Help Protect Oregon’s Estuaries and Eelgrass

by Joe Liebezeit, Staff Scientist and Avian Conservation Manager & Paul Engelmeyer, Tenmile Creek Sanctuary Manager

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, waterbirds, Dungeness crab, oysters, 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.

Dungeness Crab in eel grass
Dungeness Crab in Eel grass, photo by J. Brew.

Fifteen of Oregon’s bays and estuaries are recognized as Important Bird Areas, 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. As a case in point, the Columbia River Estuary supports more than 20,000 migratory shorebirds of 15 different species every year as a vital staging area. The Yaquina Bay Estuary supports a variety of birds, including significant numbers of Pacific Black Brant, which are highly dependent on eelgrass beds as a food source.

Black-bellied Plover, photo by Mick Thompson.

Eelgrass—a marine flowering plant found in bays and estuaries—has particularly high value given the co-benefits this habitat provides for wildlife, people, and the climate. In addition to supporting migratory birds, the benefits of eelgrass include the following:

    • Coastline protection: With the expected increase in coastal storms, estuarine habitats are key to absorbing wave action and minimizing sediment loss.
    • Improved water quality: Helps purify water by absorbing pollutants and reducing harmful algal blooms.
    • Fish nursery: Provide breeding grounds for commercially important species like salmon, rockfish, and Dungeness crab. 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.” Eelgrass’s carbon sequestration can moderate the impact of ocean acidification that inhibits some marine life, like oysters, to form shells.

Yet eelgrass and other seagrasses are disappearing. 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 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 and damaging eelgrass, and introduction of invasive non-native plants can outcompete eelgrass.

Soon we will have a new opportunity to help provide stronger protections for these special places. The State of Oregon is embarking on an effort to update its estuary management plans in the coming months. The original plans were written in the early 1980s and tend to emphasize development and minimize ecological concerns. They do not address climate change issues and were written before species like Coho salmon were listed as endangered. The old plans also do not embrace habitat restoration as a tool and did not involve coastal Tribes or address legacy impacts to the estuary, including disturbance of cultural resources. These needs must be addressed. The Yaquina Bay Estuary Management Plan will be the first to undergo the update process. It is just getting underway and, when completed, will be looked at as a blueprint for subsequent estuary plans in Oregon.

Bird Alliance of Oregon will be engaging in this process, so stay tuned for public comment opportunities. We will alert you to upcoming meetings and presentations on the process. In the meantime, please visit our webpage, which has links to a number of resources on this issue so you can learn more:

Ultimately, we’d like to see Oregon update all estuary plans to provide the strongest habitat protections possible to ensure a vibrant economy. Contact Joe Liebezeit ( to learn more and sign up for our ocean conservation list.