15 CFR Appendix II to Part 921 - Typology of National Estuarine Research Reserves

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Appendix II to Part 921 - Typology of National Estuarine Research Reserves

This typology system reflects significant differences in estuarine characteristics that are not necessarily related to regional location. The purpose of this type of classification is to maximize ecosystem variety in the selection of national estuarine reserves. Priority will be given to important ecosystem types as yet unrepresented in the reserve system. It should be noted that any one site may represent several ecosystem types or physical characteristics.

Class I - Ecosystem Types
Group I - Shorelands

A. Maritime Forest-Woodland. That have developed under the influence of salt spray. It can be found on coastal uplands or recent features such as barrier islands and beaches, and may be divided into the following biomes:

1. Northern coniferous forest biome: This is an area of predominantly evergreens such as the sitka spruce (Picea), grand fir (Abies), and white cedar (Thuja), with poor development of the shrub and herb leyera, but high annual productivity and pronounced seasonal periodicity.

2. Moist temperate (Mesothermal) coniferous forest biome: Found along the west coast of North America from California to Alaska, this area is dominated by conifers, has relatively small seasonal range, high humidity with rainfall ranging from 30 to 150 inches, and a well-developed understory of vegetation with an abundance of mosses and other moisture-tolerant plants.

3. Temperate deciduous forest biome: This biome is characterized by abundant, evenly distributed rainfall, moderate temperatures which exhibit a distinct seasonal pattern, well-developed soil biota and herb and shrub layers, and numerous plants which produce pulpy fruits and nuts. A distinct subdivision of this biome is the pine edible forest of the southeastern coastal plain, in which only a small portion of the area is occupied by climax vegetation, although it has large areas covered by edaphic climax pines.

4. Broad-leaved evergreen subtropical forest biome: The main characteristic of this biome is high moisture with less pronounced differences between winter and summer. Examples are the hammocks of Florida and the live oak forests of the Gulf and South Atlantic coasts. Floral dominants include pines, magnolias, bays, hollies, wild tamarine, strangler fig, gumbo limbo, and palms.

B. Coast shrublands. This is a transitional area between the coastal grasslands and woodlands and is characterized by woody species with multiple stems and a few centimeters to several meters above the ground developing under the influence of salt spray and occasional sand burial. This includes thickets, scrub, scrub savanna, heathlands, and coastal chaparral. There is a great variety of shrubland vegetation exhibiting regional specificity:

1. Northern areas: Characterized by Hudsonia, various erinaceous species, and thickets of Myricu, prunus, and Rosa.

2. Southeast areas: Floral dominants include Myrica, Baccharis, and Iles.

3. Western areas: Adenostoma, arcotyphylos, and eucalyptus are the dominant floral species.

C. Coastal grasslands. This area, which possesses sand dunes and coastal flats, has low rainfall (10 to 30 inches per year) and large amounts of humus in the soil. Ecological succession is slow, resulting in the presence of a number of seral stages of community development. Dominant vegetation includes mid-grasses (5 to 8 feet tall), such as Spartina, and trees such as willow (Salix sp.), cherry (Prunus sp.), and cottonwood (Pupulus deltoides.) This area is divided into four regions with the following typical strand vegetation:

1. Arctic/Boreal: Elymus;

2. Northeast/West: Ammophla;

3. Southeast Gulf: Uniola; and

4. Mid-Atlantic/Gulf: Spartina patens.

D. Coastal tundra. This ecosystem, which is found along the Arctic and Boreal coasts of North America, is characterized by low temperatures, a short growing season, and some permafrost, producing a low, treeless mat community made up of mosses, lichens, heath, shrubs, grasses, sedges, rushes, and herbaceous and dwarf woody plants. Common species include arctic/alpine plants such as Empetrum nigrum and Betula nana, the lichens Cetraria and Cladonia, and herbaceous plants such as Potentilla tridentata and Rubus chamaemorus. Common species on the coastal beach ridges of the high arctic desert include Bryas intergrifolia and Saxifrage oppositifolia. This area can be divided into two main subdivisions:

1. Low tundra: Characterized by a thick, spongy mat of living and undecayed vegetation, often with water and dotted with ponds when not frozen; and

2. High Tundra: A bare area except for a scanty growth of lichens and grasses, with underlaying ice wedges forming raised polygonal areas.

E. Coastal cliffs. This ecosystem is an important nesting site for many sea and shore birds. It consists of communities of herbaceous, graminoid, or low woody plants (shrubs, heath, etc.) on the top or along rocky faces exposed to salt spray. There is a diversity of plant species including mosses, lichens, liverworts, and “higher” plant representatives.

Group II - Transition Areas

A. Coastal marshes. These are wetland areas dominated by grasses (Poacea), sedges (Cyperaceae), rushes (Juncaceae), cattails (Typhaceae), and other graminoid species and is subject to periodic flooding by either salt or freshwater. This ecosystem may be subdivided into: (a) Tidal, which is periodically flooded by either salt or brackish water; (b) nontidal (freshwater); or (c) tidal freshwater. These are essential habitats for many important estuarine species of fish and invertebrates as well as shorebirds and waterfowl and serve important roles in shore stabilization, flood control, water purification, and nutrient transport and storage.

B. Coastal swamps. These are wet lowland areas that support mosses and shrubs together with large trees such as cypress or gum.

C. Coastal mangroves. This ecosystem experiences regular flooding on either a daily, monthly, or seasonal basis, has low wave action, and is dominated by a variety of salt-tolerant trees, such as the red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle), black mangrove (Avicennia Nitida), and the white mangrove (Laguncularia racemosa.) It is also an important habitat for large populations of fish, invertebrates, and birds. This type of ecosystem can be found from central Florida to extreme south Texas to the islands of the Western Pacific.

D. Intertidal beaches. This ecosystem has a distinct biota of microscopic animals, bacteria, and unicellular algae along with macroscopic crustaceans, mollusks, and worms with a detritus-based nutrient cycle. This area also includes the driftline communities found at high tide levels on the beach. The dominant organisms in this ecosystem include crustaceans such as the mole crab (Emerita), amphipods (Gammeridae), ghost crabs (Ocypode), and bivalve mollusks such as the coquina (Donax) and surf clams (Spisula and Mactra.)

E. Intertidal mud and sand flats. These areas are composed of unconsolidated, high organic content sediments that function as a short-term storage area for nutrients and organic carbons. Macrophytes are nearly absent in this ecosystem, although it may be heavily colonized by benthic diatoms, dinoflaggellates, filamintous blue-green and green algae, and chaemosynthetic purple sulfur bacteria. This system may support a considerable population of gastropods, bivalves, and polychaetes, and may serve as a feeding area for a variety of fish and wading birds. In sand, the dominant fauna include the wedge shell Donax, the scallop Pecten, tellin shells Tellina, the heart urchin Echinocardium, the lug worm Arenicola, sand dollar Dendraster, and the sea pansy Renilla. In mud, faunal dominants adapted to low oxygen levels include the terebellid Amphitrite, the boring clam Playdon, the deep sea scallop Placopecten, the Quahog Mercenaria, the echiurid worm Urechis, the mud snail Nassarius, and the sea cucumber Thyone.

F. Intertidal algal beds. These are hard substrates along the marine edge that are dominated by macroscopic algae, usually thalloid, but also filamentous or unicellular in growth form. This also includes the rocky coast tidepools that fall within the intertidal zone. Dominant fauna of these areas are barnacles, mussels, periwinkles, anemones, and chitons. Three regions are apparent:

1. Northern latitude rocky shores: It is in this region that the community structure is best developed. The dominant algal species include Chondrus at the low tide level, Fucus and Ascophylium at the mid-tidal level, and Laminaria and other kelplike algae just beyond the intertidal, although they can be exposed at extremely low tides or found in very deep tidepools.

2. Southern latitudes: The communities in this region are reduced in comparison to those of the northern latitudes and possesses algae consisting mostly of single-celled or filamentour green, blue-green, and red algae, and small thalloid brown algae.

3. Tropical and subtropical latitudes: The intertidal in this region is very reduced and contains numerous calcareous algae such as Porolithon and Lithothamnion, as well and green algae with calcareous particles such as Halimeda, and numerous other green, red, and brown algae.

Group III - Submerged Bottoms

A. Subtidal hardbottoms. This system is characterized by a consolidated layer of solid rock or large pieces of rock (neither of biotic origin) and is found in association with geomorphological features such as submarine canyons and fjords and is usually covered with assemblages of sponges, sea fans, bivalves, hard corals, tunicates, and other attached organisms. A significant feature of estuaries in many parts of the world is the oyster reef, a type of subtidal hardbottom. Composed of assemblages of organisms (usually bivalves), it is usually found near an estuary's mouth in a zone of moderate wave action, salt content, and turbidity. If light levels are sufficient, a covering of microscopic and attached macroscopic algae, such as keep, may also be found.

B. Subtidal softbottoms. Major characteristics of this ecosystem are an unconsolidated layer of fine particles of silt, sand, clay, and gravel, high hydrogen sulfide levels, and anaerobic conditions often existing below the surface. Macrophytes are either sparse or absent, although a layer of benthic microalgae may be present if light levels are sufficient. The faunal community is dominated by a diverse population of deposit feeders including polychaetes, bivalves, and burrowing crustaceans.

C. Subtidal plants. This system is found in relatively shallow water (less than 8 to 10 meters) below mean low tide. It is an area of extremely high primary production that provides food and refuge for a diversity of faunal groups, especially juvenile and adult fish, and in some regions, manatees and sea turtles. Along the North Atlantic and Pacific coasts, the seagrass Zostera marina predominates. In the South Atlantic and Gulf coast areas, Thalassia and Diplanthera predominate. The grasses in both areas support a number of epiphytic organisms.

Class II - Physical Characteristics
Group I - Geologic

A. Basin type. Coastal water basins occur in a variety of shapes, sizes, depths, and appearances. The eight basic types discussed below will cover most of the cases:

1. Exposed coast: Solid rock formations or heavy sand deposits characterize exposed ocean shore fronts, which are subject to the full force of ocean storms. The sand beaches are very resilient, although the dunes lying just behind the beaches are fragile and easily damaged. The dunes serve as a sand storage area making them chief stabilizers of the ocean shorefront.

2. Sheltered coast: Sand or coral barriers, built up by natural forces, provide sheltered areas inside a bar or reef where the ecosystem takes on many characteristics of confined waters-abundant marine grasses, shellfish, and juvenile fish. Water movement is reduced, with the consequent effects pollution being more severe in this area than in exposed coastal areas.

3. Bay: Bays are larger confined bodies of water that are open to the sea and receive strong tidal flow. When stratification is pronounced the flushing action is augmented by river discharge. Bays vary in size and in type of shorefront.

4. Embayment: A confined coastal water body with narrow, restricted inlets and with a significant freshwater inflow can be classified as an embayment. These areas have more restricted inlets than bays, are usually smaller and shallower, have low tidal action, and are subject to sedimentation.

5. Tidal river: The lower reach of a coastal river is referred to as a tidal river. The coastal water segment extends from the sea or estuary into which the river discharges to a point as far upstream as there is significant salt content in the water, forming a salt front. A combination of tidal action and freshwater outflow makes tidal rivers well-flushed. The tidal river basin may be a simple channel or a complex of tributaries, small associated embayments, marshfronts, tidal flats, and a variety of others.

6. Lagoon: Lagoons are confined coastal bodies of water with restricted inlets to the sea and without significant freshwater inflow. Water circulation is limited, resulting in a poorly flushed, relatively stagnant body of water. Sedimentation is rapid with a great potential for basin shoaling. Shores are often gently sloping and marshy.

7. Perched coastal wetlands: Unique to Pacific islands, this wetland type found above sea level in volcanic crater remnants forms as a result of poor drainage characteristics of the crater rather than from sedimentation. Floral assemblages exhibit distinct zonation while the faunal constituents may include freshwater, brackish, and/or marine species. Example: Aunu's Island, American Samoa.

8. Anchialine systems: These small coastal exposures of brackish water form in lava depressions or elevated fossil reefs have only a subsurface connection in the ocean, but show tidal fluctuations. Differing from true estuaries in having no surface continuity with streams or ocean, this system is characterized by a distinct biotic community dominated by benthis algae such as Rhizoclonium, the mineral encrusting Schiuzothrix, and the vascular plant Ruppia maritima. Characteristic fauna which exhibit a high degree of endemicity, include the mollusks Theosoxus neglectus and Tcariosus. Although found throughout the world, the high islands of the Pacific are the only areas within the U.S. where this system can be found.

B. Basin structure. Estuary basins may result from the drowning of a river valley (coastal plains estuary), the drowning of a glacial valley (fjord), the occurrence of an offshore barrier (bar-bounded estuary), some tectonic process (tectonic estuary), or volcanic activity (volcanic estuary).

1. Coastal plains estuary: Where a drowned valley consists mainly of a single channel, the form of the basin is fairly regular forming a simple coastal plains estuary. When a channel is flooded with numerous tributaries an irregular estuary results. Many estuaries of the eastern United States are of this type.

2. Fjord: Estuaries that form in elongated steep headlands that alternate with deep U-shaped valleys resulting from glacial scouring are called fjords. They generally possess rocky floors or very thin veneers of sediment, with deposition generally being restricted to the head where the main river enters. Compared to total fjord volume river discharge is small. But many fjords have restricted tidal ranges at their mouths due to sills, or upreaching sections of the bottom which limit free movement of water, often making river flow large with respect to the tidal prism. The deepest portions are in the upstream reaches, where maximum depths can range from 800m to 1200m while sill depths usually range from 40m to 150m.

3. Bar-bounded estuary: These result from the development of an offshore barrier such as a beach strand, a line of barrier islands, reef formations a line of moraine debris, or the subsiding remnants of a deltaic lobe. The basin is often partially exposed at low tide and is enclosed by a chain of offshore bars of barrier islands broken at intervals by inlets. These bars may be either deposited offshore or may be coastal dunes that have become isolated by recent seal level rises.

4. Tectonic estuary: These are coastal indentures that have formed through tectonic processes such as slippage along a fault line (San Francisco Bay), folding or movement of the earth's bedrock often with a large inflow of freshwater.

5. Volcanic estuary: These coastal bodies of open water, a result of volcanic processes are depressions or craters that have direct and/or subsurface connections with the ocean and may or may not have surface continuity with streams. These formations are unique to island areas of volcanic orgin.

C. Inlet type. Inlets in various forms are an integral part of the estuarine environment as they regulate to a certain extent, the velocity and magnitude of tidal exchange, the degree of mixing, and volume of discharge to the sea.

1. Unrestricted: An estuary with a wide unrestricted inlet typically has slow currents, no significant turbulence, and receives the full effect of ocean waves and local disturbances which serve to modify the shoreline. These estuaries are partially mixed, as the open mouth permits the incursion of marine waters to considerable distances upstream, depending on the tidal amplitude and stream gradient.

2. Restricted: Restrictions of estuaries can exist in many forms: Bars, barrier islands, spits, sills, and more. Restricted inlets result in decreased circulation, more pronounced longitudinal and vertical salinity gradients, and more rapid sedimentation. However, if the estuary mouth is restricted by depositional features or land closures, the incoming tide may be held back until it suddenly breaks forth into the basin as a tidal wave, or bore. Such currents exert profound effects on the nature of the subtrate, turbidity, and biota of the estuary.

3. Permanent: Permanent inlets are usually opposite the mouths of major rivers and permit river water to flow into the sea.

4. Temporary (Intermittent): Temporary inlets are formed by storms and frequently shift position, depending on tidal flow, the depth of the sea, and sound waters, the frequency of storms, and the amount of littoral transport.

D. Bottom composition. The bottom composition of estuaries attests to the vigorous, rapid, and complex sedimentation processes characteristic of most coastal regions with low relief. Sediments are derived through the hydrologic processes of erosion, transport, and deposition carried on by the sea and the stream.

1. Sand: Near estuary mouths, where the predominating forces of the sea build spits or other depositional features, the shore and substrates of the estuary are sandy. The bottom sediments in this area are usually coarse, with a graduation toward finer particles in the head region and other zones of reduced flow, fine silty sands are deposited. Sand deposition occurs only in wider or deeper regions where velocity is reduced.

2. Mud: At the base level of a stream near its mouth, the bottom is typically composed of loose muds, silts, and organic detritus as a result of erosion and transport from the upper stream reaches and organic decomposition. Just inside the estuary entrance, the bottom contains considerable quantities of sand and mud, which support a rich fauna. Mud flats, commonly built up in estuarine basins, are composed of loose, coarse, and fine mud and sand, often dividing the original channel.

3. Rock: Rocks usually occur in areas where the stream runs rapidly over a steep gradient with its coarse materials being derived from the higher elevations where the stream slope is greater. The larger fragments are usually found in shallow areas near the stream mouth.

4. Oyster shell: Throughout a major portion of the world, the oyster reef is one of the most significant features of estuaries, usually being found near the mouth of the estuary in a zone of moderate wave action, salt content, and turbidity. It is often a major factor in modifying estuarine current systems and sedimentation, and may occur as an elongated island or peninsula oriented across the main current, or may develop parallel to the direction of the current.

Group II - Hydrographic

A. Circulation. Circulation patterns are the result of combined influences of freshwater inflow, tidal action, wind and oceanic forces, and serve many functions: Nutrient transport, plankton dispersal, ecosystem flushing, salinity control, water mixing, and more.

1. Stratified: This is typical of estuaries with a strong freshwater influx and is commonly found in bays formed from “drowned” river valleys, fjords, and other deep basins. There is a net movement of freshwater outward at the top layer and saltwater at the bottom layer, resulting in a net outward transport of surface organisms and net inward transport of bottom organisms.

2. Non-stratified: Estuaries of this type are found where water movement is sluggish and flushing rate is low, although there may be sufficient circulation to provide the basis for a high carrying capacity. This is common to shallow embayments and bays lacking a good supply of freshwater from land drainage.

3. Lagoonal: An estuary of this type is characterized by low rates of water movement resulting from a lack of significant freshwater influx and a lack of strong tidal exchange because of the typically narrow inlet connecting the lagoon to the sea. Circulation whose major driving force is wind, is the major limiting factor in biological productivity within lagoons.

B. Tides. This is the most important ecological factor in an estuary as it affects water exchange and its vertical range determines the extent of tidal flats which may be exposed and submerged with each tidal cycle. Tidal action against the volume of river water discharged into an estuary results in a complex system whose properties vary according to estuary structure as well as the magnitude of river flow and tidal range. Tides are usually described in terms of the cycle and their relative heights. In the United States, tide height is reckoned on the basis of average low tide, which is referred to as datum. The tides, although complex, fall into three main categories:

1. Diurnal: This refers to a daily change in water level that can be observed along the shoreline. There is one high tide and one low tide per day.

2. Semidiurnal: This refers to a twice daily rise and fall in water that can be observed along the shoreline.

3. Wind/Storm tides: This refers to fluctuations in water elevation to wind and storm events, where influence of lunar tides is less.

C. Freshwater. According to nearly all the definitions advanced, it is inherent that all estuaries need freshwater, which is drained from the land and measurably dilutes seawater to create a brackish condition. Freshwater enters an estuary as runoff from the land either from a surface and/or subsurface source.

1. Surface water: This is water flowing over the ground in the form of streams. Local variation in runoff is dependent upon the nature of the soil (porosity and solubility), degree of surface slope, vegetational type and development, local climatic conditions, and volume and intensity of precipitation.

2. Subsurface water: This refers to the precipitation that has been absorbed by the soil and stored below the surface. The distribution of subsurface water depends on local climate, topography, and the porosity and permeability of the underlying soils and rocks. There are two main subtypes of surface water:

a. Vadose water: This is water in the soil above the water table. Its volume with respect to the soil is subject to considerable fluctuation.

b. Groundwater: This is water contained in the rocks below the water table, is usually of more uniform volume than vadose water, and generally follows the topographic relief of the land being high hills and sloping into valleys.

Group III - Chemical

A. Salinity. This reflects a complex mixture of salts, the most abundant being sodium chloride, and is a very critical factor in the distribution and maintenance of many estuarine organisms. Based on salinity, there are two basic estuarine types and eight different salinity zones (expressed in parts per thousand-ppt.)

1. Positive estuary: This is an estuary in which the freshwater influx is sufficient to maintain mixing, resulting in a pattern of increasing salinity toward the estuary mouth. It is characterized by low oxygen concentration in the deeper waters and considerable organic content in bottom sediments.

2. Negative estuary: This is found in particularly arid regions, where estuary evaporation may exceed freshwater inflow, resulting in increased salinity in the upper part of the basin, especially if the estuary mouth is restricted so that tidal flow is inhibited. These are typically very salty (hyperhaline), moderately oxygenated at depth, and possess bottom sediments that are poor in organic content.

3. Salinity zones (expressed in ppt):

a. Hyperhaline - greater than 40 ppt.

b. Euhaline - 40 ppt to 30 ppt.

c. Mixhaline - 30 ppt to 0.5 ppt.

(1) Mixoeuhaline - greater than 30 ppt but less than the adjacent euhaline sea.

(2) Polyhaline - 30 ppt to 18 ppt.

(3) Mesohaline - 18 ppt to 5 ppt.

(4) Oligohaline - 5 ppt to 0.5 ppt.

d. Limnetic: Less than 0.5 ppt.

B. pH Regime: This is indicative of the mineral richness of estuarine waters and falls into three main categories:

1. Acid: Waters with a pH of less than 5.5.

2. Circumneutral: A condition where the pH ranges from 5.5 to 7.4.

3. Alkaline: Waters with a pH greater than 7.4.