Advocating for Eelgrass Protection

by | Coastal Law Project, Native Fish, The Wild, Wildlife

Below the surface of the ocean, a type of seagrass with ribbon-shaped leaves and flowers that bloom every summer works to do everything a rainforest might do, but within a marine habitat. This fascinating and vital type of seagrass is called eelgrass. 

Eelgrass grows in shallow waters globally, and it can be found in estuaries, shallow bays and coves along the Oregon coast. For the past several decades, eelgrass has been largely overlooked by protective marine policies and regulations in the state of Oregon. Now, there is a growing effort to protect it led by coastal advocates, scientists, and concerned community members who see the incredible role eelgrass plays in supporting food systems, mitigating climate change, and protecting biodiversity in coastal communities. 

 Over the last several years, it has become abundantly clear that eelgrass cannot continue to grow and thrive if Oregonians do not work together to protect it. Through our Coastal Law Project partnership with Oregon Shores Conservation Coalition, Crag is working to address the challenge of protecting eelgrass through robust, science-based strategies so that it can continue to be a resource now, and for future generations.

What's at Stake

Eelgrass is a lesser-known, but critically important ocean plant. There is very little that eelgrass does not provide for the water, land, and communities in which it grows. Eelgrass cleans the water by absorbing pollutants, nurtures highly-depended upon species of fish including salmon and Dungeness crab, absorbs climate-warming carbon dioxide, produces oxygen, and protects the coastline from storms and erosion. Oregon coastal communities depend on the fish and other wildlife that eelgrass supports, as well as the healthy bay ecosystems it maintains for tourism and recreation. Eelgrass is also of significant importance and a traditional resource to the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians (CTCLUSI). In other words, eelgrass is essential, and protecting it should be a priority at the local, state and federal level. 

Adding to the urgency of eelgrass protection is the reality that eelgrass is disappearing at an alarming rate. Compounding impacts like pollution, dredging, development, sea-level rise, and climate change are contributing to its loss. Since the 1870s, approximately 30 percent of the world’s seagrass has vanished. Without continued research, explicit protections, and efforts at mitigation and restoration, eelgrass beds will continue to disappear taking with them the invaluable habitat and ecosystem services they currently provide.

The beginnings of an eelgrass effort

In January of 2019, Crag Law Center, working alongside Oregon Shores Conservation Coalition, challenged a development proposal from the international pipeline transport company, Pembina to allow dredging in beautiful Coos Bay in Southern Oregon. Dredging is the act of removing sediment from the bottom of lakes, rivers, and other bodies of water, often to allow for the passage of ships. In this case, the proposal was to dredge areas of Coos Bay to allow for construction of the Jordan Cove liquified natural gas pipeline and export terminal. Crag has pushed back against the Jordan Cove Energy Project for nearly two decades as the project poses a myriad of threats to the bay’s sensitive ecosystems and public uses of the bay, would contribute significantly to Oregon’s carbon footprint, and goes against the wishes of local communities. 

One of the many environmentally disastrous consequences of Pembina’s project is their plan to destroy over four acres of productive eelgrass beds, the equivalent of roughly three football fields. Destroying even four feet of eelgrass can significantly alter an ocean ecosystem since eelgrass is a keystone species, a species that others in the ecosystem depend on. Pembina’s plan was to destroy four acres of established eelgrass beds without conducting any significant research into the potential impacts doing so might have on Coos Bay’s complex ecosystem. 

Crag’s effort to overturn Pembina’s development proposal at the local level was unsuccessful. There was no path forward to directly challenge the dredging proposal over its effects on eelgrass because there are no explicit protections for eelgrass at the state level in Oregon. Currently, Oregon requires mitigation plans for damage to eelgrass, but there is very little research exploring whether or not you can mitigate eelgrass damage. Research on the specific environmental factors needed for eelgrass to regrow is limited, making Pembina’s mitigation plan a tenuous, under-researched proposal at best. 

This gap in protections for a species so fundamental to a healthy ocean ecosystem led Crag lawyers to pursue a new goal: develop a guide to create education and awareness around the importance of eelgrass and provide avenues for people to protect it in their own communities. Working in partnership with the Pew Charitable Trust Foundation and Oregon Shores, Crag attorney Anuradha Sawkar wrote the People’s Primer for Protecting Oregon’s Eelgrass to help coastal community members better understand the key issues surrounding eelgrass protection. The guide also includes ways for people to effectively participate in planning and protection efforts to support evidence-based management of this vital resource on the Oregon coast.


Pathways to eelgrass protection

Unlike other coastal states like California and New York, Oregon and Washington currently do not have any specific eelgrass protection programs or policies in place at the state level. This gap in policy means that eelgrass protection will need to come in multiple forms and at multiple levels of government in order to be effective.

Effective eelgrass protection starts at the local level, including local land use plans and ordinances that explicitly protect eelgrass. Some local governments, such as the City of Coos Bay and Coos County, have local ordinance provisions that are directed at mitigating harmful development impacts to eelgrass within their jurisdictions. While these provisions are a good starting place, mitigation is not the same as protection. Cities and counties can work with state programs like the Oregon Coastal Management Program to develop their own evidence-based plans for eelgrass protection.

Action must also be taken at the state level in Oregon, including pushing for new state laws that are targeted at protecting eelgrass and other types of submerged aquatic vegetation. Finally, federal action is needed to protect eelgrass across the country and guard against any future rollbacks of state or local laws. The Magnuson-Stevens Act is the primary federal law governing marine fishery management in the United States. Part of that law includes protections for essential fish habitat. One important federal policy action that people can push for is to designate eelgrass as essential fish habitat under the Magnuson-Stevens Act. Eelgrass provides habitat to some of Oregon’s most important commercial species of fish including salmon, Dungeness crab, rockfish, and Pacific herring. A crucial first step in federal action is to recognize eelgrass as essential under the Magnuson-Stevens Act. 


Amplifying the voice of the people

In many of Crag’s most historic victories including stopping Nestlé’s water grab in the Columbia Gorge, Crag’s work amplified community voices not only through litigation but also through campaign strategy and civic engagement support. The eelgrass case is no different. Creating new ordinances, policies, and management plans to protect eelgrass takes a community effort and Crag is working to support that effort through the Eelgrass Guide.

The guide provides concrete actions that anyone concerned about protecting eelgrass can take today. Some examples of actions include: learning more about eelgrass and other types of submerged aquatic vegetation in Oregon’s coastal ecosystems, understanding the types of activities and forces that threaten the health of eelgrass habitat, and advocating for more research and stronger protections for eelgrass at the local, state, and federal level. 

There is no catchall solution to eelgrass protection, which also means there are a number of avenues and creative opportunities to accomplish this vital goal. Eelgrass, as well as the species, ecosystems, communities, and cultures it supports are worth fighting for. Crag’s goal is to make that work clear and accessible to anyone who wants to join the fight.

Team Effort

Crag and our client-partner Oregon Shores Conservation Coalition have been working since May 2019 to protect eelgrass, a vital component to the health and productivity of Oregon’s estuaries. In May 2021, supported by funding from the Pew Charitable Trusts and the City of Coos Bay, Crag and Oregon Shores introduced the first version of a working guide entitled “A People’s Primer for Protecting Oregon’s Eelgrass.”

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