Eelgrass: protecting Oregon’s underwater meadows
by Noah Tobias | June 10, 2021
Earlier this year, the Biden administration released a preliminary report addressing the president’s commitment to protect 30% of U.S. lands and ocean territories by 2030. The target, one of Biden’s more ambitious environmental goals, would be an important and necessary step towards an ecologically sustainable future. Similar initiatives across the globe saw rebounds in depleted fish stocks, increased carbon capture in forests and ocean flora, and significantly healthier ecosystems.
The report calls for the expansion of national marine and estuarine sanctuaries, which are funded by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and managed by coalitions of local and state partners. Ordinarily, the prospect of federal funding and local conservation would point to a productive future. However, Oregon’s current involvement with estuaries presents us with a harsh reckoning: these areas need greater public engagement to survive.
Oregon’s secret gardens
Oregon’s coastal estuaries enjoy a unique resident: eelgrass. Flowering plants that rise up from the muddy floor, eelgrasses are uniquely productive biological hotspots. Each year, as Pacific herring swim into the meadows to spawn, nearby waters change color, inundated by eggs. An explosion of biological activity follows, as diving birds plunge into the waters in search of food, followed closely by seals, sea turtles, and more. Eelgrass roots and blades also provide year-round homes for elaborate communities of creatures, from sea slugs to seahorses. Aside from its ecosystem services, eelgrass is an incredibly efficient carbon sink, helping in the fight against global warming, and is held in high esteem as a valuable cultural resource for nearby Native tribes.
Unfortunately, these diverse habitats are sensitive to coastal construction and industrial runoff. Developers inadvertently destroy eelgrass meadows by dredging estuaries to build boat harbors and channels. Other environmental factors including warmer ocean waters, eutrophication, and landslides can damage eelgrass meadows – many of which are already on the decline.
Over the last decade, scientists have conducted a thorough census of Oregon’s eelgrass meadows, finding that the meadows have shrunk to a fraction of their former size. In the South Slough research reserve near Coos Bay, where eelgrass once flourished in well-established beds, meadows have been decimated by development.
What can we do?
At the Coastal Law Project, a collaboration between Crag Law Center and the nonprofit Oregon Shores, Crag associate attorney Anu Sawkar has been hard at work fighting to preserve eelgrass meadows. Anu highlights the importance of public participation in estuary management, which is conducted by local officials who often lack technical expertise. Local, state, and federal developments encourage comments on different projects, because they actually help decision-makers compartmentalize and determine their next steps.
Estuary management plans are currently under review in Yaquina Bay and Coos Bay, and will soon open up for public input. With the help of local advocates, we can push for better data on eelgrass mapping and tell officials to prioritize avoiding environmental impacts, rather than mitigating them after they occur. We can save these unique natural resources, but we need your help. Take this opportunity to make your voice heard.
Find Anu’s white paper on protecting eelgrass here.
Noah is a rising senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he studies Environmental Science and Global Studies. He loves exploring the stories behind species conservation, environmental injustice, land use, and more.