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On the Ocean's Edge: EPA's Oceans and Coastal Waters Programs, by Suzanne E. Schwartz, Craig Vogt, and Katherine Bruce

by Suzanne E. Schwartz, Craig Vogt, and Katherine Bruce

Oceans and coastal waters are an integral part of our daily lives. Yet, despite their tremendous importance and incredible value, our oceans and coastal waters are under serious environmental stress from an array of different sources. This article provides background information regarding environmental aspects of oceans and coastal waters, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency activities to enhance and protect them.

Our Coastal Waters are Invaluable

Squirrelfish on staghorn coral.
A squirrelfish peeks out from staghorn coral near Sand Key, Florida.
Photo courtesy Reef Relief.

The oceans and coasts are invaluable resources, from both economic and ecological perspectives. More than half the U.S. population lives within 50 miles of the coasts. One out of every six jobs in the U.S. is marine-related, generating over $50 billion in goods and services each year. Coastal areas also support the majority of U.S. tourism and recreational activities. Each year, 180 million people visit U.S. coasts and generate over $600 billion in annual revenue.

Ensuring the ecological health of our coastal and marine environments is essential for maintaining the many benefits that we derive from these resources.

  • Coastal and marine waters provide some of the most diverse and biologically productive habitats on the planet. These habitats support 66 percent of all U.S. commercial and recreational fishing and 45 percent of all protected species, including sea turtles and marine mammals.
  • U.S. marine waters also include over 6,000 square miles of coral reefs, which are second in species diversity only to rainforests.

Our Coastal Waters are Very Degraded

Unfortunately, our coastal areas are among the most degraded watersheds in the country. There are fish advisories for 100 percent of the Gulf Coast and 92 percent of the Atlantic Coast, with overall 70 percent of the coastline of the lower 48 States under fish advisories. The recently released interagency National Coastal Condition Report found the overall national coastal condition to be fair to poor. The vast majority of the most water quality impaired waters are along the coastline of the contiguous United States:

  • Coastal eutrophication is likely to worsen in the majority of our nation's estuaries
  • There is a large "Dead Zone" in the Gulf of Mexico that occurs each summer, some 8,500 square miles in size, due to eutrophication
  • The threat of and harm to ocean and coastal resources due to invasive species (such as zebra mussels), harmful algal blooms (like Pfiesteria), disease, and habitat/wetland loss is on the rise
  • Thirty percent of coastal and Great Lakes beaches closed or had an advisory at least once in 1999, with similar levels in more recent years
  • Ten percent of the world's coral reefs are degraded beyond recovery; 30 percent are in critical condition and may die in 10-20 years, and another 30 percent could perish by 2050.

Where Does Coastal Pollution Come From?

The sources of this degradation are diverse and diffuse. Oceans and coastal waters are affected by both direct and indirect impacts, including industrial and municipal discharges and urban and agricultural runoff from land far upstream. As water flows towards the coasts, it can be polluted with such contaminants as sediments, pathogens and nutrients (i.e., nitrogen or phosphorus) from animal waste and fertilizers. Oil, trash, and untreated sewage can also wash into our waterways via combined sewer and stormwater systems. In recent years, deposition of contaminants from the air has been found to be a serious contributor of nutrients and heavy metals into coastal waters. Shipping vessels, once thought to be a relatively minor source of contaminants, can also have significant effects. Ballast water discharges are the most common source of aquatic invasive species. Cruise ships commonly have some 2,000 to 5,000 passengers and crew, resulting in discharges similar to those from a city of that size. In addition, loss of habitat and wetlands continues in coastal watersheds with an attendant loss in ecological resources.

What is EPA Doing to Address These Problems?

In order to protect and restore these resources, we must clearly identify the origin of the stresses and develop the appropriate solutions. EPA manages a wide array of programs specifically designed to protect and preserve the health of the nation's coastal and marine waters, including watershed protection programs working through partnerships and an array of regulatory programs.

Assessing and Monitoring the Health of Coastal Waters

In the past several years, EPA has made significant progress in better defining coastal pollution problems and developing stronger coastal research and monitoring plans. An important step was taken in January 2002 with the publication of the National Coastal Condition Report, a first-of-its-kind document that depicts both the overall condition of U.S. coastal waters and regional coastal conditions. By establishing a broad baseline of the ecological and environmental conditions of U.S. coastal waters, the report serves as a useful benchmark for measuring the progress of coastal programs over time. It provides national-level coastal assessment information for seven indicators—water clarity, sediment quality, dissolved oxygen, benthos, fish, eutrophication, and coastal wetlands loss—and will be followed in subsequent years by reports focusing on specific coastal issues and measurements of change in coastal conditions over time.

Map of coral reefs in the Caribbean.
Coral reefs, denoted in red, along the
coasts of Florida, the Bahamas, and Cuba.

Map courtesy ReefBase.

A cross-agency team from the EPA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Geological Survey, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service collaboratively developed the report. The team integrated coastal data from each agency, producing a unique document that depicts the condition of ecological resources in U.S. coastal waters. In addition, the team highlighted the contributions made by several exemplary federal, state, tribal, and local programs to assessments of coastal ecological and water quality conditions.

EPA and other federal agencies also recently released a Coastal Research and Monitoring Strategy—a basic assessment of the nation's coastal research and monitoring needs. The Strategy calls for development of an integrated framework that would target protection of vital national, State, and Tribal coastal resources.

Assessing Cruise Ship Waste Discharges

EPA is conducting a national assessment of the cruise ship industry in response to a petition expressing concern that cruise ship pollution could result in harm to oceanic and coastal environments. The petition specifically requested that EPA conduct an assessment of waste discharges from cruise ships, their environmental impacts, and options for EPA or others to better monitor and control these discharges.

Cruise ship debris washed ashore.
Cruise ship debris washed ashore.
Photo courtesy Center for Marine Conservation.

As part of the assessment, EPA held three public information hearings, conducted a dispersion study of discharges behind several cruise ships, and worked with states to better track hazardous wastes aboard these vessels. In addition, under the Certain Alaska Cruise Ship Operations Act, EPA is working with the State of Alaska to set wastewater (gray and black water) discharge standards for cruise ships operating in the waters of Alaska.

EPA is also considering development of a voluntary incentive program for the cruise industry. As currently envisioned, this program would encourage ship owners and operators to reduce their air, wastewater, and solid waste discharges. If developed, the program would award stars to participating ships based on various emissions, waste, and wastewater management strategies that they implement. A workshop will be scheduled in the fall of 2002 to discuss all aspects of the possible program. More information about these activities can be found at www.epa.gov/owow/oceans/cruise_ships.

Controlling Invasive Species

EPA continues to work with the Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force and the National Invasive Species Management Council on issues ranging from the national and international control of ballast water discharges to the regional management and control of individual invasive species. For example, EPA is working closely with the U.S. Coast Guard, the State Department, and other federal agencies to develop standards establishing the biological parameters for the incidental discharge of aquatic organisms, ranging from bacteria to harmful algae, mollusks, and fish, as part of ballast water discharges. As a member of the U.S. delegation on the Marine Environment Protection Committee to the International Maritime Organization, EPA will help draft an international instrument to address ballast water discharges from ocean-going vessels.

On September 10, 2001, EPA released for public review the draft report, Aquatic Nuisance Species in Ballast Water Discharges: Issues and Options. Currently, the greatest impediment to effectively controlling aquatic nuisance species in ballast water discharges is the lack of commercially available technologies. New scientific developments are expected to provide significant tools for fighting aquatic nuisance species, though these tools are not yet available. EPA is also working closely with the U.S. Coast Guard to develop ballast water discharge standards.

U.S. map showing zebra mussel distribution.
Zebra mussel distribution along U.S. waterways.
Map courtesy NationalAtlas.gov.

The draft report suggests that EPA can best combat aquatic nuisance species introductions from ballast water discharges by undertaking, in partnership with other Federal agencies, such recommended actions as promoting research, public education and outreach, technology development, and actively working to prevent invasive species introduction.

In 2001, the National Estuary Program funded pilot education/outreach, rapid assessment, and monitoring projects undertaken by four of the 28 National Estuary Programs. In 2002, the National Estuary Program is funding several larger projects in which National Estuary Programs collaborate regionally to assess the scope and magnitude of invasions, conduct major outreach/education efforts, and help states develop Aquatic Nuisance Species Management Plans. Approval of state plans by the Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force makes States eligible for Federal funding that targets the prevention and management of invasives. More information on the EPA’s invasive species activities can be found at www.invasivespecies.gov.

Managing Dredging Activities

The National Dredging Team, an interagency group of federal agencies co-chaired by EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, continues its efforts to provide a forum for conflict resolution and information exchange. In January 2001, the National Dredging Team sponsored a workshop to address future challenges in the dredging program, including the promotion of beneficial use of dredged material, promotion of overall sediment management approaches, and addressing emerging issues such as risk assessment and the relationship between dredging and total maximum daily loads. The National Dredging Team developed a draft Action Agenda based on recommendations from the workshop which it released to workshop participants for review in January 2002. A final version of the Action Agenda and the workshop proceedings is expected in the Fall of 2002.

Protecting Coral Reefs

An executive order on coral reef protection created the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force on June 11, 1998. This Task Force serves as the vehicle for development of a plan of action to protect the nation's coral reef ecosystems, and on March 2, 2000, the Task Force issued The National Action Plan to Conserve Coral Reefs. EPA is a member of the Task Force and chairs its Air and Water Quality Workgroup. The Task Force and its working groups are now focused on action plan implementation.

Fort Jefferson, Garden Key, Dry Tortugas National Park.
Fort Jefferson on Garden Key, with Bush Key
nearby, in the Dry Tortugas National Park.

Photo courtesy National Park Service.

By promoting the formation of a broad-based partnership of many private and public sector stakeholders supporting designation of a no-take reserve area within the boundaries of the Dry Tortugas National Park, the Task Force was instrumental to designation of that reserve. The Task Force Vessel Grounding Work Group has been successful in removing derelict vessels from reef tracts in American Samoa and is developing a database of abandoned vessels affecting U.S. resources. The database will be used to identify primary candidate wrecks for removal and to support removal from priority sites.

Major areas of focus for the Task Force include:

  • Development of comprehensive and consistent ecosystem maps for all U.S. coral reefs
  • Continued development of the Coral Reef Disease Consortium and funding a new, long-term, interdisciplinary research program on coral reefs in U.S. Atlantic and Pacific regions
  • Supporting a resolution of the International Maritime Organization that would allow countries to designate sensitive coral reef areas as official no-anchoring zones for commercial vessels.

The first such designation will be in the Flower Gardens National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of Texas.

EPA is also taking a new approach on coral reef protection and has initiated a
program that looks at coral protection through “back-reef ecosystems.” EPA and other agencies have traditionally approached coral reef protection in terms of concentrating efforts on the reef proper (i.e., the hard corals). Many reefs have other associated habitats that are critical to reef health, including sea grass beds, mangrove forests, and mudflats. EPA has funded initiatives that include a Back-Reef Ecosystem Workshop which took place in the Bahamas in 2001. The workshop provided a forum for the exchange of ideas in back-reef ecosystem protection and restoration. Supporting the protection and conservation of back-reef ecosystems will provide a sound scientific basis for any subsequent guidance or policy which would lead to the protection of these habitats in particular, and coral reef watersheds in general.

Suisun Marsh.
California's Suisun Marsh is the nation's largest inland estuary.
Photo by S. Buntin.

Implementing National Estuary Programs

The National Estuary Program was established in 1987 by amendments to the Clean Water Act to identify, restore, and protect nationally significant estuaries of the United States. Unlike traditional, regulatory approaches to environmental protection, the National Estuary Program targets a broad range of issues and engages local communities in the process. The program focuses not only on improving water quality in an estuary, but also on maintaining the integrity of the whole system—its chemical, physical, and biological properties, as well as its economic, recreational, and aesthetic values.

The EPA administers the NEP but program decisions and activities are carried out by committees of local government officials, private citizens, and representatives from other federal agencies, academic institutions, industry, and estuary users’ groups. The NEP is designed to encourage local communities to take responsibility for managing their own estuaries. All 28 NEPs have completed their comprehensive plans and are now implementing the priority actions.

Controlling Point Source and Nonpoint Source Pollution

Under the Clean Water Act, EPA and the states’ National Pollutant Discharges Elimination System permit programs regulate point sources that discharge pollutants into waters of the United States. Some of the program areas included in System are municipal and industrial discharges, animal feeding operations, combined sewer overflows, sanitary sewer overflows, and storm water. For more information on these programs, see www.epa.gov/owm.

Nonpoint source pollution, unlike point source pollution, comes from many diffuse sources and is the major challenge in protection and enhancement of our ocean and coastal resources. As stormwater runoff moves over land, it picks up and carries away natural and human made pollutants, finally depositing them into lakes, rivers, wetlands, coastal waters, and even underground sources of drinking water. One category of nonpoint sources that has been recently determined to be a very significant contributor to ocean and coastal pollution problems is deposition, from the air, of nitrogen and metals onto land and directly into waterways. Nonpoint source pollution in coastal waters is regulated under the Clean Water Act and the Coastal Zone Act Reauthorization Amendments, which were passed by Congress in 1990. The Reauthorization Amendments require the 29 states and territories with approved Coastal Zone Management Programs to develop Coastal Nonpoint Pollution Control Programs. In its program, a state or territory describes how it will implement nonpoint source pollution controls, known as management measures. For additional information regarding nonpoint source pollution, visit www.epa.gov/owow/nps.

The programs identified are just some of the many programs in which EPA participates to help protect and restore our oceans and coastal waters. While significant progress has been made in better defining and controlling coastal pollution problems, developing coastal research and monitoring plans, and initiating habitat restoration efforts, many challenges remain. Future successes will come from good science, working closely with our partners and stakeholders, focusing our efforts using a watershed approach, and effectively applying our regulatory authorities.


Suzanne E. Schwartz is the Director of EPA's Oceans and Coastal Protection Division. She has been with EPA for over 20 years, primarily in coastal and wetlands protection programs. Suzanne has a law degree from Columbia University, and an undergraduate degree in mathematics from Queens College, SUNY.

Craig Vogt is Deputy Director of EPA's Ocean and Coastal Protection Division. He has been with EPA since 1971 in a number of programs, including the conduct of monitoring surveys, setting standards for industrial dischargers, standards for drinking water, and protection/enhancement of ocean and coastal waters. He has a BS in civil engineering and a MS in sanitary engineering, both from Oregon State University.

Katherine Bruce is an intern in EPA's Oceans and Coastal Protection Division. She received a BS in biology from Bowdoin (Brunswick, ME) and a MS from American University (Washington, DC).

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U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

EPA's Office of Wetlands, Oceans, and Waterways

EPA's Oceans and Coastal Protection Division

EPA's National Estuaries Program

EPA's Coral Reef Protection: A Watershed Approach

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

NOAA's State of the Coast

U.S. Coral Reef Task Force


National Estuaries Day

On October 5, 2002, coastal communities can join in the celebration of National Estuaries Day. National Estuaries Day is an annual celebration to increase the public’s understanding of estuaries and the need to protect them. As part of the celebration, on October 3 and 4 trained naturalists will lead an interactive field trip through our nation’s estuaries with ESTUARY LIVE! To learn more about National Estuaries Day or participate in ESTUARY LIVE!, visit www.estuaries.gov.


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