Why estuaries are important

Estuaries provide a wide variety of habitats and wildlife and significant commercial and recreational benefits.

Environmental value

Estuaries are unique and important natural environments. They contain a wide range of habitats and ecosystems including large areas of open water, rocky reefs, unconsolidated bed sediments, intertidal sand and mud flats, mangroves, saltmarshes and temperate seagrass beds. 

Estuaries support a diversity of species of fish, shellfish, aquatic plants and animals. The protected waters provide vital nesting, breeding and feeding habitats for many species.

Estuaries also filter pollutants out of the water flowing through them, including pesticides, herbicides and heavy metals.

Social value

Estuaries are one of the most important of the state's natural resources and are some of the most intensively used areas of NSW. They have significant commercial value supporting industries such as tourism, fisheries and recreational facilities.

Over 80% of the population live in the coastal zone and coastal and estuarine environments are of great cultural and economic importance to the general community.

Estuaries are critical for the survival of many species. Tens of thousands of birds, mammals, fish and other wildlife depend on estuarine habitats as places to live, feed and reproduce.

Estuaries provide ideal spots for migratory birds to rest and refuel during their journeys. Many species of fish and shellfish rely on the sheltered waters of estuaries as protected places to spawn, giving them the nickname "nurseries of the sea."

Hundreds of marine organisms, including most commercially valuable fish species, depend on estuaries at some point during their development.

Besides serving as important habitat for wildlife, the wetlands that fringe many estuaries perform other valuable functions.

Water draining from the catchment carries sediments, nutrients, and other pollutants. As the water flows through the marshes, much of the sediments and pollutants are filtered out. This filtration process creates cleaner and clearer water, which benefits both people and marine life.

Wetland plants and soils also act as a natural buffer between the land and ocean, absorbing flood waters and dissipating storm surges. This protects land based organisms as well as valuable real estate from storm and flood damage. Salt marsh grasses, mangroves and other estuarine plants also help prevent erosion and stabilise the shoreline.

Estuaries provide people with many opportunities for recreation including boating, fishing, swimming, diving, windsurfing and bird watching.

Historically, estuaries have developed as urban centres because of their location on historical transport and shipping routes.

Estuaries are often the cultural centres of coastal communities and serve as the focal point for local commerce, tourism and recreation activities. Many also have special significance for local indigenous people.

As transition zones between land and water, estuaries are invaluable laboratories for scientists and students studying the complexity of biology, geology, chemistry, physics, history and social issues.

These unique coastal environments also provide aesthetic enjoyment and the proven health benefits of green space for the people who live, work or visit estuaries for the many recreational activities.

Tourism, fisheries, and other commercial activities thrive on the wealth of natural resources estuaries supply. In New South Wales, commercial fishing around estuaries is worth over $80 million per year, with recreational fishing estimated to be worth $500 million per year. The building industry sources sand and gravel from estuary areas worth over $100 million per year.

The protected coastal waters of estuaries also support important public infrastructure, serving as harbours and ports vital for shipping, transportation and industry.