost for restoration of the Everglades cord grass system is estimated to eventually be tens of billions of dollars.49

Many nursery areas may be of enormous value in the future. Nurseries support species that may turn out to have pharmaceutical value, or because they support species/habitat types that will become rare and endangered in the changing conditions of the future. The costs of losing such areas will be economically, environmentally and socially significant.50 51 52


1 Bell, J.D., A.S. Steffe, and M. Westoby. 1988. Location of seagrass beds in estuaries: Effects on associated fish and decapods. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology 122:127-146.

2 Heck, K.L. Jr., D.A. Nadeau and R. Thomas. 1997. The nursery role of seagrass beds. Gulf of Mexico Science 15:50-54.

3 Beck, M., K.L. Heck, K.W. Able, D.L. Childers, D.B. Eggleston, B.M. Gillanders, B. Halpern, C.G. Hays, K. Hoshino, T.J. Minello, R.J. Orth, P.F. Sheridan, and M.P. Weinstein.  2001. The identification, conservation, and management of estuarine and marine nurseries for fish and invertebrates. BioScience 51(8):6-33-641.

4 De Groot, R. 1992. Functions of Nature. Amsterdam: Wolters-Noordhoff.

5 Russ, G. and A. Alcala. 1998. Natural fishing experiments in marine reserves 1983-1993: community and trophic responses. Coral Reefs 17:383-397.

6 Wilson, K., K.W. Able and K.L. Heck, Jr. 1990. Predation rates on juvenile blue crabs in estuarine nursery habitats: evidence for the importance of macroalgae (Ulva lactuca) Marine Ecology Progress Series 58:243-251.

7 Hatcher, B., R. Johannes, and A. Robinson.  1989.  Review of the research relevant to the conservation of shallow tropical marine ecosystems.  Oceanography and Marine Biology 27:337-414.

8 Minello, T. 1999. Nekton densities in shallow estuarine habitats of Texas and Louisiana and the identification of essential fish habitat. Pages 43-75 In: Benaka L.R. (Ed). Essential Fish Habitat and Rehabilitation. Bethesda, MD: American Fisheries Society. pp. 43-75

9 Pringle, C. 2000. Threats to US public lands from cumulative hydrological alteration outside of their boundaries. Ecological Applications 10(4):971-989.

10 US Environmental Protection Agency Office of Water website @ on watersheds, beaches, nearshore waters, coral reefs, estuaries.

11 US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency websites @,  and on the nation’s marine sanctuaries, coastal zones and protected areas

12 Fogarty, M.J. and S.A. Murawski. 1998. Large scale disturbance and the structure of marine systems: fishery impacts on Georges Bank. Ecological Applications 8(1) S:S6-S22.

13 Hobbie, J.E. (ed.) 2000. Estuarine Science: A Synthetic Approach to Research and Practice. Washington DC: Island Press.

14 Kaufman, L. and P.K. Dayton. 1997. Impacts of marine resource extraction on ecosystem services and sustainability. Pages 275-293 In: Daily G (Ed.) Nature’s Services: Societal Dependence on Natural Ecosystems. Washington DC: Island Press.

15 Teal, J. and M. Teal. 1969. Life and Death of a Saltmarsh. New York, NY: Audubon and Ballantine Books.

16 D’Avanzo, C., J. Kremer and S.C. Wainwright. 1996. Ecosystem production and respiration in response to eutrophication in shallow temperate estuaries. Marine Ecology Progress Series 141:263-274

17 Dayton, P.K., S.F. Thrush, M.T. Agardy and R.J. Hofman.  1995. Environmental effects of marine fishing. Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems 5:205-232.

18 Deegan, L. and R.N. Buchsbaum. 2001. The effect of habitat loss and degradation on fisheries. In R.N. Buchsbaum, W.E. Robinson and J. Pederson (eds.) The Decline of Fisheries Resources in New England: Evaluating the Impact of Overfishing, Contamination, and Habitat Degradation. Amherst, MA: U.Mass. Press.

19 Deegan, L.A., A Wright, S.G. Ayvazian, J.T. Finn, H. Golden, R.R. Merson and J. Harrison. 2001. Nitrogen loading alters seagrass ecosystem structure and support of higher trophic levels. Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Systems 12(2): 193-212.

20 National Research Council. 2000. Committee report on the causes and management of coastal eutrophication. R.W. Howarth (chair). Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

21 US Coral Reef Task Force website @

22 Agardy, T.S.  1997. Marine Protected Areas and Ocean Conservation . Austin TX: R.E. Landes Co., (Academic Press)

23 Dayton, P.K., S.F. Thrush, M.T. Agardy and R.J. Hofman.  1995. Environmental effects of marine fishing. Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems 5:205-232.

24 Queensland Government Department of Employment, Economic Development, and Innovation website @  fact sheets on nature’s nautical nurseries, accessed August 6, 2010.

25 Beck et al. 2001.

26 USEPA website

27 Zwerdling, D. 2002. Nature’s Revenge: Louisiana’s Vanishing Wetlands. Part 1 Sinking in to the Sea. NPR. Sept. Online at, accessed on August 6, 2010.

28 Agardy 1997.

29 Chambers, J.R. 1991, Coastal degradation and fish population losses. Marine Recreational Fisheries 14:45-51.

30 Hobbie 2000.

31 Chambers 1991.

32 Deegan and Buchsbaum 2001.

33 Teal and Teal 1969.

34 National Wildlife Federation website @

35 Boesch, D.F. and R.E. Turner. 1984. Dependence of fishery species on salt marshes. The role of food and refuge. Estuaries 7:460-468.

36 Fonseca, M.S., W.J. Kenworthy, and G.W. Thayer. 1991. Seagrass beds: nursery for coastal species. Marine Recreational Fisheries 14:141-147.

37 National Research Council. 1999. Sustaining Marine Fisheries. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

38 Birkeland, C. and A.M. Friedlander. 2002. The importance of refuges for reef fish replenishment in Hawai’i. Honolulu, HI: The Hawaiian Audubon Society 19pp.

39 NWF website.

40 Millennium Assessment. 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. Volume 1. Conditions & Trends.

Online at, accessed August 6, 2010.

41 Millennium Assessment. 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. Volume 1. Conditions & Trends.

Online at, accessed August 6, 2010.

42 United Nations Environment Programme website @ of global overview on controlling land-based sources of pollution

43 US Coral Reef Task Force website @

44 World Resources Institute. 2001. Pilot Analysis of Global Ecosystems: Coastal Ecosystems. Washington, DC: World Resources Institute.

45 USEPA website

46 Zwerdling 2002.

47 Costanza, R., R. d’Arget, R. de Groot, S. Faber, M. Grasso, B. Hannon, K. Limburg, S. Naeem, T.V. O’Neill, J. Paruelo, R. Sutton, and M. Van den Belt. 1997. The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital. Nature 387:253-260.

48 National Research Council. 1992. Restoration of Aquatic Ecosystems. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

49 National Research Council. 1992. Restoration of Aquatic Ecosystems. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

50 Agardy 1997.

51 Dayton et al. 1995.

52 Ward, T.J., D. Heinemann, and N. Evans. 2001. The Role of Reserves as Fisheries Management Tools. Canberra, Australia: Bureau of Rural Sciences.

Reference as: Ecological Society of America. 2010. Communicating Ecosystem Services Toolkit: Marine Nurseries Key Points. Online at