The Indian River Lagoon: An Estuary of National Significance

The Indian River Lagoon is a 156-mile long estuary on the east coast of Florida. It is made up of three different lagoons; the Mosquito Lagoon, the Banana River, and the Indian River. Featuring 2,100 different species of plants and 2,200 different species of animals, the lagoon is the most biologically diverse estuary in North America. The Indian River Lagoon became an estuary of national significance in 1990 giving it protection through the National Estuary Program. But what is an estuary, why are they in need of protection, and what is the National Estuary Program?


An estuary is a coastal body of water that serves as the transition from land to sea. It is where the freshwater of rivers and streams mix with the salt water of the ocean. This partially enclosed body of water is protected by forms of land such as barrier islands and peninsulas from the force of the ocean’s waves, wind, and storms. These waters are capable of supporting unique communities of plants and animals which is what allows the Indian River Lagoon to feature such a wide variety of species.

The Importance of Estuaries

Estuaries hold significant roles in many areas being beneficial in multiple ways. There are thousands of species of birds, mammals, fish, and other animals that live, feed, and reproduce in these environments. Due to their biological productivity, they also provide areas for migratory birds to rest during their long journey. For those animals that spawn in an estuary, it provides protection which has led to estuaries being called the “nurseries of the sea.”

Estuaries offer a tremendous economic value to the areas in which they exist through tourism, fisheries, and offering recreational activities. For shipping and transportation purposes, they serve as harbors and ports. In 2007, it was reported that coastal watershed counties provided 69 million jobs and provided $7.9 trillion to the gross domestic product.

These bodies of water serve an environmental purpose of filtering out the sediments and pollutants that travel down from uplands and into wetlands such as swamps and salt marshes. This helps to create cleaner and clearer water for marine animals. Plants that reside in estuaries, such as salt marsh grasses, help by preventing the erosion and stabilization of shorelines.

Estuaries provide protection as they serve as a natural buffer between land and ocean. As flood waters or storm surges head toward land, they are weakened and often dissipate as a result of running into estuaries. They became valuable for real estate as buildings are protected from storm and flood damage.

The Threatening of Estuaries

There is currently a significant increase in the population of coastal communities as they are growing three times faster than inland communities. This increase in people results in the unbalancing of estuarine ecosystems, threatens the integrity of the estuary, and puts increased pressure on certain natural resources such as estuaries.

When rainstorms flush water away, they often carry the pollutants into estuaries. This results in estuaries being filled with fertilizers or pet waste from lawns, untreated sewage from failing septic tanks, wastewater discharges from industrial facilities, sediments from construction sites, and runoff from impervious surfaces like parking lots.

National Estuary Program

Due to the different factors that negatively affect national estuaries, Congress formed the National Estuary Program (NEP) in 1987 which focused on protecting and restoring the water quality of estuaries. Run by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the National Estuary Program singles out estuaries that they consider of national significance to protect from the problems that estuaries suffer from.

There are currently 28 estuaries of national significance that exist along the Atlantic coast, the Gulf coast, the Pacific coast, and in Puerto Rico. When an estuary becomes one of national significance by joining the National Estuary Program, a Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan (CCMP) is developed and implemented. These include long-term plans for action to address the issues of the water quality and any other challenges presented to the estuary. The issues and plan is defined by local, city, state, federal, private, and non-profit stakeholders.

Boating along the Indian River Lagoon allows you to explore an estuary of national significance. This means that the estuary, the most biologically diverse estuary in North America, has a significant impact on the area. If you want to explore this important body of water along Florida’s east coast, join 321 Boat Club.