Status of Fish Habitats Report Gives “Fish Eye View” of National Waters

The National Fish Habitat Board (www.fishhabitat.org) today released a first-of-its-kind status of fish habitats in the United States report as envisioned in the National Fish Habitat Action Plan, an effort to protect, restore and enhance our nation’s aquatic habitats. The report titled THROUGH A FISH’S EYE: The Status of Fish Habitats In The United States 2010 summarizes the results of an unprecedented, nationwide assessment of the human effects on fish habitat in the rivers and estuaries of the United States.

Through a Fish’s Eye, provides an important picture of the challenges and opportunities facing fish and those engaged in fish habitat conservation efforts. Urbanization, agriculture, dams, culverts, pollution and other human impacts have resulted in specific areas of degraded habitat where restoration is most likely needed to bring back the healthy habitats and fishing opportunities that once existed. Addressing degraded habitat also requires reducing or eliminating the sources of degradation mentioned in this report, through best management practices, land use planning, and engaging landowners, businesses, and local communities in the effort.

The assessment detailed in the report assigns watersheds and estuaries a risk of current habitat degradation ranging from very low to very high. These results allow comparisons of aquatic habitats across the nation and within 14 sub-regions. The results also identify some of the major sources of habitat degradation that plague waterways across the nation.

Overall, 27 percent of the miles of stream in the lower 48 states are at high or very high risk of current habitat degradation and 44 percent are at low or very low risk. Twenty-nine percent of stream miles in the lower 48 states are at moderate risk of current habitat degradation.

Fifty-three percent of estuaries (by area) are at high or very high risk of current habitat degradation, while 23 percent of estuaries are at low or very low risk of current habitat degradation. Marine habitats of the United States tend to be most degraded near the coast, where they are most affected by human activity.

The goal of the national assessment was to estimate disturbance levels to fish habitats in rivers and estuaries from information about human activities occurring in the watersheds and the local areas affecting each aquatic habitat. This approach is supported by a large body of scientific research showing that human disturbances to the land transfer to receiving waters and contribute to disturbance in downstream fish habitats in rivers, estuaries, and the ocean.

While the specific analytical approaches used to assess habitats in the lower-48 states, Alaska, Hawaii and U.S. estuaries differed slightly, the end product of each analysis was similar—an estimate of the risk that discrete habitat units will be degraded due to current human activities on the landscape.

“This report identifies areas where those efforts are most needed and points to areas where fish habitat is most likely still intact and should be protected to maintain its value for fish and other aquatic organisms. Resources for fish habitat conservation are limited, especially for the next few years,” said Kelly Hepler, Chairman of the National Fish Habitat Board.

“Fish Habitat partnerships ensure coordinated work around specific habitat challenges,” said Eric Schwaab, Assistant Administrator for NOAA Fisheries. ”This information will help bring strategic focus to conservation efforts and allow rigorous measurement of results.”

“This report clearly illustrates the need for strategic use of existing resources through partnerships that can identify the most effective use of funds and help the nation as a whole make progress in fish habitat conservation,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Acting Director Rowan Gould. “There are many major threats to the health of fish habitat and the National Fish Habitat Action plan helps to focus and leverage available funds, pool technical expertise, and enlist new partners to address the challenges to fish habitat."

Key findings from the “Through a Fish’s Eye: Status of Fish Habitats” report include:

Habitats with a very high risk of current habitat degradation include those in or near urban development, livestock grazing, agriculture, point source pollution or areas with high numbers of active mines and dams. Specific locations that stand out as regions at high risk of current habitat degradation include: the urban corridor between Boston and Atlanta; the Central Midwestern states of Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio; the Mississippi River Basin, including habitats adjacent to the lower Mississippi River in Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana; habitats in eastern Texas; and habitats in Central California and along the Columbia River in Oregon and Washington.

Areas that stand out as being at very low risk of current habitat degradation include rural areas in New England and the Great Lakes states; many habitats throughout the Mountain, Southwest and Pacific Coast states; and most of Alaska. It should be noted that not all water and land management issues could be addressed in the assessment, so some of the areas mapped as at low risk of current habitat degradation actually may be at higher risk due to disturbance factors not assessed. For example, most arid regions of the western United States were found to be at low risk of current habitat degradation.

Estuaries in the mid-Atlantic have a very high risk of habitat degradation related to polluted run-off and other effects of the intense urbanization and agriculture in this area. The estuaries of southern California also have a high risk of current habitat degradation for similar reasons. Estuaries in the north Pacific and downeast Maine have a low risk of current habitat degradation.

The release of this report is also accompanied with the release of a map viewer, which offers the maps that are in the report in greater detail and state specific fact sheets which can be found here: http://fishhabitat.org/content/status-fish-habitats-report-2010-state-fa.... The National Fish Habitat Action Plan map and data web tool (http://ecosystems.usgs.gov/fishhabitat/) was developed by the U.S. Geological Survey's Biological Informatics Program under guidance of the National Fish Habitat Action Plan Science and Data Committee. This tool not only enables users to see multiple views depicting the condition of stream and coastal habitats across the country, but also means that users can access more detailed information at finer scales, as well as the option to download data files and map services.