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VENTURA FWO: Rebuilding the Bay, Eelgrass Restoration along the Central California Coast
California-Nevada Offices , September 3, 2014
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More than 200 volunteers assisted in the 2014 Morro Bay Eelgrass Recovery project.
More than 200 volunteers assisted in the 2014 Morro Bay Eelgrass Recovery project. - Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of Morro Bay National Estuary Program.
Dive team member switches on air tank in preparation for diving.
Dive team member switches on air tank in preparation for diving. - Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of Morro Bay National Estuary Program.
Eelgrass strands are collected and bundled to be transplanted to new beds where they can grow and reproduce.
Eelgrass strands are collected and bundled to be transplanted to new beds where they can grow and reproduce. - Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of Morro Bay National Estuary Program.

By Ashley Spratt and Mary Root

In Morro Bay along central California’s coast, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) is working alongside the Morro Bay National Estuary Program and other conservation partners to restore eelgrass, a critical component to the health of the coastal ecosystem.

The Service’s Coastal Program supports voluntary restoration, enhancement and protection of high-priority coastal habitats with the goal of protecting and recovering threatened and endangered species, migratory birds, fish and marine mammals.

“Coastal estuaries thrive based on the health of aquatic plants like eelgrass. Morro Bay’s eelgrass beds make up a unique and special habitat along the central California coast. For some migratory species, they are truly an oasis and a critical stopover on a long journey to breed. Maintaining Morro Bay’s eelgrass beds into the future is vital not only for Morro Bay’s resident fish and wildlife, but for migratory species like brant as well,” said Mary Root with the Ventura Fish and Wildlife Office.

Eelgrass acts as both shelter and food source for native fish and other aquatic organisms. Just like terrestrial plants, eelgrass beds produce oxygen, vital to countless underwater species that live, breed and feed in coastal areas. They also improve water clarity and provide a much needed balance to the aquatic system, filtering polluted runoff, absorbing excess nutrients and storing carbon dioxide.

Eelgrass beds also provide foraging habitat for many bird species on their annual migrations along the Pacific Flyway, like black brant geese. There are few large estuaries along the Pacific Flyway in California that provide habitats for black brant migration. Isolated eelgrass beds along the California coast, like Morro Bay, have been identified by researchers as important to the long-term conservation of the species.

But the widespread decline of eelgrass has caused concern for communities like Morro Bay, where eelgrass beds covered a mere 10 acres in 2013, down from 344 acres in 2007.

Poor water quality due to nutrient runoff, the spread of “wasting” disease caused by cellular slime mold, and rising temperatures in our oceans, are all potential contributors to the decline of eelgrass along the Pacific coastline.

With financial support from the Service’s Coastal Program, conservation partners are working together to reestablish eelgrass populations by strategically collecting a limited amount of root bundles from the existing healthy eelgrass beds and replanting in areas of decline across the bay. The Coastal Program funding supports dive teams, equipment and biological consultants to assist in the transplant process and with reseeding efforts.

“The Service’s support for eelgrass recovery in Morro Bay has been vital to creating a strategic restoration effort here. Without the support of the Coastal Program early on, we would not have been able to start a comprehensive program for bay-wide recovery,” said Adrienne Harris, Executive Director of the Morro Bay National Estuary Program.

In 2014, nearly 9,000 units of eelgrass were transplanted across 45 plots throughout the bay as part of the annual recovery effort. The effort relies on a strong conservation partnership between federal, state and non-governmental entities, as well as the support of more than 200 volunteers.

Project partners include the Morro Bay National Estuary Program, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, California State Parks, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other conservation organizations and private individuals.


Morro Bay National Estuary Program
http://www.mbnep.org/
Contact Info: Ashley Spratt, 805-644-1766 ext. 369, ashley_spratt@fws.gov



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