The National Park Service (NPS) manages 88 ocean and Great Lakes parks across 23 states and four territories. The parks conserve over 11,000 miles of coastline and 2.5 million acres of ocean and Great Lakes waters, including coral reefs, kelp forests, tidewater glaciers, estuaries, beaches, wetlands, historic forts, and shipwrecks.
Ocean and coastal parks constitute a system of tremendous biological, cultural, historic, and recreational value to the nation, attracting over 90 million recreation visits each year and generating over $6.9 billion in economic benefits to local communities. Ocean and coastal parks occur from the tropics to the arctic, on continents and islands, in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, as well as the Great Lakes. Ocean and coastal park management requires specialized experience with shoreline, island, marine, and Great Lakes environments. The NPS has adopted national and regional strategies to address ocean and coastal issues in partnership with state and federal agencies, academic institutions, and local organizations.
The Ocean and Coastal Resources Program works to advance ocean and Great Lakes stewardship in the National Park System through technical assistance to parks, scientific support focused on coastal issues, coordinating policy issues nationally, and leveraging support with partners.
Aquatic Invasive Species
Aquatic invasive species (AIS) are species that are not native to an ecosystem and whose introduction causes or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health. AIS represent one of the greatest threats to marine and freshwater ecosystems that are managed by the National Park Service (NPS).
A 2011 assessment based on the USGS Nonindigenous Aquatic Species (NAS) Database found records of 361 aquatic nonnative and invasive species in or near 129 NPS Units. Because reporting to NAS is voluntary and the data are not based on a comprehensive survey of NPS waters the true magnitude of the problem is probably greater. Additionally, a query of the GPRA (Government Performance and Results Act) 2019 database found 598 records of aquatic nonnative and invasive non-plant species in or near 124 park units.
Benthic Habitat Mapping
Documenting and describing underwater habitats with geospatial information is a critical need for determining change through time, quantifying habitat for aquatic species, and managing visitor use. The program has partnered with various agencies and universities to map submerged habitat in several parks and also provides technical guidance about efficiently mapping submerged park habitats.
Sea Level Change
Sea-level monitoring stations are being used to monitor changes and evaluate long-term risks to park resources from constantly changing sea levels. Informational tools are being developed to enable park managers to evaluate potential costs, benefits, and feasibility of sea-level adaptation options, including where to rebuild or relocate infrastructure or adopt mobile facilities.
NPS waters provide habitat for diverse fish species, more than half of which are found in marine and coastal waters. Fishing is allowed in most parks with waters that support sport and game fish, and is required by statute in some ocean and coastal parks. The NPS generally manages fishing in cooperation with state partners and state fishing regulations that do not conflict with NPS general regulations.
Many fish and shellfish species populations extend well beyond NPS boundaries, so effective management and conservation require cooperation with a wide range of state and federal partners. Some species are affected by commercial fishing that is regulated by agencies and organizations that do not consult with NPS or consider impacts on NPS resources. NPS strives to manage fishing in a manner that conserves abundant native fish and maintains their role in healthy aquatic ecosystems.
Harmful Algal Blooms
Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) are abundant algal growth that cause adverse impacts to both marine and freshwater environments, such as toxin production, oxygen depletion (e.g., “dead zones”), aesthetic issues, and taste and odor concerns. Such blooms can cause disease or death in fish, wildlife, and pets, and also present a risk to human health. Due to the impact HABs can have on our National Parks, the Ocean and Coastal Resources Branch has established HABs as one of seven priority areas to focus on.
Although many factors (including a range of physical, chemical, biological, hydrological, and meteorological conditions) are thought to influence HAB formation, anthropogenic nutrient inputs and climate change are frequently key factors. Nearly all coastal areas of the United States are affected by HABs, presenting a challenge for National Park Service (NPS) managers who wish to safeguard the health of aquatic resources and to “...preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.”
Coastal and marine ecosystems in parks, which support species diversity and services such as recreational use, fisheries, flood retention, storm protection, and runoff filtration, have been lost, fragmented and degraded due to development, watershed alteration, water withdrawal and pollution, and physical damage from visitor use and boat groundings.
Injuries are exacerbated by sea level rise, intensification of storms, and other climate change impacts. All of these issues lead to degraded resources within parks. Protection and restoration of coastal and marine ecosystems are urgently needed.
Sea Level Rise
Global sea level is rising at an accelerated rate, mainly in response to a changing climate. The two major causes of global sea level rise are thermal expansion caused by warming of the ocean (since water expands as it warms) and increased melting of land-based ice, such as glaciers and ice sheets. As land-based ice sheets and glaciers melt, they add more water to the oceans.
Ninety-two percent of U.S. coastal national parks are affected by sea level rise or will be in the future. Infrastructure, cultural sites, and natural resources are vulnerable to storm damage and periodic high-tide flooding, which will be exacerbated as sea levels increase and as storms grow larger and more intense.
Parks need the best available sea level rise and storm surge projections for park planning. The NPS seeks to respond to shoreline erosion and coastal flooding in ways that avoid or mitigate impacts to natural, recreational, and cultural resources.
Shoreline and Sediment Management
NPS manages more than 11,000 miles of coastline across 88 ocean and Great Lakes parks. Many of these parks are experiencing shoreline and sediment issues that are complicated and challenging to address. These issues range from shoreline erosion and migration to sediment deposition and overwash to coastal flooding from storm surges, natural processes exacerbated from the impacts of climate change, namely sea-level rise and increased storm frequency and intensity. In addition to natural resources and habitats, changes to shorelines and sediment dynamics are concerning for park cultural and historic resources, essential facilities and infrastructure, and public access.
Management action is often necessary to reduce, mitigate, or avoid adverse impacts, however, there is often uncertainty regarding the specific actions that should be taken and their effectiveness. A broad range of actions are commonly considered across parks, including grey infrastructure (e.g. seawalls, groins), green infrastructure (e.g. beach nourishment, dune building and revegetation, living shorelines), restoration (e.g wetlands, salt marsh), and dredging.
The Sediment and Shoreline Management Priority Project will open dialogs and provide resources to parks critical for guiding appropriate sediment and shoreline management actions on a park-by-park basis for areas within and adjacent to park boundaries.
Last updated: April 13, 2021