Conservation & Science

Restoring eelgrass for climate resilience

State Senator Bill Monning, left, recipient of the 2016 California Ocean Champion Award, speaks at the Ocean Day reception hosted by Monterey Bay Aquarium.

California is forging the path forward on climate leadership. This year, state leaders have made significant progress on policies to reduce our emissions of heat-trapping gases and mitigate the impact of changes already in motion.

Today’s post comes from California Senator Bill Monning, the State Senate Majority Leader. Sen. Monning is the author of SB 1363, an important piece of climate legislation which the Monterey Bay Aquarium supported, and which Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law this year. In today’s guest post, Sen. Monning shares his thoughts on how restoring California’s eelgrass habitat can improve the resilience of our coast in the face of climate change.

This past August, the California Legislature adjourned the 2015-2-16 Legislative Session, and once again we passed several bills that tackle the dire issue of climate change.

We extended the state’s greenhouse gas reduction targets through 2030, committed state resources to clean up abandoned fishing and crabbing gear that entangles whales off the California coast, and passed Senate Bill (SB) 1363, which I authored, to restore eelgrass habitat and mitigate the impact of carbon dioxide on our atmosphere and ocean.

Tiny animals called pteropods are among the marine creatures at risk in an acidifying ocean.

SB 1363 requires the Ocean Protection Council (OPC), in coordination with the State Coastal Conservancy, to establish and administer the Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia Reduction Program. This measure was introduced in response to the April 2016 report by the West Coast Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia Science Panel and the Ocean Science Trust, in collaboration with the OPC.

The panel’s science-based report tells us that ocean acidification is a global issue, and that California’s coast will experience some of the most severe and earliest changes in ocean carbon chemistry. However, the report also tells us that we can take steps to support ocean and coastal resilience in the face of these changes. One recommendation to help reverse the impacts of ocean acidification is the reestablishment of seagrasses, including eelgrass, along California’s coast.

A habitat in need of protection

Since the 1850s, 90 percent of California’s eelgrass acreage has been destroyed. The remaining 10 percent is continuously exposed to multiple stressors and threats. Just five bays—Humboldt, Mission, San Diego, San Francisco and Tomales—support more than 80 percent of the known eelgrass in the state.

Sea otters rest near Elkhorn Slough, an eelgrass habitat on the Central California Coast.

Scientific research has shown that eelgrass habitats provide multiple benefits. They improve water clarity by filtering polluted runoff and absorbing excess nutrients. They support commercial fisheries important to California’s coastal economy. They sequester carbon in the underlying sediments; and they protect our shoreline from erosion by absorbing wave energy and helping to mitigate sea level rise.

Many species that depend on eelgrass are highly migratory. If these species are harmed by the loss of habitat, the effects will be seen along the California coast and beyond. The uneven distribution of eelgrass increases the risk to this habitat and contributes to its dynamic nature. Moreover, the narrow depth range in which eelgrass can flourish further puts this habitat at risk, given climate change and projected sea-level increases.

SB 1363 will start demonstration projects to: evaluate the best locations for carbon dioxide removal strategies; protect and restore eelgrass beds; and determine where conservation or restoration of aquatic habitats, including eelgrass, can be applied successfully. It also require planners to consider carbon dioxide removal as part of the habitat restoration process—in other words, to figure out which coastal areas can be managed to take carbon dioxide out of the air and keep it locked up.

The presence of eelgrass can boost the biodiversity of California’s coastal ecosystems. Here, terns rest in Elkhorn Slough.

An ecosystem powerhouse

Eelgrass is highly productive. Its presence encourages other plant species to become established in the same habitat. It also provides foraging areas and shelter to young fish and invertebrates, food for migratory waterfowl and sea turtles, and spawning surfaces for invertebrates and fish, such as Pacific herring. Eelgrass is also an essential refuge, foraging and spawning habitat for many marine species, including economically valuable ones like Pacific salmon, Pacific herring and Dungeness crab.

Recently, the OPC began using Proposition 84 funds to begin the implementation of SB 1363. It approved the allocation of $650,000 in bond funds to CSU Humboldt Bay for eelgrass research, including baseline monitoring programs to ensure that additional eelgrass beds are not lost; and $650,000 in to UC Davis, to identify where seagrass restoration and conservation can best mitigate ocean acidification.

Investing in the restoration of California’s eelgrass beds brings a host of other benefits. SB 1363 not only supports the resilience of critical coastal habitats; it also helps reduce the negative impacts of ocean acidification and sea level rise, while sequestering carbon, improving water quality, providing essential fish habitat and supporting the state’s coastal economy.

Learn more about Climate Action for the Ocean.

Featured image: Taylor’s sea hare with eggs on eelgrass, on exhibit at Monterey Bay Aquarium.

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