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Partnership to Improve Conservation of Nearshore Habitat

Kelp, eelgrass, and other submerged aquatic vegetation provide vital habitat for many protected and native marine species. As critical parts of nearshore habitat, areas with aquatic vegetation host numerous species and life stages of fish and invertebrates. They contribute to the health of the Pacific Coast marine ecosystem and human communities. West Coast nearshore habitat faces increasing pressure from development and climate change. A new effort to better define the ecological value of nearshore habitat will ensure that its full value is recognized and replaced when the habitat is damaged or developed.

“As human development of the nearshore continues, there’s a growing need to protect and restore high-value habitats for protected species and sustainable fisheries,” said Elizabeth Holmes Gaar, NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region Habitat Program Lead. “We want to provide a full, transparent, user-friendly, and effective toolbox for managers to do that more easily and accurately, especially when it comes to living habitat components like kelp, eelgrass and other submerged aquatic vegetation.”

Nearshore Habitat Assessment Tools

NOAA Fisheries is joining the Pew Charitable Trusts, the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, and other partners. They will identify and share the latest and most effective tools, science, and practices for recognizing and objectively assessing the ecological value of submerged aquatic vegetation in nearshore habitats.

“The primary goal of this effort is to provide coastal communities with a shared, consistent toolset for considering the ecological value of habitats. Nearshore habitats support sustainable fisheries, protected species, and provide coastal resilience,” said Steve Marx, a coastal habitat and fisheries expert with Pew. “The outcomes of this effort will provide a list of tools for making decisions about land and water use and habitat conservation,”

The group’s work will provide broad ecosystem and societal benefits. It will help coastal communities identify the most effective options to avoid and minimize impacts from development. Where impacts are unavoidable, it will help to offset impacts by restoring habitat of comparable value elsewhere. For example, development project proponents in Puget SoundHood Canal, and places on the California coast, have increasing options to purchase credits in conservation banks and in-lieu fee programs. These options make up for unavoidable habitat losses associated with the projects.

Engaging Science and Management

Partners will refine and standardize tools to assess nearshore habitat value. This will help ensure that protected and managed species, from salmon to groundfish to shellfish, have the healthy habitat they need to thrive, even in the face of climate change.

The partnership involves three main activities:

  1. Reviewing the scientific literature on habitat evaluation
  2. Surveying non-NOAA partners for evaluation frameworks or tools
  3. Engaging partners through listening sessions and workshops

Engaging the science and management community and other key partners is critical to the partnership’s success.

The tools and approaches identified through this project may also serve as models for recognizing habitat values beyond the West Coast. They will provide new opportunities to protect valuable habitat elsewhere. “This effort will help us to value these important habitats effectively and to provide sufficient mitigation and restoration actions to, at a minimum, restore the species to its baseline, before the injury or impact,” said Jennifer Steger of NOAA’s Restoration Center.

Why Is This Important?

Comparing and contrasting these tools and approaches, gathering feedback on the use of each, and identifying conditions under which specific approaches or tools best meet shared goals, can help make management more efficient.

“When partners use a shared suite of approaches and tools to assess ecological value, the objectivity, repeatability, and comparability of assessments increases, and the assumptions are laid bare,” said Bryant Chesney, NOAA Fisheries Senior Marine Habitat Resource Specialist. “This makes fair treatment of project proponents transparent, bolstering trust in the process.”

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