Protecting Oregon’s Eelgrass and Estuaries

Oregon’s coastline is blessed with 22 major estuaries from the mighty Columbia River Estuary that separates Washington and Oregon to the small Winchuck River Estuary near the California border.  Where Oregon’s forests and rivers meet the ocean, estuaries are the engines that power salmon, water birds, Dungeness crab, oysters, forage fish, cultural resources and jobs for many walks of life in coastal communities. Estuaries are also key to the calculus of climate change in the region: protecting estuaries helps store greenhouse gases, mitigate ocean acidification, and safeguard coastal communities from increased storms and floods.

A photo of a flock of Pacific Black Brants entering the water.

Eelgrass – a marine flowering plant found in bays and estuaries – has particularly high value given the co-benefits this habitat provide for wildlife, people, and the climate. Yet, eelgrass and other seagrasses are disappearing because of pollution, dredging, development, sea level rise and other impacts.

Oregonians have a new opportunity to help protect eelgrass and the estuaries that are so important for marine life and our economy. The State of Oregon has embarked on an effort to update its estuary management plans originally written in the 1980s. By engaging in this process, you can have a role to assure healthy estuaries for future generations of Oregonians.

Yaquina Bay viewed from Paddle Park, Lincoln County, Oregon. Photo by Bobby Hayden

Eelgrass Importance and Threats

Eelgrass and other seagrasses found in estuaries, bays, and other shallow nearshore areas, provide many important ecological functions and ecosystem services including:

  • Coastline protection:  buffer against coastal storms by absorbing wave action preventing sediments from washing away.
  • Improve water quality: acts as a water filter and purifier by absorbing pollutants and reducing the frequency of harmful algal blooms.
  • Fish Nursery:  provide breeding grounds for many fish and invertebrate species including commercially important species like salmon, rockfish, Dungeness crab, and Pacific herring. This habitat is so important for fisheries that NOAA declared it as Essential Fish Habitat in 1996.
  • Buffer against climate change: Eelgrass absorbs and stores carbon acting as a “carbon sink”. Research also indicates eelgrass’s carbon sequestration can moderate the impact of ocean acidification that inhibits some marine life, like oysters and crabs, to form shells. 
  • Help birds: migratory birds, like the Pacific Black Brant, feed on eelgrass. Estuaries, in general, are important as migratory stopover areas for many bird species providing critical places for bird to rest and build up energy reserves. In fact Portland Audubon identified 15 Oregon estuaries and bays as Important Bird Areas (IBAs) which are focal areas of conservation importance for bird species. These sites support thousands of migratory shorebird, waterbird, and waterfowl species including species of concern like the Red Knot, Dunlin, and Black-bellied Plover.  

Oregon has lost an estimated 24% of estuary habitat since the 1870s. This loss has slowed since the 1970s but eelgrass in Oregon is still threatened and disappearing. Dredging harbors can destroy or degrade eelgrass beds. Pollution, particularly from toxic runoff can add excess nutrients into the system causing harmful algal growth. Logging releases sediment into estuaries reducing water quality damaging eelgrass, introduction of invasive non-native plants can outcompete eelgrass, sea level rise and other impacts related to a warming climate negatively impact eelgrass.

Oregon Estuary Management Plan Update

The State of Oregon has embarked on an effort to update its estuary management plans originally written in the 1980s. These original plans tend to emphasize development and minimize ecological concerns, do not address climate change issues, came before species like Coho salmon were even listed as endangered, do not embrace habitat restoration as a tool, did not involve coastal Tribes nor address legacy impacts to the estuary including disturbance of cultural resources, and need to incorporate state and federal policies and programs have emerged since plan adoption so they are in much need of updating. The Yaquina Bay Estuary Management Plan process is just getting underway and, when completed, will be looked at as a blueprint for subsequent estuary plans in Oregon. Ultimately, we would like to see Oregon update all estuary plans to provide the strongest habitat protections possible to ensure a vibrant economy. We also encourage a policy that provides stronger eelgrass protection like the California Eelgrass Mitigation Policy which provides a framework for coordination between federal and state agencies to ensure no net loss of eelgrass.

A map showing all the Important Bird Areas along the coast.

How you can help

  • Learn about the issue and review resources (see resources below)
  • Stay tuned for opportunities for public comment on the Yaquina Estuary Management Plan update and subsequent processes.
  • Attend an upcoming meeting or presentation on the process