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Quantifying Recreational Use of an Estuary: A Case Study of Three Bays, Cape Cod, USA


Estimates of the types and number of recreational users visiting an estuary are critical data for quantifying the value of recreation and how that value might change with variations in water quality or other management decisions. However, estimates of recreational use are minimal and conventional intercept survey methods are often infeasible for widespread application to estuaries. Therefore, a practical observational sampling approach was developed to quantify the recreational use of an estuary without the use of surveys. Designed to be simple and fast to allow for replication, the methods involved the use of periodic instantaneous car counts multiplied by extrapolation factors derived from all-day counts. This simple sampling approach can be used to estimate visitation to diverse types of access points on an estuary in a single day as well as across multiple days. Evaluation of this method showed that when periodic counts were taken within a preferred time window (from 11 am–4:30 pm), the estimates were within 44% of actual daily visitation. These methods were applied to the Three Bays estuary system on Cape Cod, USA. The estimated combined use across all its public access sites is similar to the use at a mid-sized coastal beach, demonstrating the value of estuarine systems. Further, this study is the first to quantify the variety and magnitude of recreational uses at several different types of access points throughout the estuary using observational methods. This work can be transferred to the many small coastal access points used for recreation across New England and beyond.

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  1. 1.

    The types of access defined in this article are based on the town’s recognized public access points. Boat use includes the town dock and boat ramps, designated by the town of Barnstable. A landing is defined as foot access to the water for small boats and launching of canoes or kayaks. “Ways to water” is the term used to define any other points of public access.

  2. 2.

    Zoning maps might be different when counting cars and recreational users because some access points had parking spaces farther away from the site or we found that people would park their car but not use the public access point for recreation. These zones allowed us to differentiate between recreational users and non-recreational users.

  3. 3.

    Similarly, we could have translated the total visits from car to people terms using a fixed ratio found from our observations. However, by estimating an extrapolation factor for each hour as we do above, it allows for differences in the car to people ratio by hour.

  4. 4.

    As noted in the methods section, the all-day counts are adjusted to represent the day from sunrise to sunset based on the visitation across time.

  5. 5.

    This difference is mainly because we did not count people who parked at the access point, but did not get out of their car (possibly because it was a rainy day).


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Special thanks to Zenas Crocker and the Barnstable Clean Water Coalition, Suzanne Ayvazian, Walter Berry, Marnita Chintala, Ryan Furey, Mo Howard, Tim Gleason, David Martin, Justin Michelson, Emily Santos, Mary Schoell, Marilyn ten Brink, and Talya ten Brink for their field assistance. We are also grateful to Suzanne Ayvazian, Rick McKinney, Casey Tremper, Marnita Chintala, and Wayne Munns for helpful comments on early versions of the manuscript. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views or policies of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. This contribution is identified by tracking number ORD-027134 of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Research and Development, Center for Environmental Measurement and Modeling, Atlantic Coastal Environmental Sciences Division, 27 Tarzwell Drive, Narragansett, RI 02882, USA. The EPA does not endorse any commercial products, services, or enterprises.

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Correspondence to Nathaniel H. Merrill.

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Communicated by Just Cebrian

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Mulvaney, K.K., Atkinson, S.F., Merrill, N.H. et al. Quantifying Recreational Use of an Estuary: A Case Study of Three Bays, Cape Cod, USA. Estuaries and Coasts 43, 7–22 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12237-019-00645-8

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  • Estuarine recreational use
  • Coastal access
  • Cape Cod
  • Water quality benefits
  • Visitation