What Is An Estuary? – July 13, 2011

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Susan Ornelas

Jacoby Creek Land Trust

On Sunday June 12, Jacoby Creek Land Trust held an interesting gathering at the Kokte* Ranch in Bayside.

In the barn at Kokte*, Craig Benson shares info on the Humboldt Bay estuary condition. *Kokte is pronounced Coke (like the soda) – te’ (rhymes with way). Photos courtesy Susan Ornelas

“What is in an Estuary,” was the main topic, and “what defines an estuary?” the main question. First, Craig Benson, watershed program manager at Redwood Community Action Agency spoke of the Humboldt Bay’s estuaries as an interactive ecosystem located within a highly mobile gradient zone between riverine and marine habitats.

During the course of the presentation, we looked at historic maps, current estuarine restoration projects all around the bay, and examined the current state of affairs for estuarine restoration.

As of today, Humboldt Bay is around two-thirds of its original size (~27,000 acres, down to ~18,000) and we have about one-10th of the historic 1,870 salt marsh (~8,800 acres, down to ~844 acres) – with current and planned restoration projects covering maybe one third of the 9,000 acres lost.

Map courtesy U.S. Fish & Wildlife, Humboldt County Public Works and HBRCD, humboldtbay.org/harbordistrict/.../Appendix_Maps_Sltmarsh_Hist.pdf

The good thing? Many lesser known fish species such as starry flounder, shiner surfperch, Pacific staghorn sculpin and surf smelt are adaptive to a wide range of conditions and can move through the estuary to find the right habitat.

The bad part? There is just a small region of true salty/fresh mix estuary left – the dikes and levees highly simplify the bay.

Next, Mike Wallace, a Fish & Game fish biologist, talked about the fish sampling he does in the lower reaches of Freshwater Creek, Jacoby Creek, etc.

He noted that species like dungeness crab and steelhead are adapted to different estuary habitats and are good examples of how species partition the estuary so they are in less competition with each other.

The main take-home point here is that historically many of the Humboldt Bay streams were connected near their mouths by a series of sloughs and marshes so fish like young coho salmon were shared between adjacent streams like Jacoby Creek, Washington Gulch, Rocky Gulch, and Arcata creeks like Campbell and Beith Creeks.

The lower flats are important for their potential in connectivity of the watersheds flowing into in these flats. Mike took us into the field, to the Jacoby Creek, for fish sampling. We found steelhead and stickleback and saw one of the largest red-legged frogs ever!

Mike Wallace, of the Department of Fish & Game, climbs from the creek with fish samples.

Mr. Benson noted that in doing restoration work, an increasing amount of time, money, and resource is required for environmental documentation and permitting and that small estuary projects are among the most hard-hit because of the regulatory complexity and overlapping jurisdictions. “The ideal that design, environmental documentation and permitting should represent 40 percent of a project budget and 60 percent of a budget is utilized to build and implement a project seems a thing of the past,” said Benson. “The restoration design and practitioner community, and indeed, many of the resources agency staff, have been calling for regulatory streamlining. It is of paramount importance that we practice good stewardship of public financial resources.”

The workshop was funded by the California Coastal Commission Whale Tales program.



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