A Big Step Toward Stronger Protections for Oregon’s Coastal Rocky Habitats

by Joe Liebezeit, Staff Scientist & Avian Conservation Manager

On December 9, 2022, the Ocean Policy Advisory Council (OPAC) voted to move forward rocky habitat proposals that will establish protections and support on-the-ground stewardship efforts at six important sites on the coast. OPAC is the marine policy advisory body that provides advice to the governor, state agencies, and local governments on ocean policy and resource management matters. Getting these proposals approved by OPAC was a huge step and paves the way for them to be finalized for approval by the Land Conservation and Development Commission (LCDC) before they go to rulemaking and are officially designated.

Rocky Habitats Wildlife Tidepools

As a quick reminder, Oregon recently updated its Rocky Habitat Management Plan. This plan determines how the state manages and protects our rocky shores, which make up 41% of our coastline and include iconic sites like Haystack Rock and Cape Perpetua.

These rocky habitats support a wealth of marine life including colonial nesting seabirds, marine mammals, kelp beds, and thousands of fish and invertebrate species, yet are under the increasing threat of climate change impacts as well as growing human disturbance. Climate change impacts including ocean acidification, hypoxia, and kelp forest decline have emerged in recent years. New science out of Oregon State University indicates the extreme vulnerability of Oregon’s intertidal habitats, which may be at a tipping point due to increasing climate stressors. These reports bring front and center the need to do all we can to protect these critical habitats.

Photo courtesy of Bureau of Land Management.

As part of the rocky habitat process, the public was invited to nominate new sites for stronger conservation protections. Sites can receive one of three designations: Marine Research Area (MRA), Marine Education Area (MEA), or Marine Conservation Area (MCA). Bird Alliance of Oregon has been working with coastal organizations and communities to facilitate this process for several years.

This past spring, the LCDC officially designated Cape Blanco as a Marine Research Area and Coquille Point as a Marine Education Area. Six additional sites were deemed, at the time, not suitable for designation unless the proposals were revised. Thankfully, the coastal groups that proposed the sites worked hard to resolve outstanding issues in their proposals, and OPAC voted convincingly to move them forward.

Below is a summary of eight sites that were approved with overwhelming support in 2022 by OPAC for designation (from north to south):

Ecola Point MCA

(nominated by North Coast Rocky Habitat Coalition)

One of the most pristine sites left on the north coast with dramatic rock formations, a rebounding population of ochre sea stars, and a secluded haul out for seals. New regulations limiting take of some marine life, combined with nonregulatory measures like increased signage and support of stewardship efforts, will balance ecological protection and human use.

Ecola Point, photo by David Grant

Chapman Point MEA

(nominated by North Coast Rocky Habitat Coalition)

Located just south of Ecola Point, this complex of magnificent rock formations supports seabird colonies of high importance. It is located within one of the most visited stretches of rocky habitat on the coast, putting it at high risk of habitat degradation and high rates of nest failure for Black Oystercatchers. A key component of this proposal is to support increased public outreach and education on best practices to minimize impacts.

Black Oystercatchers, photo by Diana Robinson

Fogarty Creek MCA

(nominated by coastal community member)

A small but extremely biodiverse site with extensive kelp beds, sea grasses, a regular feeding group of gray whales, and high bird diversity. Designation will protect invertebrates and algae from harvest.

Fogarty Creek, photo by Max Rae

Cape Lookout MCA

(nominated by Bird Alliance of Oregon Society of Lincoln City)

Jutting nearly two miles into the ocean, this “crown jewel” of the Oregon Coast is known for its dramatic basalt cliffs, old-growth Sitka spruce forest, and the second largest colony of Common Murres in the state. Protection of ecological resources and education are key components of the site proposal.

Cape Lookout, photo by Rene Rivers

Cape Foulweather MCA

(nominated by Bird Alliance of Oregon Society of Lincoln City)

Dramatically rising 500 feet above the ocean, Cape Foulweather supports extensive bull kelp beds and the largest Pelagic Cormorant colony in Oregon, and it serves as a comparison area to nearby Otter Rock Marine Reserve. A key goal at this site is to improve the ecological integrity of bull kelp forests, which have dramatically declined across the west coast.

Cape Foulweather, photo by John/flickr

Coquille Point MEA

(nominated by Shoreline Education for Awareness)

Unique in its high density of prominent sea stacks, tide pools, seabird colonies, and a harbor seal pupping area situated almost within the city limits of Bandon. Formal designation as a Marine Education Area will facilitate efforts to better protect the habitat while educating the thousands of visitors that flock to this area every summer.

Coquille Point, photo by Jasperdo/flickr

Blacklock Point MCA

(nominated by South Coast Rocky Shores Group)

Characteristics include unique landforms, diverse rocky habitats, threatened offshore kelp forests, and the long history of use by Tribes. The proposal emphasizes continuing with existing uses and building a community-based volunteer stewardship program to educate visitors on ways to minimize impacts.

Blacklock Point, photo by USFWS-Pacific Region

Cape Blanco MRA

(nominated by Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans–PISCO)

A remote headland forming the westernmost point in Oregon. Upwelling of nutrient-rich water at this site supports an intertidal hotspot of diverse algae and invertebrates. A goal of this proposal is to keep the site as pristine as possible to support continued long-term research to help inform ocean conservation on climate change impacts and other stressors.

Cape Blanco, photo by Jasperdo/flickr

It is important to note that access and harvest by members of federally recognized Tribal Nations are unaffected by these designations.

With the addition of these eight designations, a big priority for Bird Alliance of Oregon will be to ensure the implementation of rocky habitat sites is fully supported by agencies and other entities. This may include pushing for an increase in agency staffing support and the creation of a small grants program to fund stewardship efforts. Stay tuned for opportunities to help build on the success of these iconic Oregon rocky habitats!