Elkhorn Slough designated ‘Wetland of International Importance’

Aerial photo of Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Reserve Reserve at Moss Landing, California.
Aerial photo of Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Reserve Reserve at Moss Landing, California. (NOAA)

Congressman Jimmy Panetta, California State Senator Bill Monning, State Assemblymember Mark Stone, and representatives from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, NOAA, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Elkhorn Slough Foundation gathered on October 5 at Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve offsite link’s Hester Marsh to celebrate the designation of Elkhorn Slough as a Wetland of International Importance by the Secretariat of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. offsite link

With this recognition, the Elkhorn Slough joins 38 other wetland sites in the United States — including the San Francisco Bay estuary — and more than 2,330 sites worldwide, in a network of globally important wetlands designated under the world’s oldest international environmental treaty. The Convention was signed in Ramsar, Iran in 1971, and almost 90 percent of U.N. member states have since adopted the treaty.

“I am proud that Elkhorn Slough is being recognized internationally for what we on the central coast of California have long known, that this wetland is an environmental crown jewel.  This designation is a reminder of the importance of protecting the diverse wildlife and conserving these waters for future generations to enjoy,” said Congressman Panetta.

The Elkhorn Slough, which enters Monterey Bay at Moss Landing and is partially located in NOAA’s Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, has long been recognized by local, state, and federal organizations as exceptional for its biologically rich diversity and unique scientific research studies, as well as the estuary’s recreation, tourism, and education opportunities.

“Elkhorn Slough is a spectacular wetland on the central California coast, hosting a rich diversity of plants and animals and beloved by the local community,” said Mark Silberstein, executive director of the Elkhorn Slough Foundation. “Every day, hundreds of people from kayakers to birdwatchers and other visitors enjoy the sea otters, seals, fish, shorebirds, eelgrass beds, and marshes of the Elkhorn Slough. We’re pleased these wetlands have now earned international recognition.”

Elkhorn Slough in spring.
Elkhorn Slough in spring. (Elkhorn Slough Foundation)

To be designated as part of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, a wetland site must fulfill at least one of nine criteria offsite link, including hosting more than 20,000 shorebirds at a time, serving as fish nursery habitat, and supporting threatened species. Elkhorn Slough met all nine criteria. The designation was approved by the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this year.

The Elkhorn Slough is a seasonal estuary rich with intertidal marshes, mudflats, eelgrass beds and oyster communities that nourish wildlife. More than 340 species of birds, 100 species of fish, including bat rays and leopard sharks, and more than 500 species of invertebrates have been documented in the watershed. Its distinctive estuarine communities are among the rarest and most threatened habitats in California, and are home to more than 140 Southern sea otters that feed, rest, and raise their pups in these wetlands.

“Healthy wetlands help support healthy economies,” said Paul Souza, regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Pacific Southwest Region. “The rich and diverse ecosystems of Elkhorn Slough help both our wildlife and our local communities thrive. Visitors from across the globe come to the slough to immerse themselves in its serene beauty and observe the wildlife that call the area home, including the southern sea otter, a species that once thrived but faced near extinction in the last century.”

Wetlands like Elkhorn Slough serve key functions in pollution control and food provision, offering green, sustainable, low cost and efficient ways to clean wastewater of impurities and recycle nutrients, and also serve as cradles of biodiversity by hosting young fish and other marine species as well as rice paddies – all of which are critical to the food chain for humans and wildlife worldwide.

The Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve and Elkhorn Slough Foundation hosted the designation ceremony at the Hester Marsh Restoration offsite link site, a $6.5 million, 61-acre wetland restoration project nearing completion. Like many of the marshes of the Elkhorn Slough, Hester Marsh was diked and drained for farming during the last century, resulting in a marsh plain elevation too low to support salt marsh. The restoration project provides the elevation needed to support tidal marsh habitat that will withstand changes in sea level over the next century and continue to provide important habitat for fish, plants and wildlife.

“This project is an example of the intensive investment required to restore estuarine functions once lost, while incorporating a design that enhances resilience for future challenges,” said Dave Feliz, manager of Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which owns the property.

More than 90 percent of California’s wetlands have been lost over the past century. Though today the Elkhorn Slough features the most extensive salt marshes in California south of San Francisco Bay, without restoration its remaining marshes are projected to drown within 50 years due to sea level rise. The current project at Hester Marsh is reviving one of these drowning marshes.

The Hester Marsh restoration project illustrates why the Elkhorn Slough is receiving this prestigious designation as a Wetland of International Importance. Once complete, the project will double salt marsh habitat in a part of the slough frequented by Southern sea otters and their pups — underscoring the Ramsar Convention’s mission for the conservation and sustainable use of wetland ecosystems.

“Few places embody NOAA’s mission of ‘science, service and stewardship’ more fully than Elkhorn Slough,” said Nicole LeBoeuf, acting director of NOAA’s National Ocean Service. “As part of our system of 29 National Estuarine Research Reserves, it offers opportunities for scientific research, community recreation and tourism, and provides habitat for many species. Today’s Ramsar designation shows how we have all joined forces to protect this extraordinary place. Along with our many partners here today, we will continue to protect it and the communities that depend on it.”

Media contacts
Lorili Toth, Elkhorn Slough Foundation, 831-728-5939
Ashley McConnell, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 805-320-6225
Peter Tira, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, 916-322-8908
Jerry Slaff, NOAA, 202-236-6662