Heceta Bank – A Hidden Ecological Gem off the Oregon Coast

by Joe Liebezeit, Assistant Director of Statewide Conservation

Thirty-five miles off the coast of central Oregon, a mighty Short-tailed Albatross soars in the sky and comes in to land on the ocean. It plunges its head into the water and nabs a mouthful of sardines. Nearby, a pod of humpback whales takes part in the feeding, straining out tons of krill, small shrimp-like creatures, through a mouthful of baleen. We are at Heceta Bank, one of the most important biological hotspots in West Coast waters. Many of us are familiar with the upwelling known as the California Current, which cycles up cold, nutrient-rich waters to power a productive food web containing everything from plankton to fish to top predators like seabirds and whales.

Black-footed Albatross
Black-footed Albatross, photo by Eric Ellingson

If you removed the water, Heceta Bank’s underwater topography would impress even the most intrepid hiker. The Heceta Bank Complex consists of deep trenches and upraised seamounts (including Stonewall Bank, Daisy Bank, and Hydrate Knoll) that extend the continental shelf far out from the coastline and make it the largest contiguous rocky reef complex in the United States north of Cape Mendocino. This unique underwater geography is one reason Heceta Bank is an immensely productive place within the California Current. It also helps keep the bank’s waters cooler than surrounding areas, making it a climate refugia as north Pacific waters experience unusual warming events.

Though many Oregonians might not know about Heceta Bank, scientists do. In 2018, eight well-recognized scientists who have studied Heceta Bank for decades unsuccessfully requested that the Pacific Fishery Management Council extend existing Essential Fish Habitat Conservation Areas farther north and west where the continental shelf drops. This would have extended the closure of bottom trawl fishing to vulnerable rocky reef habitat important for sensitive invertebrate species such as corals, sea pens, and sponges as well as several commercially important rockfish species. In their letter, the scientists wrote, “It is an area that should be protected from offshore energy production, pollution, benthic disturbance, and fishing activities to ensure that it continues to serve as a key source habitat for commercial fish species and biodiversity.” Coastal tribes such as the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians have historical ties to these waters, relying on them for sustenance, trade, and cultural practices. The area’s rich marine resources have shaped the traditions and identities of these Indigenous peoples for generations.

The Heceta Bank Complex consistently supports huge numbers of foraging seabirds disproportionate to most other regions in the upper continental slope. This includes more than 35 seabird species, 16 of which are species of conservation concern. Over 10,000 Cassin’s Auklets, 3,000 Northern Fulmars and Pink-footed Shearwaters, and hundreds of Black-footed Albatrosses have been documented in single observations at this site. Highly endangered Short-tailed Albatrosses are also a frequent visitor. Heceta Bank is designated a globally significant Important Bird Area by National Audubon and Bird Conservation International.

Bird Alliance of Oregon is working with partners to get the word out about the extraordinary ecological value of Heceta Bank. Unveiling the secrets of this underwater treasure we hope will build public support to safeguard a vital ecosystem. Our next steps include understanding what protections in the Heceta Bank Complex are most needed and mapping out the best route forward with those protections (e.g. potential National Marine Sanctuary). We also will reach out to stakeholders for input on how we can work toward stronger habitat protection but address the concerns of users that benefit from Heceta Bank’s productive waters. Stay tuned for more news and opportunities to engage.