The Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary encompasses four major estuaries: Tomales Bay, Bolinas Lagoon, Estero Americano and Estero de San Antonio. Bolinas Lagoon and Tomales Bay are designated "wetlands of significant importance" under the International Convention on Wetlands.
Within the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary there are 26 estuarine habitats identified by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and listed in its National Wetlands Inventory. The largest estuary in this sanctuary is Elkhorn Slough.
These estuaries provide important marine and nearshore habitats for a diverse array of marine mammals and birds in addition to fishery, plant, algal and benthic resources. They also serve as important resting and/or feeding stops for migratory species using the Pacific Flyway, one of the four principal bird migration routes in North America.
InhabitantsMany different habitat types are found in these northern California estuaries, including mudflats, marshes, rocky shore, coastal scrub and grasslands. Species vary greatly, depending on the particular habitat. For example:
- Estuaries are popular places for observing marine mammals and birds, from sea lions and harbor seals to herons, pelicans and egrets.
- Fish species range from the endangered tidewater goby to leopard sharks and even blue and white sharks. Other examples of fishes found in these estuaries include seasonal populations of salmon, steelhead, sardine and lingcod.
- California sea otters are common in Elkhorn Slough but rare in more northern estuaries. River otters, on the other hand, are commonly observed in Tomales Bay headwaters.
- The soft-bottom habitats associated with estuarine environments support large concentrations of burrowing organisms, such as clams, snails, worms and crabs.
A bed of Eel grass near the commercial wharf and pier in Monterey. It is a perennial flowering plant that is closely related to terrestrial grasses and is commonly found on mud or sand bottoms in protected waters of bays and estuaries in low intertidal and subtidal zones, only rarely being exposed at low tide. While the most common species in California is <em>Zostera marina</em>, the species near the Monterey Harbor is likely the invader <em>Zostera asiatica</em> (comment from Brent Hughes, UCSC).
Pied-Billed Grebe Podilymbus podiceps.
Conservation and Management IssuesEstuaries are highly productive habitats, but they are also increasingly rare and very fragile. Human encroachment has compromised their ability to provide biological services and has diminished their ability to act as an environmental filter.
The health of northern California estuaries is threatened by a number of factors:
- Oil pollution
- Non-point source pollution
- Urbanization and watershed developments
- Introduced species
- Wildlife disturbance
MonitoringMonitoring estuaries is challenging because of the numerous habitats and incredible diversity of species found within them. For the same reasons, estuaries also present incredible opportunities to study physical, chemical and biological processes at multiple spatial scales and across different ecosystems.
The Gulf of the Farallones sanctuary works with federal and state agencies to monitor its nearshore and estuarine areas for pollutant, oxygen and nutrient levels and algal blooms. The watersheds of these areas are affected by agriculture, livestock grazing, improperly treated effluent, dumping, historic mining and development.
Examples of research efforts include:
- The Bolinas Lagoon Restoration Project: Since the early 19th century, human land uses have altered this lagoon's shoreline and watershed, increasing the rate of sediment delivery and changing the natural processes that shape the lagoon. The sanctuary and others are working to develop a community-supported management plan for the lagoon.
- Mussel Watch: This California Department of Fish and Game program represents one of the longest-term national efforts to track the impacts from non-point source pollution on bioaccumulation in the marine environment.
In the Monterey Bay sanctuary, most of the estuary-related research takes place in Elkhorn Slough. Ongoing monitoring programs there focus on water quality, bird censuses, nonindigenous species, and threatened and endangered species.
Examples of related monitoring projects: