Healthy habitat—like wetlands, rivers, and coral reefs—provides important areas for fish to eat and reproduce. But habitat has been destroyed by coastal development, pollution, extreme weather, and other factors, leading to reduced fish populations. We conserve habitat to boost fish populations, recover threatened and endangered species, and support resilient coastal communities.
$23 billion in coastal protection services provided by wetlands
Wetlands absorb floodwaters by acting as a natural sponge. Wetlands can lower overall flood heights, protecting people, property, infrastructure, and agriculture from devastating flood damages.
80,000 acres of wetlands lost each year
The coastal watersheds of the lower 48 states lose 80,000 acres of coastal wetlands each year to development, drainage, erosion, subsidence and sea-level rise. That’s approximately seven football fields every hour.
15 jobs created per $1 million invested in habitat restoration
A recent study of habitat restoration projects supported by the Recovery Act showed that showed that they supported an average of 15 jobs per $1 million invested—up to 30 jobs per $1 million invested for labor-intensive projects. The projects contributed $143.7 million in new or expanded economic activity nationwide.
134 million gallons of oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill
On April 20, 2010 the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, starting a catastrophic oil leak from the well. By the time it was capped three months later, approximately 134 million gallons of oil had spilled into the Gulf—the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history.
152,000 acres of habitat restored since 1991
We provide technical and financial assistance for restoration projects that ensure fish have access to high quality habitat. Since 1991, NOAA has contributed technical and financial assistance to more than 3,600 projects, which have restored more than 152,000 acres of habitat and opened more than 6,700 stream miles for fish migration.
Value of Habitat
America’s coasts are vital to our nation’s economy. Coastal communities rely on healthy habitat for recreation, tourism, and commercial activities like fishing—without it, these economic opportunities would suffer.
How We Conserve
We conserve habitat to sustain fisheries, recover protected marine life, and maintain resilient coastal ecosystems and communities.
Threats to Habitat
Coastal habitats face many threats—from development, to pollution, to changing weather conditions. These threats reduce the amount of healthy habitat available for fish and other wildlife.
NOAA’s Habitat Blueprint provides a forward-looking framework for us to think and act strategically to address the growing challenge of coastal and marine habitat loss and degradation. We are increasing the effectiveness of our efforts to improve habitat conditions for fisheries, coastal, and marine life, along with other economic, cultural, and environmental benefits.
How We Restore
Healthy habitat provides important areas for fish to eat and grow. But habitat can be polluted by oil and chemical spills, destroyed by development, or blocked by dams. When that happens, fish can’t live there anymore. This often means that there are fewer fish for other animals to eat or for people to catch. Restoration can help bring back that habitat—and those fish. By cleaning up after an oil spill, or removing a dam on a river, we can help fish get back to their natural habitat.
Habitat restoration helps people, too. Restoration creates jobs—an average of 15 jobs per $1 million invested. Restored coastal habitats provide clean water, support fish and wildlife, and protect coastal communities from storms. They also support boating, fishing, and tourism.
NOAA Restoration Center staff are experts in restoration, working with partners to help fish thrive. We focus on four priority habitat restoration approaches, where we can have the biggest impact to fishery production:
Our Key Initiatives
Where We Work
25+ Years of Restoration Success
Did you know we’ve been restoring habitat for more than 25 years? During that time, we’ve restored more than 130,000 acres of habitat—marshes, wetlands, rivers, coral reefs, and more—leading to healthier, more abundant fish.
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How We Protect
Habitat is vulnerable to pollution and other threats. Yet some problems can be minimized, or even avoided, by protecting habitats. Damaged habitat might take decades to recover—if it recovers at all. Preventing harm is a wise investment.
Protecting habitat benefits people as well as the plants and animals that live there. The fishing and seafood industries rely on supplies of healthy fish coming from healthy habitats. Tourism is a large and growing industry that requires clean beaches and vibrant coastal habitats to attract visitors. For coastal residents, healthy habitats provide a buffer against storms and other threats to property values.
NOAA practices habitat protection nationwide. Priority areas include rivers with sea-going fish, wetlands and estuaries, coral reefs, and large-scale bays and watersheds. We also explore and protect coral habitat in the deep sea, which is the least explored place on Earth.
Our Key Initiatives
Because habitats are so vast and complex, NOAA has a team approach that draws upon expertise from across the agency and the nation. The framework that guides NOAA’s approach is the Habitat Blueprint. It’s helping us to think and act strategically to address the growing challenges facing our coastal and marine habitats.
20+ Years of Essential Fish Habitat
Mandated by Congress in 1996, Essential Fish Habitat has matured into a vital part of the nation’s main fishery law.
Local Habitat Protection
NOAA coordinates much of its habitat work through regional offices and partner organizations across the country. This means that NOAA works near you: from American Samoa, to Alaska, to Puerto Rico, and beyond. Find out where NOAA works in your aquatic backyard.
National Fish Habitat Partnership
The National Fish Habitat Partnership is a nationwide, partnership-based approach to provide the groundwork to conserve habitats vital to coastal and marine fisheries and increase existing fish habitat conservation efforts. It encourages collaboration between public agencies, private organizations, and citizens to provide large-scale geographic benefits.
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Types of Habitat
Fish use many habitats during their lifetimes, sometimes migrating from one habitat type to another and back again. We protect and restore these coastal habitats to improve fish populations and improve coastal resilience. Learn more about the types of habitat we conserve and how we address their unique challenges.
Wetlands filter our water, protect our coastal communities from floods, and provide habitat for fish and other wildlife—but they’re quickly disappearing. We’re working hard to protect and restore these valuable habitats.
Hundreds—even thousands—of feet beyond the reach of sunlight, unique corals and sponges are found off all of our coasts. Learn about our ongoing exploration of these hidden habitats and the new and familiar species we’ve found thriving there.
Estuaries exist where rivers arrive at the sea or large lake. Also called bays, sloughs, and sounds, these unique habitats are home to most of the fish and shellfish eaten in the United States at some point in their lives.
Oysters grow together—shell upon shell—building substantial reefs that become shelter for other local sea life. Not only good to eat, oysters filter the water, improving water quality. Over-harvesting, pollution, and disease have contributed to the demise of oysters in the United States.
One of the main reasons fish populations struggle is that barriers like dams prevent them from reaching the upstream habitat where they breed and grow. Learn about why fish migration is important and what we’re doing to help.
Called the “rainforests of the sea,” coral reefs are the most diverse habitats on the planet. Many commercially important fish species depend on coral reefs for food and shelter. They also support tourism and protect coastlines, but these habitats are threatened by rising ocean temperatures, pollution, and other factors.
Habitat Conservation in the Regions
NOAA Fisheries is responsible for a variety of fish and wildlife, and for conserving the habitat that helps them thrive. All of our regional offices and science centers support the cause of habitat conservation. They protect, restore, and promote stewardship of coastal and marine habitat to support our nation’s fisheries for future generations. Their work includes research, consultations, and on-the-ground habitat restoration. Each region also works with a diverse group of partners to achieve common habitat conservation goals.
Alaska has more ocean coastline than all of the other U.S. states combined, and is home to some of the most productive and valuable fisheries in the world. We work to promote healthy ecosystems and resilient Alaska coastal communities by conserving habitat. Our efforts focus on researching and modeling, protecting essential fish habitat, addressing invasive species, and making recommendations for hydropower projects. We are also home to a Habitat Focus Area as part of NOAA’s Habitat Blueprint.
The West Coast region spans from Washington to southern California encompassing a wide range of habitats, from rivers, to estuaries, to seagrass beds, to rocky reefs. These habitats are vital for salmon and steelhead, marine fish, abalone, sea turtles, marine mammals, and other species. We carry out activities and consultations to conserve critical habitat for endangered and threatened species and essential fish habitat that supports recreational, commercial, and tribal fisheries. Our habitat conservation and restoration efforts use science-based strategies and are conducted in collaboration with numerous partners along the West Coast.
The Southeast region is home to many types of habitat, including coral reefs, mangroves, marshes, and wetlands. Habitat in the region is the foundation for the commercial and recreational saltwater fishing industries that provided more than 1.6 million full- and part-time jobs and more than $200 billion in economic activity in 2015. Our habitat conservation efforts include protecting essential fish habitat, and restoring habitat that has been altered or damaged by human interactions.
The Greater Atlantic Region has a variety of habitats, including salt marshes, rivers, seagrass beds, and shellfish reefs. It’s also home to our nation’s largest estuary, the Chesapeake Bay, which was designated a national treasure. These important natural resources face challenges from pollution, development, overfishing, invasive species, and barriers to fish migration. We focus on two main habitat conservation activities: identification and conservation of essential fish habitat through fishery management, and consulting with federal agencies whose activities may negatively affect essential fish habitat and other marine life.
The Pacific Islands Region hosts some of the most biologically diverse ecosystems on the planet, including extensive coral reefs surrounding the many islands, some of the deepest environments on earth, and unique island cultures. These natural resources provide food, recreation, tourism, economy, storm protection, and a way of life. We manage habitat to support sustainable fisheries and protected resources, focusing on coral reef conservation and watershed management with a broad spectrum of partners. We also manage four Marine National Monuments that represent some of the largest marine protected areas anywhere. Our goal is effective conservation and protection of marine habitat using expert engagement and partnership.
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Habitat science looks at the relationships between species and their environment. Habitat information is needed in almost every one of our programs, as it provides important scientific advice on both the current status and future trends of habitats. This information is used for habitat management and restoration, stock assessments, ecosystem-based management, and throughout other programs.
The Magnuson-Stevens Act requires the eight regional fishery management councils to identify essential fish habitat—areas used by fish throughout their lives for spawning, feeding, nursery grounds, migration, and shelter—and for NOAA Fisheries to assist in conserving and enhancing them. Fish might change their habitat throughout life stages, for example, when Coho salmon migrate from a marine environment into freshwater streams and rivers to mate. This means it is important to conduct research to understand the different types of habitats and their different characteristics, like types of reefs or nutrient levels, to figure out how best to manage different marine species.
As the climate changes and oceans warm, fish populations are moving in search of cooler waters like in New England where fishermen have been catching black sea bass and longfin squid in the Gulf of Maine, far north of the animals’ usual range. Understanding and predicting the effects of climate change and other human-caused impacts on marine species will also require an increased focus on habitat science.
Understanding habitat can also improve stock assessments and integrate them into an ecosystem-based management system. Our habitat science activities include coordination with research and management activities and implementation of our Marine Fisheries Habitat Assessment Improvement Plans.
- Habitat Assessment Improvement Plan (May 2010) (PDF, 129 pages)
- Update to the Marine Fisheries Habitat Assessment Improvement Plan (April 2018) (PDF, 37 pages)
Habitat Science Supports Fisheries
U.S. fisheries generate more than $200 billion in sales impacts every year. Healthy habitats provide the foundation for these economically vital fisheries as well as a wide array of marine life along our coasts. From the sand and sediment on the ocean bottom, to the forests of underwater vegetation and corals, to the actual water itself, habitats provide everything fish and marine life need to survive and thrive. Check out what NOAA Fisheries is doing to better understand the role habitat plays in our nation’s fishery species in this NOAA Fisheries Habitat Science Projects torymap.
Habitat Science in the Regions
In the Alaska region, we are responsible for more than 70 percent of the nation’s continental shelf habitat and conduct research to support the management of 60 stocks of fish and shellfish. The sheer physical immensity and northern geography of Alaska can pose major challenges to conducting habitat research.
We have a long history of habitat research in the region and even pioneered the use of submersibles to conduct deep-water habitat assessments, but the habitat assessments conducted in Alaska are generally in small geographic areas of high interest. Recent interest in the conservation of deep-sea corals resulted in habitat assessments in areas of high coral and sponge fisheries bycatch. We also conduct research and assessments in nearshore habitats.
Our scientists are facing new challenges stemming from the effects of climate change on habitat in Alaska. These include the loss of sea ice, ocean acidification, and shifts in the distribution of species and the habitats they use, particularly in the northern seas. These changes are not unique to Alaska, but the changes expected to happen here may be extreme and help serve as a warning for the rest of the world.
In the Northwest, we conduct habitat research in the California Current Large Marine Ecosystem in partnership with other federal and state agencies as well as academic institutions, covering almost 500,000 square miles. We conduct research on marine habitats of more than 100 species of fish stocks, like Pacific Coast Groundfish and Pacific Coast Salmon. Our scientists develop models for managing multi-species fisheries, define essential fish habitats for key groundfish species, and try to understand the complex relationships between commercially and recreationally important fisheries and their habitats in the Pacific Northwest.
Working with Oregon State University, we developed the Pacific Coast Ocean Observing System West Coast Habitat Data Portal to integrate geological, geophysical, biological, fisheries, and physical oceanographic data in one portal. Almost 50 full-time staff conduct habitat-related research or provide habitat-related data and information used to support fisheries research and management for Pacific Coast stocks.
Most, if not all, of California’s coastal ecosystem has been dramatically altered by intense, continuous recreational and commercial fishing, beginning at least as far back as the 1940s, and by population growth and coastal development. These human-induced changes partnered with natural, but unpredictable, environmental changes make it challenging to identify and understand changes in coastal habitats.
Our Southwest scientists conduct research in the freshwater and marine environments of California, as well as in parts of the Antarctic, Mexico, and open-ocean international waters. The Southwest region, like the Northwest, is part of the California Current Large Marine Ecosystem, and is made up of five general habitat categories: 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.
Challenges and concerns in the region include damage to seafloor habitats due to fishing, effects of climate change (including the consequences of northward shifts in fish distributions with increased ocean temperatures), effects of marine protected area management, and invasive species like the recent invasion of jumbo squid in the California Current Ecosystem. We have more than 30 full-time staff that conduct research on marine habitats of more than 110 stocks and species, and our habitat research is designed describe and protect essential fish habitat and to improve stock assessments, as well as to understand and predict the effects of climate and environmental change on fish populations and marine ecosystems.
There is an extensive amount of research on habitat use and its value in the Southeast Region, especially on estuarine habitats, the habitats that occur where rivers meet the sea. We provide science to help manage 77 stocks in a wide variety of habitats throughout three large marine ecosystems: the Southeast Shelf, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean Sea. Fisheries in the region are diverse, and range from artisanal traps for fish and crustaceans on coral reefs to open ocean longlines and trawls that sweep the muddy bottom of the Gulf of Mexico for shrimp. The large number of habitats in the oceanic and coastal regions, combined with the number of fishery species, makes habitat research in the Southeast a challenge.
Many fishery species in the region live in continental shelf waters as adults but spend the early part of their lives in estuarine nurseries like seagrass beds, coastal wetlands, oyster reefs, and tidal mudflats. This special connection means that their ecosystems and habitats are vulnerable to human development on the coast. Threats to healthy habitats in the region include damage and change from fishing, hurricanes and storms, climate change and rising sea levels, coral bleaching, disease, and uptake of toxins. Invasive species like lionfish, offshore aquaculture impacts, and the rise of harmful algal blooms and dead zones are some more recent habitat concerns.
We have emphasized research on the estuarine habitats where many species spend part of their lives in the last 30 years. Some of the earliest studies on the value of seagrass beds and estuarine shrimp habitats were started in our laboratories. Because many estuarine habitats are being lost to coastal development, we are exploring techniques to restore habitat and define the cost of restoring habitat while factoring in the benefit to fishery species we depend on every day.
As part of our habitat efforts, we have a regional Habitat Science ListServ for the Southeast to increase communication between scientists, habitat managers, and the NOAA Restoration Center. To join the Southeast habitat assessment ListServ, send an email to habitat.assessment.moderator.SE@noaa.gov with "join" in the subject line.
In the Northeast, we are responsible for the Northeast Shelf large marine ecosystem, which ranges from Maine to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. This ecosystem is heavily exploited and human activities include commercial and recreational fishing, whale watching, navigation, aquaculture, military operations, pipeline and cable construction, wind and wave energy production, offshore oil and gas development, and mining of sand and gravel.
Habitats range from fine clay to cold-water corals, and ocean conditions in the northeast are complex because of influxes from the warm Gulf Stream in the south as well as cold, often fresher waters from the Scotian Shelf in the north. The diversity of these habitats, the two fishery management councils (New England and Mid-Atlantic) we support, and the numerous state agencies we work with create a complicated challenge for our scientists that work to provide habitat data and advice for management decisions. We have a group of staff that works on habitat science and data, including: collecting habitat data, developing products like maps and tools, and doing habitat assessments.
The Pacific Islands area of responsibility includes a vast expanse (1.7 million square miles) of the western and Central Pacific Ocean that supports a wide range of habitats, including shallow reefs, islands, banks, deep slopes, seamounts, and the oceanic seascape. The region is responsible for management of 56 species, including bottomfish and groundfish, coral reefs, crustaceans, pelagic species (also known as highly migratory species), and precious corals. The islands, reefs, and banks that make up most of the habitat in the Pacific Islands are extremely vulnerable to human-caused effects.
The culturally diverse fishing communities in this region, ranging from commercial oceanic longline fishermen to individual fishers on remote islands who sell their reef catches at local markets, are a unique challenge to habitat-related data collection, research, and management. Most habitat related research has been conducted as a part of research commissioned to study pelagic fishes, sea turtle bycatch, coral reef conservation, and other protected species.
Annual report of the Alaska Region’s Habitat Conservation Division
A collection of FPO annual reports that highlight the variety of projects funded by the Pacific…
The NOAA Action Plan on Coral Interventions will guide how the agency approaches coral…
Data & Maps
Assessment of the Grenadier Stock Complex in the Gulf of Alaska, Eastern Bering Sea, and Aleutian Islands
In 2015, a final rule was issued adding the grenadier stock complex as an Ecosystem Component to…
The shark complex (spiny dogfish, Pacific sleeper shark, salmon shark and other/unidentified sharks…
Rockfish have historically been assessed on a biennial stock assessment schedule to coincide with…
Saws and the City: Smalltooth Sawfish (Pristis pectinata) Encounters, Recovery Potential and Research Priorities in Urbanized Coastal Waters off Miami, Florida
Demonstrating historical and contemporary use of Biscayne Bay and adjacent reef tract by the…
Outreach & Education
A fact sheet about essential fish habitat in Alaska.